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The rise of Australia as a wine nation

Think of alcohol in Australian life and you probably think of beer: a “hard-earned thirst” and all that. Yet our national drinking taste is undergoing a dramatic change. Not only are we drinking less overall…

Wine is increasingly becoming the drink of choice for Australians. isante_magazine

Think of alcohol in Australian life and you probably think of beer: a “hard-earned thirst” and all that.

Yet our national drinking taste is undergoing a dramatic change. Not only are we drinking less overall, but beer no longer dominates the contents of the national glass. Consumption trends now show that wine may soon be our drink of choice in terms of the type of alcohol consumed.

Whereas 50 years ago Australians drank 20 times more beer than wine, the comparison has narrowed to only three times more beer by volume. Beer is lower in alcohol than wine so if we look at pure alcohol rather than total fluid consumed: very little separates the two.

As shown in the graph below, from 1961 to 2011, alcohol consumption overall is lower than thirty years ago. Beer as pure alcohol dropped from 76% to 42% while wine consumption rose from 12% to 37%. Spirits increased from 12% to 20%.

Overall alcohol consumption in Australia. ABS

While the OECD says that: “wine consumption [is] increasing in many traditional beer-drinking countries and vice versa”, the closing of the gap between wine and beer in Australia says something especially intriguing about expressions of national identity.

Changing national tastes and global wine trade

This change in national taste over the past 50 years has been attributed to post-war migration from European wine countries, rising national prosperity, the increased power of women as consumers, and a more technologically sophisticated wine industry that matches its products with customer preference.

The influence of the wine industry is worth noting as Australia has taken more readily to wine-making than wine drinking. It is the world’s fourth largest) wine exporter, but only 12th in per capita consumption.

Unlike the recent preference for wine drinking, the desire to create a successful wine export product – particularly to the UK – can be traced to the early colonisation of Australia. The achievement of this historical ambition has been emphasised with Australia’s status confirmed as the UK’s number one source of wine, ahead of Italy, France and the US. The consequence of this is deeper than it might at first seem.

In global trade, wine commerce has long been a signifier of national economic maturity. UK marketer Hazel Murphy, who first facilitated the flood of Australian wine onto British supermarket shelves, described this from an Old World European perspective: wine export dominance signals a coming of age.

While alcohol is central to Australian culture, drinking beer, wine or spirits is not just an individual activity of daily life, but is also an inherently social one. Sociological research shows a strong link between identity and consumption choices. The consumption of alcohol is not just a matter of individual choice, but also a matter of cultural taste.

While concerns over risky drinking behaviours have focused on how much people drink, what they’re drinking says something significant too about how individuals self-identify with particular social groups, lifestyles, and cultural values. This has implications for the complexity and diversity of national identity.

Wine denotes a cultured, not just cultural, identity. Research shows that the alcohol least likely to be chosen by Australian binge drinkers is light beer, followed by bottled or fortified wine. This has echoes of European folklore about national lifestyles which linked wine with responsible drinking.

Beer was increasingly the drink of the working classes from the 1860s Cambridge Brewing Co.

In the 1800s, residents of European wine countries - regardless of social class - were thought to be better behaved (more civilised even) than those who took their alcohol brewed or distilled. This association between wine and civilised behaviour held surprising influence among the ruling class in colonial Australia who looked to Europe as well as Britain to fashion their cultural environment.

A ‘civilising drink’?

Wine was often promoted as a “civilising drink”, and in the context of temperance movements, its consumption was imbued with notions of self-restraint in contrast to consumption of spirits and beer. A rise in binge drinking during the 1850s gold rushes led to attempts to legislate for greater production of cheap wine to encourage sobriety among working men.

Unsurprisingly, in the decades after this, the socially prevalent British-derived labourers of colonial Australia refused to be transformed into wine bibbers. Their drink was beer, ale, and to a lesser extent, rum.

By 1901, ten times more beer than wine or spirits was consumed in NSW alone. By the 1950s beer had become deeply entrenched in popular notions of “Australianness”. This was emphasised in the 1962 “Scale of Australianism”, a bizarre “psychological test” devised to gauge the understanding of “New Australians” as to how to assimilate into contemporary Australian culture.

The test expected respondents to agree with the statement that “a good way for a man to spend his spare time is with a group of friends round a keg of beer” and disagree that “wine is a good drink to offer to a friend who just drops in for a visit”.

This resistance to wine drinking reflected white Australian fears that a changing way of life would weaken the nation: fears that have proven to be unfounded. It is in an environment of broader social acceptance of diversity in gender, class and cultural identities that Australians have turned to wine.

