Will be all be drinking Australian wine?
While we remain in the EU customs union, European wine is sold in the UK without paying import duty. If we leave the customs union, duty will be payable; how much depends on the deal agreed between the EU and the UK. At the present rate of progress, there seems a good chance that no such a deal will be agreed, so if we leave the customs union we would revert to World Trade Organisation tariffs, currently 32%. Combine that with the predicted fall in the value of the pound and we may find ourselves paying half as much again for European wines as we do now.
What’s the alternative? One country watching the situation with interest is Australia. We are the largest consumer by volume of Australian wine, taking one third of her wine exports. She has already signalled that she would welcome the abolition of import duty on Australian wine entering the UK. And, of all New World countries, she has the most interesting wine.
But would we cope with a switch from European to Australian wine? I have been banging on in this column for years about the importance of ‘terroir’; about the fact that much of the enjoyment of wine is about recognising how the combination of climate, soil, rock, elevation and a hundred other things have contributed to a unique product that could have come from nowhere but that area, sometimes even that parcel of land. This is less true of Australian wine. Firstly, most of their wine sold in this country is blended, often from vineyards hundreds of miles apart. Blended wines can be excellent but they don’t relate to one area. They are typical only of themselves. Secondly, terroir seems to play a less important role in Australia than in Europe. No-one who cares about these things can fail to taste the difference between a Chardonnay from Chablis and one from Puligny-Montrachet, even though they are only 70 miles apart. But Australian Chardonnay can taste the same whether from Margaret River or from the Hunter Valley over 2000 miles away. A few unalterable features do play a part (exposure to cooling sea breezes, elevation, latitude) but frequently the part played by the winemaker is more important.
To put these ideas to the test I went to Tate Britain two months ago to a tasting of ‘100 Best Australian Wines’ organised by the wine writer Matthew Jukes. These really were, in his opinion, the 100 best Aussie wines on sale in the UK. I started with four Chardonnays. The cheapest (£9.99 from Majestic) called ‘Exmoor Chardonnay’ from Xanadu Estate was light and fragrant, a typical ‘modern’ Aussie Chardonnay. The most expensive was the ‘Art Series Chardonnay’ from Leeuwin Estate (£80 from Selfridges): a marvellous full-bodied, perfectly balanced, intense wine but without the cloying richness of the Aussie Chardonnays of 20 years ago. In between these, both in price and in style, were two excellent wines, one from the Adelaide Hills and one from the Yarra Valley. The interesting thing was that the wines at either end of the range, in style as well as in price, were both from Margaret River in Western Australia, about 3 miles apart! Similar terroir does not produce similar wines unless they are made the same way. I repeated the experiment for Cabernet Sauvignon, then Grenache and, finally, Shiraz-dominated wines with the same results. Australian wines have the variety and the quality to entertain us for a lifetime, should import duties make European wines less attractive, but we need to get to know the winemakers as much as the geographical names.