Supermarkets dominate the wine retail market in many countries. In Australia, the Dan Murphy and Vintage Cellars chains, owned by supermarkets Woolworths and Coles respectively, sell more than 70 per cent of the wine in the country.
In the United Kingdom, the supermarkets control even more of the market than in Australia. That explains the shortage of independent wine shops in that country.
Supermarkets in both countries wield immense power to control prices. As wine guru James Halliday wrote recently: “It is sheer nonsense to pretend that wine quality has not suffered there [in the UK] as a consequence of the remorseless squeeze on margins to keep the same price for a given wine over a period of years in the face of cumulative inflation and tax that rises every year. The result has been a downward spiral in quality of the major brands.”
What hope then for independent or family-owned vineyards? Especially given the fact that in Australia four conglomerates own about 90 per cent of the country’s more than 2,500 vineyards.
The independents are forced to diversify and find ways to make a living with wine-related events, and/or sell via an online shop.
Tilba Valley Wines on the south coast of New South Wales, which I visited this month, represents an example of how an independent vineyard survives and possibly thrives. The keys to success are location and innovation.
The vineyard has a beautiful location, on the shores of Lake Corunna and in the foothills of Mount Dromedary. When Captain Cook discovered the east coast of Australia in 1770 he named the mountain thus because it looked from a distance like a camel. Nowadays it is also known by its Aboriginal name, Gulaga.
The vineyard is also a few minutes drive from a National Trust village, Central Tilba. This village is picturesque and cute, with scores of original wooden houses converted into restaurants, art galleries, craft shops and cafes. The village also houses the original headquarters of the ABC cheese factory, which has become famous for its innovative approach to making new flavours of cheese. In summer thousands of tourists flock to the area.
The area under vines at Tilba Valley Wines is relatively small, so they are forced to buy in grapes to make some of their wines. Martyn Davies, a former television weather presenter in the United Kingdom, emigrated to Australia a year ago with his Australian wife, who works as a vet in the area.
Martyn presents the wines to visitors. He is charming and possesses a vast knowledge about wine. He told me wallabies had eaten all of the recently-planted chambourcin vines, but since then fences had been erected to keep the marsupials out. Wallabies are the more compact version of Australia’s famous kangaroos – the creatures which adorn the tails of the country’s airline, Qantas.
The vineyard makes semillon, chardonnay, riesling, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon from estate-grown grapes. Martyn Davies told me most of the wine is sold at the cellar door. This explains the rather appalling label, which would not attract many eyes if viewed on the shelf of a wine shop. But the label works for wines that are sold on site – it is a garish purple, which can be seen if you visit the web site at http://tilba.com.au/tilbavalleywines.html.
James Halliday has not reviewed the wines in his annual Halliday’s Guide to Australian Wines since the 2008 vintage. Prices have barely changed since then, which is comforting for people who buy at the cellar door. Wines average about $A 20 a bottle, with discounts for purchases of a dozen or more.
Some of the wines I tasted that had just been bottled, such as the 2012 riesling, showed potential. The 2011 semillon has lovely crunchy acidity, like biting into a green apple, and it pairs wonderfully with local oysters. The 2012 chambourcin rosé also had crisp acidity plus a range of red fruit aromas and flavours.
The estate has diversified into providing meals and entertainment. Food prices are kept low to ensure repeat business, and it was a delight to be able to buy a large glass of wine with lunch without paying a small fortune, as happens in the fancy wine-bars of Sydney and Melbourne. The food was fresh and focused on local ingredients like smoked trout, vegetarian quiche and cheeses.
A feature of the vineyard is the quality of the entertainment. Live music or variety acts are available on the first and third Sunday of each month (except August when the vineyard closes for annual holidays). Many are from Europe, such as cabaret act from Berlin, which was highly regarded on its first visit last year.
Tilba Valley Wines shows what happens when a vineyard, to borrow from the Apple advertising campaign, thinks differently.