Wine is inextricably linked to the place where the grapes were grown.
Until it isn’t
Rawson’s Retreat is a South East Australian brand, named - or so the marketing material claims - after the house Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold built for his family at the original Penfold’s Magill vineyards near Adelaide. It was launched in 1995 to replace the lowest rung on Penfold’s range-ladder that was removed by the rise in price of Koonunga Hill, its previous entry-level wine. The connection was clearly established by the presence of the brand’s name and logo on the label. Most online retailers and wine lists describe it as Penfold’s Rawson’s Retreat.
But that’s not how Treasury Wine Estates now sees it. Unlike Koonunga Hill, the recently-launched Napa Cabernet, the Spirited Wine with Baijiu and a fortified wine inelegantly described as ‘Masstige Tawny Non Vintage’, Rawson’s Retreat name features nowhere among the 47 products on the ‘our wines’ page of penfolds.com. Recent pack shots reveal a label that omits the logo. It’s all very like removing the ‘in a relationship’ and family pics from a Facebook profile.
But Rawson’s Retreat has not only been ejected from the brand to which it was born. It has also changed nationality. In a reaction to the imposition by China of 200% tariffs on Australian wine, Rawson’s has - as the Chinese website Vino Joy reported - become South African. Given the existence of a free trade agreement between China and Chile, Treasury might have been expected to look there for the wine that would fill the Rawson’s bottles. But, as a China Briefing article pointed out in 2019 “China has been South Africa’s largest trading partner for the past nine years”. Good Cape wine can be bought at attractive prices, and - though I’m not sure whether this was a factor - this country’s colonial history gives it far more in common with Australia than would be the case for Chile.
Will Chinese customers be bothered about this transformation?
Or will they take it in their stride as US wine drinkers did in the 1990s when Mondavi, Mark West and a number of other US brands imported French wine to sell under their own labels in reaction to demand exceeding domestic supply? At the time, purists like me cried ‘foul’ at the smallness of the print in which the words ‘Languedoc Region’ appeared on labels, but little fuss was made by US professionals or media. After a year or so, as new California vineyards came on stream, the stream of imported wine slowed and everyone forgot it had happened.
New Zealand briefly went through a similar experience at around the same time, after a particularly short harvest. Chilean wine was shipped in for local consumption at the lower end of the price scale in order to protect producers’ ability to ship authentic Marlborough Sauvignon to export markets. This too is now a footnote of history.
Whether or not any of these stories this matter depends entirely on the philosophical views of the person considering them. TWE’s decision will potentially be good for its shareholders and Chinese distributors, and for consumers who will be able to buy a wine made in the Rawson’s style at an affordable price. It will also benefit the South Africans who grew the grapes and made the wine and, I suppose, the Australian economy, thanks to the taxes TWE will pay on any profit they make.
Will it hurt the Rawson’s Retreat or, more significantly, Penfold’s brands?
Lindemans certainly suffered when it became a multi-country brand, but I suspect that any damage to Rawson’s may not have much impact on Penfold’s.
Time will tell.