After years of heatwaves, bush fires and heavy rain, Australia's wine industry is about to benefit from the best growing conditions for grapes in two decades, experts say.
James Halliday, one of the country's top wine writers, says the weather has been "nigh-on perfect" in South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia and will produce wines with exceptional colour and quality.
"This year you haven't had to do much to the grapes because of the amount of natural flavour in them," he said. "The moment they started fermenting, the colours were there. They will undoubtedly have an expression which will be almost luminous in the way it communicates itself."
Consistent weather, with fewer periods of extreme heat, has made a difference. "You'd really have to go back to 1992 or 1988 where I am in the Yarra Valley [in Victoria] to match such perfect growing conditions," said Halliday, author of the Australian Wine Companion.
In the Adelaide Hills region of South Australia, Michael Hill Smith of Shaw And Smith wines says offerings are of consistently very good quality across the board. "Winemakers across South Australia, even in the warmer areas like McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley, are saying the quality they've got out of 2012 is exceptional," said Hill Smith, whose vineyard produces cool-climate shiraz and pinot noir as well as sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.
"Good wines will not be limited to one or two varieties and people will see wines with great balance and harmony that are not dominated by elevated alcohol or almost over ripeness," he said.
It is welcome news for Australian winemakers, who have been hit by the strong Australian dollar (which has doubled in strength against both the US dollar and sterling during the past decade) and the global financial crisis. Cheaper, entry-level Australian wines, which dominated the market for so long, had been hardest hit.
"In some of our more established markets like the UK and US, it was almost the perfect storm with a really steep growth in exchange rates, the financial crisis and our [low price] categories losing favour with some of the commentators around the world," said James Gosper, general manager of market development for industry body Wine Australia. "The downturn made winemakers realise that in the long term we need to be trading at higher price points."
The strategy of Wine Australia to support higher-priced wines seems to be paying dividends. While sales by volume in UK supermarkets have fallen by 10% over the past year (reflecting a decline at the low end of the market) the average price of Australian wine consumed increased by 6%. Sales of wine over £7 a bottle grew by 26%.
Australia remains the largest exporter of wine to the UK. The shift to promote more expensive wines should also work well in the lucrative Chinese market, where there has been strong growth in higher-priced wines. Australia ranks second to France as the biggest wine exporter to China.
Halliday said that while cheaper priced wines such as Yellow Tail will would continue to sell in big numbers, they would "increasingly become the exception".
[Australian wines via Anz-i / Flickr]