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, 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.

John Germov receives funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) on alcohol and harm minimisation. He also collaborates with wine companies on historical sociological research while also publishing critical wine studies scholarship independent of industry. John is the current Vice-President of the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (DASSH).

Julie McIntyre’s book First Vintage: Wine in Colonial New South Wales (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2012) was published with support from the wine industry. She collaborates with wine companies on historical sociological research while also publishing critical wine studies scholarship independent of industry.

The Conversation

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