Image of a vineyard in the Riverland

Alternative varieties in Australian wine

You ain't see nothing yet
Image of a vineyard in the Riverland

In advance of  Wine Australia’s Alternative Varieties Tasting in London later this month The Wine Detective, Sarah Ahmed, reflects on Australia’s emerging grape varieties and shares her thoughts on what to look out for at this exciting event.

Alternative Varieties: Buzzing With Excitement

An eyebrow-raising moment - a new discovery – is almost guaranteed at Australian wine tastings these days. A steady stream of cool climate, single site, natural and alternative varietal wines are challenging each and every stereotype about Australian wine. 

Having judged at last November’s Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show (AAVWS), I’ve seen what is in the pipeline for the country’s emerging varieties. Take it from me, the UK has only seen the tip of the iceberg. A jaw-dropping 102 different grape varieties were represented. Even my fellow Australian judges seemed stunned by their first encounter with Picpoul (Coriole), Mencia (Oliver’s Taranga) and Assyrtiko (Jim Barry), while few had heard of Georgia’s Shavkapito. Nominated by Cape Jaffa’s Anna Hooper, it is the first variety to benefit from AAVWS’ sponsorship program, which finances the importation of new and emerging varieties to Australia.

History Will Teach Us Something

Make no mistake, there is a great appetite to explore alternative varieties Down Under. The burning question is what will succeed and where? History is instructive, or more specifically, Australia’s aged vines are instructive. Take Turkey Flat’s oldest Shiraz, the sole survivor of 72 original varieties planted in 1847. For owner Christie Schultz, ‘adaptability to site has been a major factor in Shiraz’s survival in the Barossa Valley, particularly our vineyard’. Working with Old Garden vineyard (planted in 1853), home to the world’s oldest Mourvèdre, fellow Barossan Dean Hewitson is ‘convinced that the symbiosis of Mourvèdre in this exact location has allowed the vineyard to survive’.

This symbiosis is much easier to predict and manage thanks to modern viticultural prowess. Better clonal material and site analysis have enabled pioneers from Victoria’s King Valley to improve on the first wave of Italian varietal wines which emerged in the 1980s. For example; Pizzini now has several Sangiovese clones, but only one clone – the grosso clone - was available when Joel Pizzini’s father planted it in the mid-eighties. It ‘was focused on production,’ he says. Similarly, when Luke Lambert started making Nebbiolo, the only vineyard he could find was in Heathcote, where the grapes were ready to harvest in February or March. Nowadays, his nuanced Nebbiolo comes from Yarra Valley vines which he head-grafted over to the Italian variety in search of the ‘extended hang-time [he harvests in early May] that is essential for building Nebbiolo flavour and tannin without sacrificing acid’. No wonder Adelaide Hills’ cool climes have also become a go-to region for accomplished examples such as Alpha Box & Dice Fog or S.C. Pannell’s Nebbiolo

Right Vine, Right Place

As for the latest wave of alternative varieties to hit Australia, with quality not quantity in mind, the focus is on fitting the grape, rootstock and clone to the site and the desired wine style.  Check out the varietal data sheets on the nursery page of the Chalmers family’s website - a handy guide to the many cutting-edge Italian grapes they champion and you’ll see what I mean. For Matthew Jukes, whose annual selection of 100 Best Australian Wines mirrors the growth of emerging varieties, ‘clever, practised and flavour-savvy, Australians have an understanding of what they can do before they do it, then they are doing it’.  It’s why, he adds, Jim Barry’s Assyrtiko, Australia’s one and only example of the Greek grape, ‘is that good so quickly’.  The second vintage was among Jukes’ 100 Best this year.

Reflecting on his decision to import Italian varieties, ‘especially southern Italian grapes’, which are well adapted to heat, acclaimed Murray-Darling nurseryman Bruce Chalmers told me, we knew that we had varieties not suited to where they were grown and we knew that the climate was changing’. By 2000, Chalmers had imported over 70 Italian grapes, three of which – my front runners Fiano, Aglianico and Nero d’Avola – have been planted by Jeffrey Grosset and by Stephanie Toole of Mount Horrocks to help hedge against climate change. When I visited them in 2008, Grosset explained that to avoid overstressed vines he had incurred an extra A$150,000 costs in shoot and fruit-thinning in the drought year of 2007, which ‘is not sustainable every year’.  Unsurprisingly, these grapes are thriving in warm, dry regions, especially McLaren Vale and the Riverland and Murray-Darling regions. 

