The Artisans of Australian Tasting, hitting London in September, is all about some of the world’s most exciting wineries and winemakers coming together to share wines and stories with the UK wine trade’s brightest and best. This is an unmissable opportunity to meet a generation of Australian winemakers experimenting with Mediterranean varieties like Fiano, Vermentino, Nero d'Avola and Montepulciano. These varieties might be relatively new to Australia – and almost unheard of beyond their native land - but this crew of passionate innovators is finding new homes for them. They are the group we at Wine Australia have dubbed ‘The Alternatives’.
The alternatives – ‘kick out the jam’
During the Great Australian Wine Boom of the ‘80s and ’90s when Australian wines were met with epithets such as ‘Sunshine in a Bottle’, big, jammy, over-extracted wines were an Aussie norm. Often they were the product of traditional European varieties, some grown on the edge of a dessert, and were slick, crowd-pleasing industrial wines. If Stock, Aitken and Waterman had made wines, this is what they would have over-produced. Sure, the S.A.W. tunes from Kylie, Samantha Fox, Bananarama and Kim Wilde are fun, good for a few minutes of pure pop pleasure but did they have any lasting impact, character or artistic value? No chance. It took an alternative music movement to dislodge such pretenders from the charts. Musicians from Seattle to London changed and expanded the notion of what pop music could be; Nirvana, Blur, Sonic Youth, The Prodigy and countless other acts made the world a better sounding, more characterful and satisfying place to be. And just like those (r)evolutionaries, there’s a movement in the Australian wine community that’s seeking to ditch the over-produced and the over-extracted. They are forgetting about trying to make varieties work in places they just aren’t suitable for. They’re ripping up The Man’s rule book and grubbing up old, exhausted vines. They’re kicking out the jams.
In bloom - a new lease of Australian wine life
Australian wine regions like the Riverland, Murray Darling and Langhorne Creek have long been maligned as nothing more than workhorses. Even when delicious wines were made in these regions, the vast majority of winemakers were too ashamed to put the regions on their labels. But a new breed of grape growers and winemakers has been keen to challenge this perception. They have set about sourcing varieties better suited to these regions than Shiraz, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. While Australia’s strict quarantine laws made this process a slow one, eventually varieties like Nero d’Avola, Vermentino, Graciano and Fiano are now ready to change the way people think about Australian wines. And it isn’t just these falsely maligned regions that have taken up these new varieties. Grape growers like the Chalmers family have spread the gospel through their vine nurseries and vineyards in the Murray Darling and Heathcote. Their research and trials backed up thoughts that Australia’s climate and unique terroirs would make ideal new homes for these varieties. Even the more conservative regions like the Adelaide Hills have been swept up in the enthusiasm for ‘The Alternatives’. These are varietals that are making wines with freshness, crunchy natural acidity and a vibrancy most people don’t expect from Australian wines. The time has come to let ‘em up on the stand. And let ‘em kick out the jam.
Con-Greg grew up in the Riverland, so he knows the fine wine reputation (or lack thereof) of the region better than most. It’s the largest wine region in Australia, filling bulk wine tankers and wine casks as far as the eye can see. Exciting small batch wines from emerging varietals? From the largest wine-growing region in Australia? Vermentino made about as far from an island or an ocean as you can get? As little as five years ago people would have told you you were crazy to make such absurd suggestions. Hell, some still do. But once you pop the top and taste the brilliance of his wines you’ll wonder why no one else thought of doing it sooner...
Kim Chalmers began her career in music composition but returned to her families’ viticultural roots in 2005. In 2006, Kim trained with Al Gore as a Climate Project presenter and continues to be involved in working to educate and prepare Australian winegrowers for climate change through alternative varieties and sustainable practices. Cue mic and jaw drop. And if that wasn’t enough, she’s a brilliant composer too. Kim picks up the tale, ‘…what I am really passionate about is writing/designing/crafting music. The architecture of the music. I’m not one for pretty melodies… This translates to my love of wine. I love structured wines with layers and not too much sweetness or pretty fruit… Salty, mineral, herbal, graphite etc. Perhaps this is why I love Italian varieties as they tend to have more structure and savouriness about them. My most recent music composition project was a commission from legendary curator Robyn Archer for the Centenary of Canberra. A percussion and contemporary dance work called ‘Conflux in 2013.’ And the wines are delicious too. Oh, the humanity!
Adelina is a boutique winery/vineyard nestled in the Springfarm Valley between Wendouree and the Aberfeldy vineyards, just south of the township of Clare. You’d think if your vineyard was next door to two of the great vineyards in Australia you’d be pretty happy with your lot in life. And Jennie and Col are, but they are also restlessly creative, seeking out new challenges and experiences. The search led them to the Adelaide Hills; a hub of creativity and boundary-pushing grape growing and winemaking. Arneis is made in an aperitif style while the Nebbiolo comes in three forms, an ultra-dry and textural rose and two dry reds. One probably the best value Nebbiolo Australia has produced, it was described by Max Allen like this, ‘…give it heaps of air and let all the ethereal aromas of dried crushed bush herbs and macerated hedgerow berries emerge; let the fine, dusty tannins settle in layers across your tongue. I think it’s a wonderful wine. And I suspect I’m not alone.’
Tom and David Blows could have taken the easy road. They could have planted their amazing sites in the Adelaide Hills with varieties that have a solid track record in the region - Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Shiraz. But instead they rebelled against the prevailing trends, realizing the potential for alternative varieties in the Adelaide Hills. They meticulously identified sites for their vineyards in the Springhill & Springdale areas of the region. They planted varieties that they believed could change the way people thought about the region and Australian wine. Now varieties like Grüner Veltliner are helping define the new regional paradigm. Rebels with a cause. Rebels making a change for good.
Lucy and Rebecca Willson
Sometimes a region needs a shakeup. Langhorne Creek had been growing high quality grapes for well over a hundred years. These grapes were making delicious wine that was lauded around the world. But did anyone know this wine came from Langhorne Creek? Nope. It’s hard to know if the label doesn’t mention it! Enter Lucy and Rebecca Willson, sisters who are the first to run an Australian winery. They’re damn proud of their region and the wines that it makes. And they’re not afraid to let people know, dragging this underdog kicking and screaming into the spotlight. They’ve also been instrumental in the rise of alternative varieties in Langhorne Creek, perfectly suited to the climate influenced by the moderating effects from its proximity to Lake Alexandrina and the Southern Ocean.
Saperavi, Petite Syrah and Tannat in the Barossa? Jaysen Collins isn’t your typical Barossa Australian wine producer. Whilst he was born in the Barossa it wasn’t into a winemaking family and his award-winning winery, Massena, has been something he has had to build from the ground up. He is helping to define the 'New Barossa' with exciting expressions of these new arrivals to a classic region. An inquiring mind, the desire to know why and to see what happens if, is common in this clutch of winemakers and Jaysen is no exception. In the winery nature is left to run its course as much as possible and interventions such as the addition of cultured yeasts, tannins or acidifying agents are not used. 'You're always evolving over time... That's what any passion is about... Every year there are new vineyards, new fermentation techniques, different blends. '
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