Thirsty Work

Punt Road Wines

They are not unique so much as unusual in that they are suitable for growing a wide variety of grapes, unlike most other Australian wine regions where a single speciality prevails, such as Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. It is hardly surprising then that so many independent and progressive wineries crowd the region, turning out many different wines that are competitive in quality and price yet in many cases offering innovation and style.

Not that these vineyards are necessarily new; in the case of Punt Road Wines, for example, the story goes back as far as the 1860s when two brothers newly-arrived from Switzerland established St Huberts Vineyard in Coldstream, a township some 40 kilometres northeast of the state capital that later became home to Dame Nellie Melba. By 1900 it had become the largest estate in the Yarra Valley with 260 acres under vine.

Although the wine industry suffered greatly in succeeding decades, the Napoleone family purchased land in Wandin in 1948 and founded the family business as orchardists, growing apples. In 1978, as the Yarra Valley wine industry came back to life, the Napoleones purchased the property at Coldstream which was formerly home to the original St Huberts vineyards and winery.

They began planting vines in 1987 and in the late 1990s a modern winery was constructed. In 2001, the first range of Punt Road wines was released to the market.

Underlining the area’s suitability for such a wide variety of crops, Punt Road Wines – alone in the region – offers a range of ciders that are marketed alongside its wine brands: Punt Road itself, Airlie Bank and the relative newcomer Chemin. Marketing Director Jon Baxter explains to us that, “We have a unique set of circumstances here in that we were a table-fruit producer before we were a wine producer. We have extensive orchards.”

A window of opportunity opened in Australia for cider in recent years, though Mr Baxter concedes, “we still have not found the nub of how that happened.” The logic became clear: Punt Road had the fruit and a winery that at some times of the year is rather quiet (awaiting the ripening of the grapes). Hence the birth of the Napoleone & Co range of ciders, apple or apple and pear, made in the traditional manner rather than using concentrate, juice and bags of sugar like the mass-market brands.

In Yarra Valley style, Punt Road describes itself as “medium sized,” producing around 45 to 75,000 cases per year depending on the size of the harvest and its quality. But what is striking is its range: Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinots Gris and Noir, Shiraz and Viognier, not to mention rosés, sparklers and – if conditions are right – a rather exclusive Botrytis-affected Semillon. The Punt Road and Airlie Bank brands each contain most of these while Chemin currently offers only a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Syrah (when in stock, as supplies are strictly limited). “The key is that we control all our own vineyards,” Mr Baxter explains, as MV Napoleone & Co owns the vineyards and orchards from which Punt Road acquires its fruit. “We can crop them at levels that suit different price points.” A winery that is buying in some or all of its fruit, by contrast, has less flexibility over the intensity of flavour, for example, which dictates the eventual wine’s overall quality and subsequently its price.

He adds that the company likes to cover as many price points as possible, using its in-house bottling and other facilities to offer economies of scale. “If it’s a sea-level café in Melbourne that can only sell Pinot Noir at seven dollars a glass, we like to be able to cover that base – but Punt Road doesn’t cover it as a label. You either turn your back on that market or you find a way to achieve it,” in this case via the Airlie Bank label instead.

Punt Road Wines’ output is well known around Australia and is now travelling well too, with nearly 20 per cent of its output exported. Jon credits some outstanding and proactive distributors in countries as far apart as Singapore and in the US, where Chemin in particular has made a startling impact in a very short time and appeared on the lists of a number of extremely chic New York eateries. “They want individual wines, varieties they may not have seen before, styles they didn’t think Australia produced or was capable of. Suddenly we are in twelve restaurants in New York and we wonder how we did it – we are the only Australian wine on the list (by the glass).” This not only helps the bank balance but also has a halo effect back home where domestic restaurants and hotels are sitting up and taking notice of this sudden acceptance in the Big Apple.

Wine Australia has played a huge part in this success, Mr Baxter says. The message a decade or more ago was that Australia offered consistent and good-value wines at a modest price point, but “that got us into a heap of trouble,” he says, because that was also the characteristic of most other producing nations. Only when Australian production was characterised as being more individual and by its great varieties did it start to become truly successful around the world. This plays to the strengths of a winery such as Punt Road, which can offer consistently high-quality but also consistently new and surprising products to an audience thirsty for novelty within a set style range. “We end up with brand enhancement that we would not have had otherwise.” Mr Baxter is keen to set the company as far as possible from what might be termed ‘critter’ ranges, all those indifferent wines that feature Australian animals on the label (perhaps the grossest example being a box wine available in southeast Asia branded ‘Kiss My Kangaroo’).

The high Aussie dollar had a depressive effect on export markets for a while, but Mr Baxter says, “they got used to it – people started saying that if they want these wines on their lists, that’s what it costs.” China, especially, is becoming less price sensitive and more attuned to quality. “Five or ten years ago in China you had people calling constantly asking what we have for a dollar a bottle – that was the market, that was all they were used to paying in China. Now the middle class is moving up, travelling more and they are not happy with what is on offer domestically.” Despite the high dollar, “we still present really good value for individual wines.” Instead, it’s the bulk-wine producers that have suffered with the high dollar against other producers such as Chile where labour costs are much lower.

Mr Baxter is quick to praise the Victorian state authorities and their promotion of exports. There are 21 wineries in the Yarra Valley, all doing different things, and pushing them overseas is made immensely easier when the department is prepared to help out with travel costs and providing the authorisation paperwork that is increasingly required (especially in the Far East) to certify that the company’s products are genuine. The support is not only financial but also moral and has been invaluable to Punt Road in recent years, he says.

The fate of the company’s cider, conversely, is under a cloud and Mr Baxter fears for the future of craft-made ‘real’ products such as the Napoleone & Co brand. Those behind the lobby for RTD (ready-to-drink) mixed drinks, or mass-produced imported sugar-and-concentrate ‘ciders’ want the craft brands to be taxed more, in line with their products. Mr Baxter says the definition of cider needs to be clarified and the craft end of this market deserves to be preserved. If the tax is equalised (at a threatened 95 per cent compared to the current 29 per cent), he does not believe it would be feasible to continue production of these boutique, methode traditionelle thirst-quenchers.

That aside, one would be tempted to suggest the future for Punt Road Wines is rosé – sorry, rosy. The company’s winemakers love to improve and innovate – standing still is anathema in this end of the market – but also to remain loyal to each of the brands and their values. It’s not about trends in taste but about consistency of style within the brand while offering new ideas. As Jon Baxter says, “never be fashionable – but always be stylish. Style never goes out of fashion.”

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December 19, 2018, 5:14 AM AEDT