Campania’s Fiano and Aglianico, which I’ve dubbed ‘the Neo-politans’, Sicily’s Nero d’Avola and Vermentino, Sardinia’s leading white grape, are most definitely flavours of the month. Based on strength in numbers, range and consistency at the AAVWS, I reckon Fiano, Nero d’Avola and Aglianico have what it takes to cross over into the mainstream. Valued, says Toole, for its high acidity, Nero d’Avola comes into its own in a smashable style with fruit so joyous it would make a Sicilian weep. Coriole’s Nero d’Avola, which won best wine of show at AAVWS 2016, is a case in point. The International Judge’s Award (chosen by me) went to Fighting Gully Road Aglianico 2014 from Alpine Valleys, two vintages of which have now impressed for their savoury, structured palate and complex perfume of spice, dried herbs and orange peel. With brooding fruit and tannins which are more textural than Shiraz, but typically less assertive than Italy’s Aglianico del Vulture or Taurasi, Justin Fairweather of Alpha Box & Dice says of his chunkier McLaren Vale Aglianico, ‘it is the new steak wine’.

Likewise, Fiano and Vermentino from the show’s class for fuller-bodied, textural, luscious styles - as opposed to young, fresh, aromatic styles - offer gastronomic potential. An early release of Vermentino from the Chalmers, who make an incredibly diverse, uniformly excellent, envelope-pushing range of Italian varietal wines from Murray-Darling and Heathcote, was even listed at the famed River Café in London. For whites, Fiano is my hot tip and, according to leading Riverland grower Ashley Ratcliff of Ricca Terra Farms, Yalumba’s former Chief Viticulturist, ‘it is growing - we now have growers whom we contract because demand is bigger than supply’. At AAVWS, La Prova Fiano 2015 (Adelaide Hills) shone in a Riedel Veritas oaked Chardonnay glass, while Best White in Show winner Saltram’s Winemakers Selection Fiano 2016 (Barossa Valley) demonstrated how climatically ‘plastic’ this popular, premium grape can be.

For Ratcliff, Mediterranean varieties offer a chance for regions like the Riverland and Murray-Darling - traditional engine rooms of high volume ‘safe’ brands - to re-invent themselves. There’s a increasing roll call of acclaimed winemakers making game-changing premium wines from his and the Chalmers’ alternative grapes. They include Bill Downie, Bellwether’s Sue Bell, Brad Hickey, Brad Wehr, Kate Goodman, de Bortoli’s Andrew Bretherton and Vinterloper’s David Bowley. Local winemakers are raising the stakes too; like Elizabeth Marwood who works for Qualia - a large contract winemaking facility in Murray Darling - and who now makes Fiano and Aglianico under her own l’enologa brand. 

Ratcliff, himself now making wines, harbours an ambition to produce a $100 Riverland red from a unique patch of dirt – a hectare of terra rossa - which he has planted to Nero d’Avola, Montepulciano – ‘also in strong demand’, Aglianico and Lagrein.  And this is not the only glimpse of the future that he affords me: in July he releases two wines from Portuguese grapes, Tinta Barroca and Arinto.  Given Arinto – for me Portugal’s Riesling – flourishes from north to south in its country of origin, I’m not surprised to hear Ratcliff is ‘very impressed by its huge potential’. Indeed, compared to Eden Valley Riesling by his winemaker, David Franz, Peter Lehmann’s son, Ratcliff reports it ‘really changed Franz’s mind about the Riverland’. Then there’s Ricca Terra’s Slankamenka Bela, a Balkans’ grape, which artisanal Margaret River-based producer, Amato Vino, have made into a James Halliday 94-point wine. Like I said, you ain’t seen nothing yet...

Alternative Varieties Tasting in London

Experience the diversity of Australian wine at the Alternative Varieties free-pour tasting on 28 June at Australia House in London. The event showcases over 100 wines; from Mediterranean varieties to more unusual varieties like Assyrtiko and Teroldego as well as rare Australian Saperavi. Trade and press, sign up here.

Sarah Ahmed

Sarah Ahmed, aka The Wine Detective, is a London-based wine writer, educator and judge. Sarah started her wine career at Oddbins in 2000 and since 2005 she has been writing for a number of publications and her own website

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