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Parker - Oz Wines - and the UK Market, a Reader's Perspective
© Phil Shorten
I would note that Parker's influence in respect of Australian wines extends beyond the US. Indeed, a good many Brits I know are guided by his ratings when it comes to buying wines not just from Australia, but from pretty much anywhere.
As you say, the man has enormous influence (though some suggest that it may be diminishing, in the UK at least). Having seen his appearance in the recently released "Mondovino" I am not convinced that he always is as responsible as he could be given his power in the wine world. There is no doubt that "Parker sells wine". The man himself seems to quite enjoy the fact. He is in a position of power and enjoys it. I am personally not convinced that he uses this authority appropriately. You mention some reasons such as his failure to post notes and ratings of wines that "don't cut the mustard".
As to his influence, and particularly on Australian wine, I see it as being both positive and negative. There is little doubt that his reviews have raised awareness of Australian wine in key markets, particularly the US and to some extent, the UK and Europe. As you say, his focus has been on those styles which are somewhat unique to Australia, dry-grown warm climate Rhone varietals and blends thereof.
Parker assesses these wines very much in an international (and to some extent American) context, where the marketplace can pick and choose from wines from around the world, and Australian wine is but one of many alternatives available to the consumer. This is not the case in Australia and therefore I personally believe that his tasting notes, ratings and comments are of limited use in the Australian market (compared to the likes of Halliday, Oliver, Mattison et al).
Internationally, his positive reviews have undoubtedly benefited wineries such as Clarendon Hills, Kaesler etc. However, they have also tended to portray Australia as a "one trick pony". There is a market for powerful warm climate Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvedre, but I am not convinced of the size of this sector, its loyalty or long term sustainability.
You refer to a number of criticisms Parker makes of the Australian wines, Australian wine critics and the like. We should certainly not shy away from such criticism, whether or not it is correct or always well informed. If guilty of anything, there is a tendency for the Australian wine industry and marketplace to be somewhat insular and self-congratulatory (big generalisation here), perhaps due to the successes of the past 20 or so years. This, coupled with a wine press that is primarily inward looking can easily produce a perception that "everything's fine mate", which can be misleading.
On point of varietals and styles, it is clear that Parker and his offsider Mark Squires are not greatly charmed by many of the cooler climate wines or styles that have a European leaning. They seem to go by the argument that if it doesn't work for the US market, then forget it. Of course, to adopt this credo would be quite ridiculous as it would deny Australian (and some international) consumers of a diversity of styles.
As to the non-Rhone varietals, it would seem that Parker (indeed, not only Parker if the likes of Decanter and other magazines are anything to go by) are yet to be charmed by Australian Cabernet Sauvignon. Bordeaux will always be the reference point for anyone seeking to make great Cabernet and in the minds of many commentators, many Australian Cabernet-based wines don't quite cut the mustard. You mention Cullen, and it is worth noting that both Jancis Robinson MW and Michael Broadbent MW have had very positive things to say about the 2001 Diana Madeline. However, it does retail in this country at £30 or thereabouts, more than which one could buy the likes of 2003 Ch. Leoville Barton in-bond. The attitude of many in this market would be, why buy the Cullen when you can buy the Leoville Barton for around the same price, if not, slightly cheaper.
At the premium end of the scale, we are lucky to have access to a wide range of Australian wines. Indeed, it can often be easier to buy some labels here in the UK (from the likes of Noel Young and Philglas & Swiggot) than it is in Australia. However, at the premium end, Australian wines are every bit as expensive as their European counterparts (with the exception of a very small number of wines) with the exception of the distinctive styles not produced elsewhere. I have already mentioned Cullen (a winery I very much admire). It is not an easy sell for a £20+ Australian Cabernet or cooler climate Rhone-style wine in the UK marketplace, as consumers will always have as their point of reference Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley. That is not to say Australia can't do it as well or, in some instances, better. For mine, the 2002 Yalumba "The Virgilius" Viognier is every bit as good as most Condrieu, and people are won over once they have a chance to taste the wine.
Accordingly, while we may sometimes feel a little taken aback when some of Australia's most highly priced and highly rated wines do not receive plaudits from all and sundry we should recognise that the global marketplace is highly competitive and pretty much every wine producing nation produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. It takes a lot to be ranked among the world's best.
Having said all of this, I don't think Australians should be necessarily guided solely by what the likes of Parker say in respect of varietals, styles etc. As you say, he likes a particular style and his ardent followers will likely go for that style. The only danger is that his voice distorts the true picture, implying that the only Australian wines worth buying are the powerhouse Rhone varietals from the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale (as well as Rutherglen fortifieds).
