Spotlight - Aussie on-trade campaign heralds age of region

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A new generic campaign from Wine Australia in the UK is looking to promote regionality and take consumers beyond the 'brand Australia' concept. While the move offers a chance to trade consumers up, writes Chris Losh, some in the trade remain sceptical, fearing it could undermine the accessibility which has been a cornerstone of Australia's success in the UK.

Over the next three months the UK on-trade will see a series of promotions conceived and coordinated by Wine Australia. The 'Regional Heroes' campaign is unusual for two reasons. Firstly because (initially at least) it focuses on the on-trade, and secondly because it takes consumers beyond the 'brand Australia' concept that they're familiar with, and into regionality. In other words, out go Aussie Shiraz and Chardonnay, and in come Clare Valley Riesling, Coonawarra Cabernet et al.

It is an ambitious project which involves a wide-ranging staff training programme aimed at 'educating the gatekeepers', followed by promotional activity for these 'Regional Hero' wines in bars, gastropubs and restaurants around the country.

"It's a way for us to drive a bit of value back into the category," says Melissa Worthington, marketing manager at Wine Australia. "Our focus initially is for independents and the on-trade, but we are looking to take it to High Street businesses eventually."

It's the most visible sign yet of what is a growing trend throughout the New World: the move away from straight varietal labelling and towards regionality.

Ironically, it comes at a time when the Old World, bastion of the very regionality to which Australia and its peers aspire, is increasingly relaxing its own rules to permit varietal labelling on stalwarts like claret and Burgundy.

There is no question, however, about who has the harder job. Putting varietals on a regional label makes that bottle simpler; adding regional complexity to a product that has attained its position of strength largely on the back of its accessibility is fraught with danger. It would be a disaster if an attempt to move on more confident drinkers simultaneously alienated those who like their wine stories simple.

No wonder, perhaps, that while there is unanimous support for the concept of introducing consumers to New World regionality, there is little agreement about how far and how fast the wine-drinking public should be pushed.

"[The trade] are making the mistake that we've made before of galloping along, talking to each other, rather than talking to the consumer," says John McLaren, director of the Wine Institute of California, who says he is trying to "hold back the regional thing'".

Over at Wines of Chile, however, Michael Cox is considerably more positive. "We're pursuing regionality with gusto," he says. "With complexity come interest, quality associations and image."

That progress is being made - at the trade level at least - is obvious by the fact that five years ago, few people anywhere had heard of the Leyda Valley, whereas now this Chilean region is reasonably well known.

"Strictly speaking, we might be ahead of where the consumers are, but we have to do it," says Cox. "The market is so price-obsessed the consumer has to be pushed into a direction that the wine trade wants to go. If we were worried about being ahead of the consumer in 1979, the Australian wine boom would never have happened."

The same could be said for screwcaps, which were 'sold' to an initially sceptical public largely because the industry presented a united front. However, the difference is that both screwcaps and Australia's 'sunshine in a bottle' schtick were easy concepts to sell and ones, moreover, that didn't require the consumer to pay any more, whereas 'regionality' is aimed at encouraging them to upgrade.

Certainly, it is noticeable that the retailers, both on- and off-trade, are more circumspect in their tone than the generic offices.

"The Aussies have been trying to create regionality for ten years," says Dan Jago, category head for wines, spirits and beers at Tesco. "It's better that they keep going than give up, but whether the consumer fully identifies with the regional nature of it is hard to tell."

Meanwhile, Claire Harris, wine buyer for Mitchells and Butler, which owns 2,000 on-trade outlets, sounds a warning note. "Regionality is something we're looking at going towards, but I'd question how much the consumer understands it," she says. "We don't want to scare the customer off. If it goes too far too fast, we could undo all the good work that has been done over the last 20 years in making wine accessible."

Some New World countries have created effective regional brands already. Marlborough is arguably, outside Bordeaux and Burgundy, one of the best known wine regions in the world. Yet it is also nigh-on exclusively associated with Sauvignon Blanc, and some are worried that this might not necessarily be the ideal model, since much of what has made the New World special is the fact that growers could plant what they wanted where they wanted.

"Marketing-led control of appellations is dangerous," says John McLaren. "You need to break appellations down further, and the consumer will then go as far as he wants to."

In fact, the attraction of regionality to the New World is less the French model of microscopic analysis of the terroir, and more the quality cues that it sends out. In other words, making consumers aware that there are different valleys, regions and areas within a country provides them with the knowledge that there might be reasons to trade up in the future, and simultaneously makes them (albeit subconsciously) less price-resistant.

Or, as Jago puts it, "It's not about regionality, it's about branding." Which, of course, is something that the New World does know rather a lot about.

Sectors: Wine

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