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Pressing times push local wine industry into US market

Date

Saffron Howden, Colin Kruger

Sweet samples … Brokenwood winemaker Simon Steele tests the fruit among the grape pickers as they harvest at Pokolbin in the Hunter Valley.

Sweet samples … Brokenwood winemaker Simon Steele tests the fruit among the grape pickers as they harvest at Pokolbin in the Hunter Valley. Photo: Peter Stoop

IT MAY be among the worst of times for Australian wines, but the industry has decided to take the long view and ditch the cheap and cheerful image to reinvent itself as purveyor of a premium product.

For five picking seasons, Australia has not had a decent wine tasting event in San Francisco.

But a little over a week ago, Wine Australia hosted a ''packed'' event in the city.

With the bite of a high dollar tearing flesh from the export market and fierce competition from growers and makers across the Tasman after a grape glut, the Australian wine industry is being forced to take a new direction away from the now-flailing model favoured by Casella Wines through its Yellow Tail label.

''Now is the time for Australian wine makers to get over there,'' chief wine maker and general manager of Brokenwood in the Hunter Valley, Iain Riggs, said.

''If the exchange rate changes then the floodgates will open again.''

Mr Riggs, who has just returned from a trip to the United States, said Brokenwood - where exports account for less than 10 per cent of sales - was pushing premium Hunter Valley shiraz and chardonnay overseas.

''The market in the US is still very, very tight for Australian wine. There's no doubt about that,'' he said.

The national government wine agency, Wine Australia, has been encouraging producers to concentrate on their expensive wines after Casella posted its first loss in two decades, leaving the company at the mercy of its bankers.

The high currency caused a plunge in earnings from its budget Yellow Tail label in the US. A spokeswoman for Casella said on Friday she could not contact anyone able to speak for the company.

Meanwhile, speculation continues to mount that Treasury Wine Estates, owner of Penfolds and Wolf Blass, could be taken over by foreign investors in the near future.

Yet, last year, overall Australian wine exports increased by 3 per cent to 721 million litres and the average value per litre also rose.

Producers were shifting to bulk shipments and overseas bottling to save on costs, Wine Australia's chief executive, Andrew Cheesman, said.

''The sector's export profile has changed significantly, whereby bulk wine exports are now far more prevalent,'' he said.

''Having historically represented around 15 per cent of total wine shipments, bulk wine shipments now represent in excess of 50 per cent of all wine shipments.''

The industry is embarking on a global campaign to bring Australian wines back onto the bottle shop shelves in the US, Britain, Canada and China.

''The industry has continued to evolve in terms of wine styles, new varieties, producers reducing their range and focusing on varieties they do best - lower alcohol wines and ensuring we are meeting our customers' needs,'' Mr Cheesman said.

''There are really exciting developments.''

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