Popular Posts

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Austria's Cool Wines By The Glass‏

Last month, I went to the Annual Tasting of Austrian Wines at the IOD in London.

At a press breakfast beforehand, we were served a typical Austria breakfast of meats, cheese coffee and pastries that took me back to my own days in Vienna whilst Willi Klinger, head of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, gave us a presentation.

The ownership and funding of the AWMB is somehow typically Austrian, being a Byzantine mix of state and mid-sized private industry - this Germanic blend of public and private aligning interests is somewhat reminiscent of Germany's Mittelstand and Lower Saxony's Golden Share in Volkswagen AG and suggests that compared to Britain, in Austria the state is rather more commercial whilst business is rather less so.

As Willi pointed out, being 4/5ths mountains, Austria has limited land available for viticulture and, as a result, the average size of a grower's vineyards is just 2.3 ha.

The number of producers is now around 20,000 down from around 48,000 in the mid-80s, but whilst some consolidation is taking place, Austria will never be a volume player like Australia and indeed, at 6,500 has double the number of that country's bottlers.

I have long observed that Austrian wines are expensive at the bottom - due precisely to this lack of volume and efficiencies of scale - but relative bargains at the top due to lack of reputation and international recognition; the great top whites of the Wachau do not yet command anything like the price premiums of white Burgundy.

Obviously, the AWMB would like to do something about that and I have seen for myself prices for the top wines creeping upwards over the last 5-10 years, even in euro terms.

Production of wines in Austria is around the 250m litres per year that Austrians consume, but the country does not drink only its own produce, so there is something of a one in, one out approach to imports with 50m-70m litres of wine changing hands with other countries.

The trend over time has been to reduce export volumes, especially of bulk wines, and focus more on achieving better prices for the higher-end wines.

There is a typically Austrian logic to this - if my imports equal my exports, then I have to sell and awful lot of bulk juice to buy one bottle of good Bordeaux or Burgundy.

But, by improving (read: increasing) prices for my top wines, a single bottle of Wachau GV or Riesling will get me a good Bordeaux and maybe even a bit of spare change back, too.

After all this talk about focus on raising prices, Herr Klinger then played his masterstroke - he explained that he thought the price of Austrian wine in the UK was too high and he would like to see the UK buying more entry-level wines.

To illustrate his point, he cited Germany where the average ex-cellar price is €2, compared to €7.5 in the UK.

His target is to get Britain drinking 1m litres of Austrian wine annually and I suspect this focus on reducing the entry-level cost of an Austrian wine (you rarely find anything under a tenner here) is rather like an auctioneer starting low to whip up some excitement with the eventual aim of finishing high.

Austrian wines are still something of a niche interest in this country, partly because of the high entry-level price and so this becomes a self-reinforcing loop.

The AWMB's solution to this is "Cool Wines By The Glass": encouraging the on-trade to sell more entry-level wines by the glass to create a broad base of interest.

So far, so strategically sound.

My own love of Austrian wines came from travelling to Vienna on business and drinking Austrian wines by the glass at any number of excellent Viennese restaurants - Steierereck, Meinl am Graben, Plachutta and Indochine 21, to name but a few.

On a good evening, I would typically start with a crisp, piercingly steely Styrian wine for aperitif and starter, then if white, a Riesling or GV from the Wachau, if red a Blaufränkisch from Burgenland with my main and finally a Burgenland sticky with dessert.

In practice, then, Austrian wines are great food matches and versatile enough to match with many foods.

Moreover, people are generally a lot more adventurous and less price sensitive when buying a glass of wine for themselves compared to a bottle to share.

However,"Cool Wines By The Glass" is not the snappiest of slogans and the multiple play-on-words (edgy, cool climate wines, served chilled) feels overly studied, clunky and unconvincing - a bit like your uncle trying to disco dance.

It's also something of a high-risk approach as serving wines by the glass requires either quick product turnover, oenomatic dispensers, rigorous stock rotation or all three to ensure the wines are served in peak condition.

When I asked Herr Klinger about this, he made a good joke about this involving world domination, but did not really give a proper answer to how quality control can be maintained.

I can't help wondering if cool wines by the glass will end up being a bit like sherry bars - on any given evening, there's no shortage of people at Dehesa or Pepito's but I am not seeing any signs yet of the ripple effect amongst friends and colleagues.

But perhaps that just proves the old adage that it takes years to gain a reputation and moments to lose it - a point which Austria knows well.

As a small, clannish, wealthy country with a new generation of young wine-makers, Austria was able to turn its own wine industry round after the mid-80s very successfully, but having made such dramatic changes in the early days, Austrian wine law still continues to change to this day.

At times it can feel a bit like perpetual tinkering and all I took away from the update on Austria's new regional delineations of areas and grape varieties that has the feel of France's AOC system - with designated permitted grapes for designated areas - is that it is still a work in progress.

And whilst a lot of the basics of Brand Austria are in place for wine marketing, one glaring example to me is the limited use of social media generally and twitter in particular.

This was the subject my second question to Willi Klinger and he responded by pointing out that the AWMB has pushed all major producers to keep their websites current, that there is an Austrian Wine Facebook page and Twitter accounts for both Austrian Wine in Austria and a US-based account.

However, for social media, there are nul points just for turning up - it's about content and engagement rather than mere platform presence.

Yes, there's something of a language barrier, but English is widely spoken by all the producers I have met, and yes, resourcing is an issue - there's always work to do at a winery and tweeting should never take precedence over the real work of making wine.

But how powerful is it for producers to be able to engage with their consumers directly and vice-versa ?

More than just the liquid in the glass, wine has a Romance to it that being able to interact directly with the wine-maker captures perfectly - and Austria, with its mountains, castles, the meandering UNESCO-protected Wachau valley, the shallow lake and low hills of Neusiedlersee and the fossil ridges of Styria is a beautiful and amazingly Romantic setting.

As journalists and observers of human nature, wine writers understand this implicitly and I can't help feeling that if the wine producers of Austria started to engage with their consumers and fans via the Twittersphere - and get it right - the resultant buzz could be little short of incredible.


Austrian Wine - http://www.austrianwine.com/

Cool Wines by the Glass - http://www.austrianwine.com/news-media/news-from-us/news/news/oesterreich-glasweise-cool-wines-by-the-glass-1478/

No comments:

Post a Comment