Down under on top

Drink - Victoria Moore wonders why we're all so taken with drinking <em>a l'australien</em>

Koala bears and wombats are native to Australia, a vast and sparsely populated country that the Aborigines mapped out with songlines. But we don't tend to think of it in terms of the exotic. Australia is now represented in popular iconography by Neighbours, Castlemaine XXXX and - in a sanitised nod towards the wilderness - Crocodile Dundee.

Similarly, Australian wine has come to be perceived as so safe and familiar that drinking Aussie is now the vinous equivalent of shopping at Gap. Modern technology, the recurrence of grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and heavy oaking have produced a uniformity of flavour. This isn't to say that all Australian wines taste the same but, at a certain price level, there is a feeling that we know what to expect when we uncork a bottle, as we do when we tear at the ring-pull on a can of lager.

The clever marketing of brands has reinforced this idea. Penfolds, Jacob's Creek and Devil's Lair have all harvested the rewards of having straightforward, easy-to-remember names that promise to deliver a basic level of quality. The transformation of the Syrah grape - used in France's Rhone valley to produce such benchmark wines as Crozes-Hermitage - into the Aussie Shiraz (many people have no inkling that these two are, in fact, one and the same grape) has also helped the cause.

And it's because of all this (in effect, through the exploitation of our lack of discernment) that Australian wine is set to catch up with French wine to become the British consumer's favourite. For while Aussie sales here continue to rise, the French market share is plummeting: last year, 19.5 per cent of wine sold in British shops was Australian, while 23.6 per cent was French. If the trends of the past few years continue, the Australians will hold a 22 per cent market share by the end of 2001, while French sales will have dipped to account for just 21 per cent.

It is quite incredible that the Australians might manage to offload more bottles of wine in Britain each year than even the French, especially when you consider that, in terms of volume, France and Italy are consistently - and by a long stretch - the world's biggest producers. Australia, on the other hand, has an annual output on a par with that of Bordeaux.

It's not that I've got anything against Australian wines - on the contrary, many of them are excellent - just that I wish we would appreciate them for the right reasons. And I think that if we did, we'd probably buy less of them. Because the biggest injustice of all - at least as far as the French are concerned - is a common perception that Australian wine is "cheap". This is quite simply not the case. The average price paid for a bottle of wine in the United Kingdom is about £1 lower than the average price paid for a bottle of Australian wine. In other words, we think the quality is more consistent partly because we are drinking a more expensive product.

Have we really been so terribly scarred by the extraordinarily cheap, thin, vinegary wines from France we all bought in the penniless period that inevitably follows one's 18th birthday that we don't trust French wine any more? And do we really prefer a predictable (boring?) blast of fruit and oak to the more subtle and varied flavours of wine from the different regions of France?

The answer, quite clearly, is yes, because that's what we're buying. But it is symptomatic of a deathly lack of imagination and a childish need to be able to imagine the flavour of a wine before it reaches our taste buds. If we really cared, we'd be buying our Aussie wine from Vin du Van, run by Ian Brown, who picked up the Which? Wine Guide 2001 New World Specialist Award for a highly eclectic, individual list that's much more wombat than Kylie.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Please, sir, we girls want some more