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Exchanging ideas inspiring a 'fresh' approach to Australian winemaking expertise

Jason Groebe Jeff Grosset and Chen Yu
Jason Groebe, Jeff Grosset and Chen Yu enjoy a laugh at Grosset Wines.

ABC News: Simon Royal

It sounds like the start of a lame dad joke: an Australian, a German and a Chinese winemaker all walk into a bar, or in this case a winery.

Except it is no gag. It is exactly what is unfolding at Jeff Grosset's winery in South Australia's Clare Valley.

"We take on a couple of people every year as assistants during the vintage," Mr Grosset said.

"We get a lot of applications from overseas. It's normally from Europe with people interested in what we do with riesling, so we have Jason from Germany.

"The other one of our people this year is from China … this shows the changing times."

Chen Yu has just finished her degree in oenology and viticulture — in other words, winemaking — at the University of Adelaide.

Like many Chinese people, drinking wine is not something Ms Yu grew up with.

"My family is not a wine-drinking family. I am trying to change that.

"I tell my parents to drink wine but they haven't listened to me yet."

Her family may not be listening but others are.

While the proportion of Chinese people who drink wine is still relatively small, enough have started to cause a different kind of red revolution.

China wine exports overtake United States

The industry's peak body, Wine Australia, said in 2015-16 the Chinese market grew by 51 percent — knocking off the United States as Australia's most valuable wine export destination.

The value of Australia's wine exports to China in March 2017 was $568 million dollars.

"China has a pretty short history in wine, but it is moving so fast."

Its quality, however, is a different issue.

Ms Yu said much of China's product was not to her taste.

"It's very heavy and a bit too much tannin and too astringent for my liking," she said.

"It's not smooth and easy to drink like the wine here."

Ms Yu plans to spend the next few years working in an Australian winery but she likes the idea of one day returning home and setting up her own label.

"I am thinking of it, definitely, and to have my own winery would be good, but I still have so much more to learn."

Wine Australia's latest export report showing the annual total to March 2017.

Supplied: Wine Australia

German winemaker surprised by quality of Clare riesling

Jason Groebe's story could not more different to Chen Yu's.

The 26-year-old's background is steeped in winemaking; his family has been making wine in Germany's Westhofen district for five generations.

It is unsurprising the Groebe family speciality is riesling but, as Mr Groebe said, there was always something to learn from somebody else.

"There's so much that is new here," he said.

"It's so low in alcohol and so pristine and so clear, it's so nice and I never expected it and that's pretty cool."

Mr Grosset said he always learnt from the young winemakers who spent a vintage at his winery.

"It's absolutely a two-way exchange," he said.

"For example, Chen has been telling us about what her family are thinking and what the Chinese are thinking, and I think it makes it a lot easier for us to understand what's happening in China."

Keeping up with shifting popularities

Marketing wine to the world is a tough business.

Grosset Gaia 2014 vintage
The level of Chinese exports of Australian wine have surpassed those to the United States.

ABC News: Simon Royal

There is always a flavour of the moment, and right now in the US, it's New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

Its runaway popularity is largely behind last week's sobering news that the value of New Zealand's wine exports to the United States has just exceeded Australia's.

Mr Grosset said it underscored the importance of an exchange in ideas.

"You've got to keep fresh and open to new ideas," he said.

While Australians might be upset at being clobbered by the Kiwis, the young overseas winemakers suggest Australians embrace a national trait, taking a more laidback approach.

"I know you hate being beaten by New Zealand," Mr Groebe said.

"But competition is good. It lifts everyone's standard."

Ms Yu counsels a pragmatic approach — drink more wine … anything but a sauvignon blanc.

"I used to like it [sauvignon blanc]," she laughed.

"But not so much now … I think it is a bit too simple."