Grapes growing from family trees

In a wine sector that is not exactly enjoying boom times, the NSW wine industry is looking rather positive. After several years of increasing sales, NSW wine has plateau-ed, and is showing only modest growth, “But at least it hasn’t gone backwards” says Stuart McGrath-Kerr, executive officer of the NSW Wine Industry Association. “2.5 per cent is lower than the growth-rate for all wine*, but at least it is growth.”

McGrath-Kerr’s home turf is the Riverina, and he has the figures ready in his head. “Today, one in four glasses of Australian wine come from the Riverina,” he says. “We are putting 50 to 60 containers of wine on the trains every day.” It’s largely Casella wine, which mostly means Yellow Tail. The curious thing about the Riverina is that almost all of its big companies are family owned, which is somewhat counter to the national trend. Think McWilliams, De Bortoli, Westend, Berton Vineyards – and Casella. Yellow Tail may be doing it tough because of unfavourable exchange rates, but the Casella family’s reaction has been to invest – with their partner Coca-Cola Amatil – a cool $100 million in a brewery.

The big public wine companies, including Treasury and Pernod Ricard, have pulled back from the Riverina, as they have from Mudgee. But in Mudgee at least, there has been a consolidation. “About one-third of Mudgee’s vineyards have been pulled out in the last two years,” says David Lowe, of Lowe Family Wines, “and there are probably 1,000 more hectares that should go. But they needed to go: they were not planted on the right soils, and it’s meant a re-focusing on the best sites.”

Again in Mudgee, it’s the family owned wineries running the show. Wineries like Robert Oatley, Logan, Lowe, Robert Stein, Di Lusso and Huntington Estate.

Sparkling wine is complicated to make and requires investment, so the fact that several NSW wineries have entered the sparkling wine business in recent times is an encouraging sign. Highest profile is Printhie of Orange, where the Swift family last year released its first two sparkling wines and announced major expenditure on winery, sparkling wine facilities, cellar door and restaurant. The complex will be on Caldwell Lane, near Philip Shaw’s Koomooloo vineyard. The announcement has prompted Shaw to re-think his plan to move his cellar door sales elsewhere – but a decision has yet to be made. Other small producers who have joined the sparkling wine business lately include Philip Shaw, Mayfield, Ross Hill, Logan, Courabyra, Bimbadgen and Lowe Family – whose Bobby Lowe sparkling red merlot from Mudgee, and Orange pinot noir chardonnay named Gentleman’s Daughter (tasting), were launched late last year, with a unique story. The label tells part of it. The story is that David Lowe’s great great grandfather was held up by bushrangers in country NSW in 1863, and shot one of them dead – a deed that earned him coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald and a gold medal from the governor, which is held in the Mitchell Library.

The Bimbadgen sparkling semillon is enjoying great popularity. The 2001 Courabyra ‘805’ Pinot Noir Chardonnay Pinot Meunier (tasting), made from Tumbarumba grapes, scored the sparkling wine trophy at last year’s NSW Wine Awards. Overnight, it single-handedly upped the ante for NSW sparkling wine to an international level.

Alex Retief is doing exciting things with Tumbarumba and Canberra grapes. Cumulus winery near Orange is producing seriously good wines of several varieties, while an Orange newcomer, De Salis, is making a name for itself with barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc and chardonnay of real character. Its owner, Charlie Svenson, has a background in scientific research and has bought the highest vineyard in the Orange region, at over 1,000 metres altitude. Former Draytons winemaker Will Rikard-Bell is working with Svenson following a stint at Canobolas-Smith.

There’s a new generation of winemakers gradually taking over the reins at various wineries. In the Hunter, Sarah Crowe at Bimbadgen, Scott Comyns at Briar Ridge, Scott McWilliam at the family winery Mount Pleasant, Chris Tyrrell at Tyrrell’s, Jeff Byrne at Tower Estate and Usher Tinkler at the family vineyard Tinkler’s (and also overseeing Tower Estate) are at the cutting edge. With Liz Silkman at First Creek, Dan Binet at Ballabourneen and others, the Hunter’s resurgent winemaking scene is in good hands.

NSW wineries have had their share of show success in the past year, two with riesling. Bryan Martin’s Ravensworth 2012 (tastings) from Murrumbateman won the trophy for the best wine of the International Riesling Challenge in Canberra, having also won the trophies for best Canberra region and best Australian riesling. And more recently Logan Weemala Riesling 2012 won the people’s choice award (judged blind) at the Summer of Riesling launch, which neatly capped its three gold medals won so far at major wine shows.

Sydney has seen an explosion of small wine bars in the last year, and they have taken on an important role of nurturing the small and family-owned wineries of NSW. “They’ve been a game changer,” says Tom Ward of Swinging Bridge winery, who is also vice-president of the NSW Wine Industry Association. “They’re really keen to get brands that aren’t in supermarkets, and which have a story to tell. They are getting behind the wine and promoting it to their customers. Forty wine bars have signed up for the NSW Wine Festival’s initiative of offering a glass of NSW wine and a plate of food during NSW wine month. The small bars don’t beat us down on price, and they sell more wine than a bottle-shop. It’s a total game changer for us.”

* (sales of all wine in NSW grew 4.5%, while sales of NSW wine in NSW grew by 2.5%)


One of the biggest man-made setbacks that medium-sized winemakers have faced for some time came last year when the NSW Government abolished its WET subsidy on cellar door sales. About 23 wineries are believed to be affected. Fifteen of the 23 are in the Hunter: the likes of Tyrrell’s, Bimbadgen, McWilliam’s and Brokenwood.

The Federal Government has a WET exemption which applies to each winery’s first $1.722 million of sales at wholesale value. Beyond those sales, the State Government had been reimbursing 15 per cent of the 29 per cent WET, but only on direct sales, which means cellar door sales, mail-order and internet generated sales.

Tasmania and NSW are now the only states not applying this rebate. Stuart McGrath-Kerr said both Tyrrell’s and Brokenwood had declared they would have to either close some of their cellar door outlets or cut staff as a result of this ‘loss of benefit’. This subsidy was worth only about $3.5 million to the State Government, which, ironically, has at the same time declared its support for regional wine tourism.

(WET, or Wine Equalisation Tax, is applied to all wine sold in Australia at 29 per cent of wholesale value)

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 21 January 2013

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