Between 2002 and 2005, wine consumption in the United States increased by 6 percent each year, but most of the additional wine being drunk came from Australia.
Nick Dokoozlian, with E & J Gallo Winery in Modesto, California, said the volume of Australian wine imports rose from 10 million cases in 1992 to 70 million cases in 2005.
How could Australia gain such an edge with U.S. consumers?
Speaking at the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual convention in December, Dokoozlian said the Australian wine industry is driven by technology and has gained intellectual knowledge of the consumer. It has competitive infrastructure and production costs, partly because of cheap land prices, and currency exchange rates have been in its favor.
What do consumers like about Australian wines?
They like the concentrated fruit flavors and absence of veggie or green characteristics. They like the intense color, the silky texture, and the smooth mouth feel. And they like the price, at between U.S.$5 and $10 a bottle.
Dokoozlian said that historically, contract terms between U.S. grape growers and wineries have focused on sugar, acid, and pH levels, which are not sufficient to predict final wine quality. Analytical methods are needed to predict the color, mouth feel, aroma, and flavor of wines from attributes of the grapes. "It’s about sensory analysis of the fruit before we harvest the grapes," he said.
Dokoozlian said the color of a wine is strongly related to wine quality, and some wineries throughout the world do give bonuses based on the color of the grapes.
Consumers tend to consider wines with good color as being superior even without tasting them, but Dokoozlian said vineyards that produce well-colored grapes usually excel in terms of cultural and environmental practices. Though not every wine that is rated highly by the Wine Spectator is well colored, most are.
Research done with sensory panels in Australia, in which consumers tasted wine in black glasses, showed that consumers preferred the taste of highly colored wines, even when they weren’t aware of the color.
"There seems to be a high correlation between color and perceived wine quality that consumers found positive, and it seems to be not just related to how the wine looks," Dokoozlian said.
It’s been shown that vineyardists can grow relatively high yields of fruit while still maintaining high color characteristics in the grapes. If American growers can grow more grapes while still maintaining quality, they would have the opportunity to produce quality wines at a lower cost and compete with Australian imports, he suggested.
Another area where Australia has the edge is in understanding consumer preferences, he said. In comparison, U.S. winemakers have tended to make the wines they wanted to make.
"Let’s focus on our consumers, and we can drive our production practices to meet those targets, whatever they are," Dokoozlian suggested.
The U.S. wine industry—a $50 billion industry—spends less than $4 million a year on research, while the Australian industry, barely a third of the size of the U.S. wine industry, spends $50 million a year. "That’s ten times the investment in research," Dokoozlian said.