Wine tourism in NSW: sales of boutique drops surge as tourists flood small vineyards

It was a case of never on a Saturday at Artemis Wines in respect to wood-fired pizza. But after a surge in visitors, winemaker Mark Balog warmed to the idea that he could earn an extra crust by serving pizzas to these hungry masses who started turning up at his cellar door on Saturdays as well as Sundays.

Okay. So Artemis at Mittagong in the Southern Highlands is rather small beer (make that wine) compared to the behemoth Hunter Valley wineries with the lot. But this humble pizza (perfect with a 2018 pinot) index is indicative of a wine tourism-led sales boom in boutique wineries.

The growth of intrastate wine tourism close to major cities, due largely it seems to people forced to spend their leisure travel closer to home, is a cause of much cheer for smaller producers such as Artemis, an acclaimed cool climate winery.

The resulting wine sales boom is being driven not only by visitors stocking up on drops at intimate vineyard cellar doors, but also at liquor stores in urban centres. It seems more and more visitors enthused and inspired from their sojourns to vineyards, are actively seeking out the niche wines on their return home.

As a result, for the first time in the more than 25 years since it was founded, Artemis is able to open to visitors on Mondays and Tuesdays, making it a seven-day a week, 11am to 4pm (last tasting at 3.30 pm) operation.

"It's been overwhelming but in a good way," Mark Balog says. "People just want to get out of the city and in doing so they're discovering places they hadn't visited before the pandemic. Our sales have doubled in the past year with the number of visitors also doubling."

Thanks to the pandemic-driven sales increase at Artemis, Balog has also been able to hire an additional two tasting staff and, along with his brother Anton, a partner in the business, they are regularly enlisted to help cook the pizzas and help out with the cellar door tastings.

Artemis is often booked out 10 days in advance for time-limited tastings, with many of the cellar door visitors being daytrippers attracted to the close proximity of the Southern Highlands wineries to Sydney.

"The wine game is bringing a lot of tourists to the Southern Highlands, no doubt about it," Balog says. "The Southern Highlands has been on the wine map for a long time but the past year has definitely given the region a major push."

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Wines produced by smaller labels are selling at almost twice the rate of other wines across BWS and Dan Murphy's outlets since the pandemic began, according to Andrew Shedden, head of fine wine at the Endeavour Group, the big wine retailers' parent company.

He also attributes the increase in sales to Australians embracing wine regions closer to where they live, thanks largely to travel limits imposed by border restrictions and sudden lockdowns. This often translates into smaller vineyards in less touristy regions.

"When these [cellar door] customers return home, they are excited to find bottles from the very winery they just visited at their local Dan Murphy's - and they keep supporting these wineries by continuing to choose to buy their products.

"Another factor that has helped boost significant interest in locally made wine is that more Australians are moving from urban centres to rural areas - including wine regions - thanks to the ability to work remotely."

Meanwhile, back in Mittagong, Mark Balog is getting ready to fire up the pizza oven (and the pinot) for the weekend and now there's the chance to enjoy it with gin or even rum.

That's thanks to the distillery that he and his brother were able to complete during the quieter months of the pandemic and which now complements the winery's growing output of reds and whites. That's the spirit, and the wine and pizza, too.

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