There is no longer a single national alcohol of choice. Cultural tastes have broadened. Let’s drink to that.

Join the conversation

11 Comments sorted by

  1. Phil Dolan

    Viticulturist

    A good news story.

    I love a beer too, especially after wood splitting, but the elegance of wine over beer has inspired much writing.

    Consider that from the day the beer making starts, it's in the bottle 45 days later. To be crude, it's flavoured water.

    And then the magic of, as Richard Smart says, changing sunlight into wine.

    Cheers.

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    1. David Martin

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Phil Dolan

      Oh Please! As a fanatical brewer I really must stand up for my beloved beer! Flavored water indeed. That's not being crude.. that's being rude.

      A well made beer is the equal in complexity, flavour and elegance to any well made wine. Likewise I rate goon and megaswill as equally bad.

      Actually, we brewers have an ever wider palette of flavours to play with as we have hundreds of varieties malts and hops that we can combine along with dozens of strains of yeast to produce a huge array of flavours…

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    2. Phil Dolan

      Viticulturist

      In reply to David Martin

      I love the rise of micro breweries and I do appreciate the complexity of good beer making.

      But being a grape grower and not a winemaker (I do play with that though) I see the wine being made in the vineyard. Totally different.

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    3. David Martin

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Phil Dolan

      Totally different. But not superior.

      I make pretty much everything - beer, cider, mead, fruit wine. They all have their complexities and are all fantastic products when done well.

      Historically, people brewed whatever was available. if they grew grain, they made beer, if they had grapes they made wine, if they grew apples they made cider and so on. Drinking cultures reflected the local produce. We inherited our drinking culture from the UK which has a predominantly beer culture and so did we.As…

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  2. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    I don't know that beer was always seen as some sort of curse. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beer_Street_and_Gin_Lane shows that beer was seen as a more civilised tipple than spirits, as well as a bastion of Anglo-Saxonism against the creeping influence of the Continentals. This may also be part of the old image of (male) wine drinkers as effete and remote from the 'salt of the earth'.

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  3. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    " Yet our national drinking taste is undergoing a dramatic change. Not only are we drinking less overall, but beer no longer dominates the contents of the national glass. Consumption trends now show that wine may soon be our drink of choice in terms of the type of alcohol consumed.

    Whereas 50 years ago Australians drank 20 times more beer than wine, the comparison has narrowed to only three times more beer by volume. Beer is lower in alcohol than wine so if we look at pure alcohol rather than…

    Read more
  4. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    A major factor is probably the universal excrementality of most commercial beers worldwide, Guiness excepted - VB is nigh on undrinkable unless you have no taste buds and/or a cast iron gut. Don't get me wrong, I like beer. I drink craft and boutique beers all over Australia. But if you're in need of a drink to match food, mood and/or company, a suitable variety of wine is generally easier to find and more reliably palatable than commercial beers.

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    1. Mat Hardy

      Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      These things go in cycles though. The rise of craft beer is a result of the execrable product that Australia put up with for decades. Just like the boom in wine choice was a reaction to the decades of "Riesling or Moselle?". Chardonnay had its day, now we have monochromatic NZ Sauv Blanc. The next wave might be Pinot Grigio (n front of me right now), Sangiovese etc etc.

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    2. Phil Dolan

      Viticulturist

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      Mat, look for some good Riesling. Things have changed. We planted Riesling when they made it illegal to call it Riesling unless it was. People are surprised.

      And Chardonnay should never have been grown outside of a cool climate.

      Pinot gris has taken off and is no longer in the alternative variety show.

      Watch out for Dornfelder. A very easy drinking summer red with a striking colour as the juice is already red. Normally the colour is picked up from the skins. Our first vintage will be ready in December.

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  5. Ron Tishler

    Self Employed

    A big factor in the change from wine to beer is also driven by the change in where we drink and with whom we drink.We drink at home and in restaurants over a meal or with at least a nibble with partners,friends and in front of our children. The huge long suburban hotel bars of my youth with large drinking groups or shouts are largely deserted at knock off time and the archetypal Aussie male drives home sober to drink discount packaged beer purchased from one of the two companies that that dominate grocery and petrol sales. Pub drinking has also become much more expensive with a decent session costing a large slice of the weekly take home pay of someone on the minimum wage, the working poor can no longer afford to be habitual pub patrons. Mind you the change to wine is not universally good with incredible cheap cask wine being the preferred drink of most problem drinkers.

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