In this week’s instalment of citizen journalism, wine writer and National Liquor News wine judge, Mike Bennie, puts Dan Murphy’s $1.99 cleanskin wine specials, extensively advertised from last week, through their paces with mixed results.

“Typically wine tasting involves varying degrees of pleasure, anticipation, intellect, observation and guesswork with necessary steely resolve for certain categories of the wine market that are often left alone by wine writer types. Cleanskin wines are notably absent from most wine media forums, the task being sometimes unfairly overlooked due to perceptions of inferior quality or lack of brand recognition.

Undoubtedly the provenance of many of these wines is best left unstated – few come from winemakers who wish to put their names on the bottles or attribute the work to themselves. This doesn’t mean standards aren’t high, by all means dropping a label and marketing works in the favour of the consumer, but anonymous winemaking does pose a certain risk for the drinker – the accountability and yardsticks are out the window.

And thus we come to Dan Murphy’s $1.99 cleanskin wines. An industry source has said that the wines are made in surprisingly small runs, considering the opportunity, with numbers in the hundreds of thousands of bottles and not cases. It’s an opportunistic grab of glut and financial crisis grape and wine pricing, and the resulting wines have been anecdotally and observationally popular (I visited 5 stores where most wines were sold out on the floor and the staff I spoke with cited often hysterical enthusiasm upon release or with advertising).

Pricing must play the most important role with the Dan Murphy $1.99 cleanskin range. There can be no assumption that these wines will be miracle working elixirs or pot-of-gold-at-end-of-rainbow kind of products. Hysteria is created by breaking consumer expectation, and to purchase seven standard drinks (or so) for the price of less than half a pint of beer makes for popular sense with consumers. The resulting sales will no doubt be part of a successful cross pollination plan of Dan Murphy’s where hype driven advertising, surrounding this remarkable price point, drives further sales of additional products in-store.

The wines themselves are the WE2 2009 Chardonnay and the WE3 2009 Cabernet Merlot. They are both ‘Product of Australia’ wines, leaving little to identify regionality or style, but that’s not really the point here. Even tasting them for assessment in this forum seems a folly, but my notes read as such:

WE2 2009 Chardonnay (13% alc) – Pleasing aromatics with some colour-by-numbers melon/peach and a whack of sweet, synthetic oak perfume. Some heat too. The palate is a clanging assortment of wine flavours – oak resin, citrus, crunchy green apple, tropical fruit cordial. There is no balance and the wine jangles the nerves with puckering acidity. The finish is stripped, yet up front shows a soft textural approach and mid palate.

The wine was tried both at room temperature and iced down. The chilled wine still shows some of the bracing acidity imbalance, but reverts to a generic ‘refreshing beverage’ of sorts.

WE3 2009 Cabernet Merlot (13% alc) – Bright ruby colour, with immediate sweet alcohol heat in the bouquet. A little bit of friendly leafy and mintiness peeks through in the bouquet; by heavens there is varietal character here! Hint of confectionary aromas, reflected in the sweet, fruit driven flavour profile of the palate. Grainy tannins frame very simple, but very pleasing black berry jube and mocha flavours. Very summery medium palate weight with perky acidity keeping things fresh. Seems less manipulated than the Chardonnay, very good value for the price point.

The remedy for growers and winemakers holding glut stocks in tough times is to find channels to move it. This has become part of a self-perpetuating over supply story in Australia has led to consumer benefit, but wine community woes. If vineyard practices and moderation of large wine producers occurred with greater sustainability in mind, the issue of how cheap wine affects our market wouldn’t arise with quite so much fervour and the resulting radically priced wines. The affordability of wine, however, is not a yardstick for wine community success. Consumer led celebration of very cheap wine is a cheap quick high.

The international perspective of Australian wine is where the greatest issue lies. The great fear is being realised with export numbers down and consumer perception in favoured overseas markets turning away from friendly Australian wine styles. This isn’t a treatise to Australian wine export woes and the rise and rise of competitive markets, this is a realisation that bulk wine has to find a market somewhere, and best let it be on our shores so we can move forward rapidly with reinvigorating our important regional messages about wine.”

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The Shout Team

The leading online news service for Australia's beer, wine, spirits and hospitality industries.

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