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Second coming, by Malcolm Gluck

Published:  18 January, 2007

The Champagne houses excoriated in my last column got their revenge in the most exquisite way. (It was, by the by, a column that excited a good deal of interest from the wine trade, many of whose members personally went out of their way to tell me that it was about time someone stuck one on the so-called grands marques for their pompous proselytising.)

Anyway, I arrive home, dripping wet, after cycling a dozen miles during one of the few foul January days and there on the mat is a piece of card letting me know that my postman called, could not get something through the letter box and it was awaiting my collection. Aha! I have been waiting for this, I said to myself. It was a rare book I had ordered via the internet from a bookshop in Cedar Falls, Iowa. In spite of the crushing rain I rushed out again, basket on the front of the bike, retrieved my book from the collection centre (transported wrapped in an old mac), dried myself off and prepared to feast myself on a treat I had long waited to indulge. Of course you know what happened next.

From out of the elaborate packaging tumbles not the delicious volume I was awaiting, but a gruesome doorstop called Femme de Champagne by Carol Duval-Leroy, of the Champagne house of that name. And what is it? It is a collection of recipes. Each, according to Madame Duval-Leroy, designed specifically to go with her bubbly. Can you believe, mushroom risotto? Duck with ginger? Quails? Foie gras? Potato and cep gratin? Caviar marmalade? Oh well. At least my local Oxfam shop will be a willing taker and I can muse on the incongruity of an organisation set up to relieve famine making money flogging a book on luxury noshing so otiose, asinine, fatuous and deranged that trees must have wept to see it printed.

There was a deal of incongruity, I thought, at this year's Australia tasting days on the 31 January and 1 February at the Royal Agricultural Halls. Why here? Why not Lord's, so the cock-a-hoop Aussies could chuckle as they displayed their wares inside the home of English cricket? There is something of an echo in the Halls, thanks to the roof's novel art deco buttressing, of great fascination to those of us entertained by things architectural, but not so congenial to those concerned with matters vinous.

In many ways, it was the least compelling Aussie show of recent years. Several visitors seemed to think that Chile's and New Zealand's were superior. The absence of numbers of producers themselves, who left it to their agents to represent them, only added to the lack of lustre. True, we had the irrepressible Zar Brooks and the no-nonsense Linda Domas, and both were in terrific form as they poured innovative wines, but I missed the stalwarts who made the past shows at the Guildhall so memorable and dramatic. Are the Aussies feeling hard done by? Are they feeling the pinch?

Certainly during my last visit to Australia, exactly one year ago, there was a degree of gloom regarding grape prices, mergers, large company toomfoolery, shrinking markets and the drought, and in vain did I explain that the Australian wine indusry was merely experiencing its first churn'. Those of us with a few years under our belt in Europe are seasoned weatherers of the churn, whether our commercial background is the law, advertising, toy manufacture, motor vehicle distribution or newspaper journalism, but the Aussie wine industry, in the context of being a meaningful and magnificent exporter, is young and fragile of experience. Its strength is that all the wonderful guys the big merged companies have let go, the Steve Pannells, the Philip Shaws, the John Duvals, and so on, are not lost to the industry, but are the very means by which the industry will reinvigorate itself and retain its chutzpah, extend its novelty, broaden its excellence and, above all, develop and widen its appeal to the consumer.

Nietzsche was a daft old sprout but he put his finger on it when he said that what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger, and by jiminy this is exactly what will happen to the Aussie wine industry. True, this supposes that the French, Germans, Spaniards and Italians don't get wiser and craftier. And the Spanish already have, the Germans are beginning to cotton on, the Italians are still grizzling for momma but will grow up one day, and the French will soon be abuzz with blending innovations, southern reds to take on Shiraz, new packaging ideas, etcetera, and if they could only appoint top-flight marketing and advertising people they would very quickly develop major new brands. 2007 promises to be a sensational year.