Winelander – April 19, 2024

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By now, you may have seen on the news that the Chinese Govt had removed the 218% tariff slapped on wine when the then Liberal Government dared to ask questions about the origin of Covid and, for three years, the impact on sales to wineries that had invested heavily in the Chinese market found themselves with plenty of excess wine and no-one to sell it to. So severe, in fact, that in the hardest hit regions, The Riverland in South Australia and The Riverina in New South Wales, some wineries have pulled out acres of vines and replaced them with other crops. Before everyone rejoices at this news of a return to the pre-Covid opportunities of selling to the Chinese market, consider the market has now changed as other countries that weren’t affected by tariffs, such as South Africa, The USA, Argentina, France and Italy to name a few have been active in filling the void left by the price hikes to Australian wines. The industry has at the moment, millions of litres of wines lying in tanks and with the current picking of grapes, the addition of the 2024 vintage is only going to increase this wine lake, and it is likely to get worse before it gets better concluded Guiseppe Tauriello, a business reporter with The Advertiser in an interview with Angove Family Winemakers, a large supplier to The Chinese market and with deep roots in The Riverland wine region, a region that accounts for more than a quarter of Australia’s total wine production, has a glut of wine, especially red wine.

Angove is a fifth-generation family wine and spirit maker established in 1886. Previously, about 10% of its exports went to China. In recent times, they have diversified from the sale of bulk wine, such as casks, towards organic, sustainable viticulture and the establishment of a premium wine-growing winery in McLaren Vale, which has helped cushion the devastating impact of the Chinese tariffs.

Around 90% of Angove’s production is sold in the Australian and New Zealand markets, while Canada, the UK, and Denmark are among the biggest export markets. The U.S. is viewed as a promising opportunity but can be a complex task with several layers of agencies involved before the consumer gets the final price. This makes the American Wine industry very competitive, supplying the market directly, and the wines are just as well made as our own, especially from California. Apart from losing the Chinese market and having huge stocks of wine, the industry has also had to contend with dramatic increases in the cost of dry goods, bottles, and cartons. In fact, everything has gone up, and the squeeze is for real. This makes one suspicious of some increases, especially with one company being dominant in the production of both cartons and bottles.

Now, let’s have a look at what happens to the humble grape other than making white and red wine. In fact, the wine grape can make outstanding spirits and fortified wines, and Australia is right up there with the best in the world. Again, Angove, with the St Agnes brandy range, produces a range of brandies that can compete with the very best from France, having access to stores of aged material dating back over eighty years.

Brandy is a spirit made from distilled wine or other fermented fruit juice such as apple cider, and most of the brandy is made from fermented white wine. The name Brandy actually comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, meaning ‘burnt wine’, and initially, Cognac and Armagnac merchants began distilling their wines to stabilise them and ensure they did not spoil in the seventeenth century when transported, especially overseas. Cognac and Armagnac farmers shifted from winemaking to distilling and specializing in the production of Brandies, which would be named after the towns from which they came.

At Angove’s, the white wine chosen to make St. Agnes is from the fermented grapes of White Hermitage, Semillon, Doradillo, Pedro Ximenez, and sultanas; the proportions are secret, and everything is made under the same roof. Distillation begins shortly after fermentation and is when the fermented fruit is boiled in a still, either a pot still for the expensive brandies or a continuous still for cheaper brandies. Pot stills are made from copper, and the wine is boiled for the first time, during which the high proportion of impurities are removed, known as the heads; the brandy is distilled fruit is retained, known as the hearts or ‘middle cut’ and any water that is left is removed known as the tails this is where the skills of the distiller come to the fore. The steam collected is cooled and returns to a liquid far more alcoholic than the 12% or so that the wine was. The continuous still can distil a continuous flow of liquid, as the name suggests, and produces a more neutral, lighter style of spirit, which has a more commercial value than pot still brandy. With the pot still, the resulting liquid is once again boiled. It is known as a double pot stilled Brandy and can produce an ABV (alcohol by volume) level of between 50% and 90%. It is then diluted to the required alcohol level with distilled water at 40% ABV and put in wooden casks or barrels in Australia for a minimum of 2 years by law before any bottling can begin. During the time in the barrel, the colour and flavours pass from the wood to the brandy.

Over recent times many Australian wineries closed their brandy-making facilities down due to other spirits such as bourbon and tequila becoming popular but St Agnes carried on and introduced more premium styles from their older stock into the market and alongside the ever-popular Three Star came a Bartender’s Cut $88, The St. Agnes VS (Very Superior) $40, St. Agnes VSOP $56, St Agnes XO 15 year old $140, St Agnes XO Grand Reserve 40 Year Old $1,000 and The St Agnes XO Imperial 20 Years Old $250 a style to suit every budget. You will notice no reference to Cognac as that would be illegal; however, rest assured, compared to the French, these Australian brands are equal to any produced anywhere in the world, and if you are looking for that special gift, you should be given priority; Dan Murphy’s carries a good selection.

Next time we will look at fortified wine, another area where Australia excels.