In the UK market, I believe that Australian wine is at an interesting crossroads. It has gone from a zero base to #1 in the off-trade in the space of 20 years, primarily through inexpensive branded wines that have benefited from the "sunshine in a bottle", links to the Australian outdoors lifestyle and support by the likes of Oz Clarke.
A lot of this success owes itself to marketing, and technically well made wines. However, the rest of the world is (or has) catching up in terms of quality and in terms of marketing. Moreover, discounting by the big brands and the major chains has meant that the branded Australian wines no longer stand out as offering better known quality than the direct competition from Chile, South Africa, California, Spain, southern France or wherever at a 50p or £1 price premium. Nowadays, there is little to distinguish Australian branded wines from any other like wine made in the world.
Producers that succeed in the UK seem to offer good value for money wines and over-deliver on quality. Two stand out, Peter Lehmann and d'Arenberg. Both are respected for the quality of their wines across the range and their fair pricing. In the UK, savvy consumers recognise that Australia offers best value in the £6-£15 range (below what would be considered super-premium in Australian market terms).
The UK market is a very different market to
Australia. Consumers can choose from a myriad of wines from around the world
whenever they visit their supermarket or independent retailer. As yet, the
UK market doesn't fully understand Australian wine, the capacity of better
wines to age, regional differences, the impact of vintage and so on.
Moreover, the vast majority of UK wine drinkers only buy £4-£6 supermarket
wine and are unlikely to trade up in the future.
"Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the discounting that has been a
feature of the wine scene in the UK looks as if it's coming to an end. Even
if the chancellor freezes duty in the next budget, the days of the £2.99
bottle are numbered, as are the flurry of Bogofs (Buy One Get One Free).
Screwcaps will continue to make progress as an alternative to traditional
corks, especially for whites and rosés. I expect to see 10-15 per cent of
all wine sold here favouring some form of alternative closure. And what
about the liquid in the bottle? I think this might be the year we fall out
of love with Australia and begin to appreciate how much better wines from
the Old World, especially from the south of France, Spain, Portugal and the
south of Italy, can be under £6. Australia has delivered fruit, fruit and
more fruit, but should it really have 18 per cent of the market? I also hope
this is the year when we start to turn our noses up at the worst type of
I ran the wine club at my previous employers, and people would often baulk at a wine priced at over £10 (AUD23 or thereabouts). These people were all well paid professionals with an interest in wine. Imagine the difficulty in convincing the masses of the merits of a £7 wine over a commercial branded wine priced at £5! The key here is education, but neither producers nor retailers or journalists seem prepared to take a lead. Wine writers in this country complain of the limited column inches dedicated to their subject. However, the content is generally weak and in some cases downright lazy. As to wine recommendations, few stray from recommending relatively inexpensive wines generally available at supermarkets. There is an opportunity for Australian producers to take a lead in educating the marketplace. Although the Old World best stands to benefit from an educated consumer market, its producers and marketing boards seem to be doing relatively little to educate consumers.
Personally, I think that Australian wine has entered a second age in the UK market and it is in the hands of producers and marketers as to whether it continues to grow or comes back to the crowd. The mass market branded wines are of a style that is not too difficult to replicate, and other countries have become more savvy in their marketing. Australia doesn't benefit from the same free positive press it received 5-10 years ago. Commentators now demand more of Australian wines (unfortunately quality of some of the wines has dropped - take the likes of Penfold). At the premium end, there is still work to be done to demonstrate that many of the wines merit their price tags.
As I say, it's interesting times here.
Although the current picture for Australian wine in the UK is very positive,
I think it has reached a critical stage. Australian wine is no longer new,
fresh and different in the minds of consumers. Competition is as tough as it
as ever been given the quality improvement in other parts of the world and
devaluation of the US dollar. Press isn't always positive, as is borne out
by Tim Atkin's brief article. The Australian Wine Bureau has sought to
change perceptions by staging major tastings for the wine press and fine
wine merchants (reported in Australian Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine by
Andrew Jefford). The next challenge for Australia in the UK market will be
to increase yield (in terms of average price per bottle) while maintaining,
or slightly increasing, market share. This demands a stronger on-trade
presence and continual promotion of the diverse range of premium Australian
wines in the £6-£20 price range.
Back to the influence of Parker. I think his influence does tend to distort the marketplace somewhat, hopefully not to the longer term detriment of Australian wine in general.
It's an interesting time for Australian wine. The export successes of the last 20 years have meant Australian wines are now of more interest to those abroad, which will also invite criticism. While we need to place such criticism in context, we should also learn from it wherever possible. In the UK, there is no doubt that many people have a positive disposition towards things Australian, including Australian wine. However, the marketplace is demanding and wants Australia to continue to deliver good value, but also more interesting wines that it has done in the past.
Please keep contributing.