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Australian's Get Serious About Wine Industry - 2001-01-01

This is the traditional time of year in many parts of the world for feasting and drinking, and the drinking part often involves wine. Wine is now a multibillion-dollar business, and competition is stiff for consumer attention among the thousands of wines in the world.

On a recent trip to Australia, VOA correspondent Gary Thomas discovered that the stereotype of a nation of beer drinkers is changing, due in large part to a vibrant wine industry.

The biennial Wine Australia trade show is testament that Australians have gotten serious about wine. Thousands of people flocked to the cavernous Melbourne convention hall to taste some of the 5000 plus wines being showcased.

At his tiny display, winemaker Ian Maclean of Yarra Yarra Winery stands with bottle in hand to pour samples, as he marvels at how tastes have changed in Australia. "My father never drank wine," he says. "Obviously, I drink wine. The young kids today, though, they're the ones drinking the wine. Our girls -- we've got three daughters -- they're all drinking wine, something I really didn't do at their age. And they're drinking some good wine. So it's a generational change."

With increasing frequency, Australians are sipping wine instead of swilling beer. Australia is now home to a thriving wine industry worth about $1.5 billion a year, and growing by an annual rate of between 10 to 15 percent a year. There are around 1100 wineries scattered across the vast Australian land mass.

That's not bad for a nation that only 30 years ago had a reputation for producing only sickly sweet dessert wines. But that reputation has gone by the wayside. Australian wines have not only won local support, but also captured international attention.

Peter Schulz, proprietor of Turkey Flat Vineyards and a member of the Australia Wine Export Council, says Australian wines are seen as products that are well made and fairly priced. "Australia's wine is perceived to be clean, green, friendly, sunshine in the bottle -- extremely well-marketed, professionally managed as far as labeling," he says. "And also, I think there's the perception -- and this is a true perception -- that Australian winemakers are professional."

There are some 30 wine-producing regions of Australia. But the soul of Australian winemaking lies perhaps in the Barossa Valley. Located an hour's drive north of Adelaide, the Barossa is home to some of the country's oldest vines, bearing what many wine lovers say is Australia's finest grape variety, the shiraz.

The first Barossan vines go back to around 1847, when the area was settled by German migrants. Geoff Schrapel, winemaker and owner of Bethany Vineyard, is a fifth-generation Barossan whose family came from Germany in 1844. Seated outside his small hilltop winery above his vineyards, Mr. Schrapel says the settlers grew corn and whatever else they could to feed themselves as well as what they could cultivate to drink.

"I think the main thing about the Barossa was being self-sufficient," he says. "So they grew a bit of everything. They also liked a good drink. So they started to plant vines."

By the 1980s, there was such a surplus of grapes that the Australian government was actually paying people to rip out vines, and many old vines were lost. Long-time Barossan winemaker Grant Burge says that while it is fashionable now to decry the vine pull, it seemed like a good idea at the time. "It was a very desperate situation," he says. "We did not see the export coming. We'd been trying for export, we'd been working at export for years, and there wasn't any light at the end of the tunnel. And so out of desperation the vine pull was invented. And there was also a lot of work done on what we could use the Barossa for other than growing grapes."

But the wine industry was saved as tastes started changing. Every one of the score of winemakers interviewed credit the emigration of European immigrants for the change, saying that they brought with them the concept of drinking table wines with food. In the past 20 years, Australia's per-capita wine consumption has risen, while beer consumption has actually dropped.

Margaret Lehmann, of Peter Lehmann Wines, compares winemakers, as they blend different batches of grapes from different vineyards, to orchestra conductors. "Certain parts of the Barossa -- for example, in the western region, where you get great, deep shirazes, I'm going to show you the Stonewell Shiraz, is rather like the double bass, or the cello notes," she says. "Whereas in another part of the Barossa, up in the ranges area, they'll tend to more violins. And so if you think of the Barossa as producing a concerto of wines, the winemaker has in his head and has the material at his fingertips, or her fingertips -- because we have a woman winemaker -- to make, to choose whether to have a full-blown symphony, a concerto with one region playing in the contrast to the full orchestra, or a solo."

Wine experts predict more people around the world will be picking up on Australian wines -- especially as the sagging Australian dollar makes many of them a wine lover's dream: affordable and elegant at the same time.