The Australian grape and wine community is well known for its experimental and innovative attitudes towards growing and producing wine.
The Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show (AAVWS) has both encouraged interest in different varieties and showcased new gems. With the next AAVWS to be held in Mildura from 7-10 November, it seems appropriate to gauge what’s happening in this area. While there’s ample conversation to be had over a glass of vino or two about whether these varieties should be called ‘alternative’ or ‘new-to-Australia’ or even ‘emerging’ it’s clear that there is an enormous amount of interest in trying something different. And while viticulturalists and winemakers are the ones leading the way, consumers are willing to try and enjoy new sensations such as Prosecco.
While the vast majority of the wine produced in Australia still comes from a handful of varieties (two-thirds of the 2018 winegrape crush came from 4 varieties) there are more than 130 wine grape varieties grown across Australia, with 120 making up just 11 per cent of the crush (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: 2018 Australian wine grape crush by variety
Source: Wine Australia
A growing number of Australian vignerons and winemakers that are expanding beyond the traditional varieties and including a wide range of alternative varieties in their portfolios. This includes numerous Italian varieties that are now emerging in Australia, such as Prosecco, Sangiovese, Fiano and Vermentino (see Figure 2).
While some emerging varieties are planted to respond to changing consumer preferences, others are experimental to counter some of the predicted future impacts of climate change, and for some winemakers it is an ancestral connection to other winegrowing regions around the world.
Prosecco is the fastest growing of the emerging Italian varieties, with the crush growing from 2500 tonnes in 2015 to just over 7000 tonnes in 2018. This reflects the growth in popularity of Australian Prosecco among Australian wine drinkers. According to IRI Worldwide, the value of Australian Prosecco sales in the domestic off-trade market almost trebled over the past three years. In comparison, sales of Australian Sangiovese over the same period increased by 2 per cent per annum.
Figure 2: Key Italian varieties crushed in Australia, 2018 (tonnes)
Source: Wine Australia
The average purchase price paid for grapes is an indicator of the demand for the grapes. Figure 3 shows the average purchase price paid in 2018 for the Italian varieties covered above and compares them to the average for red and white grapes by broad winegrowing region and in total.
Figure 3: Average wine grape purchase price in 2018 ($ per tonne)
Source: Wine Australia
In the cool/temperate regions, the Italian red varieties Lambrusco, Montepulciano, Nebbiolo and Nero D’Avola achieved higher average prices than the overall red wine grape average price. In the warm regions, only Lambrusco and Montepulciano achieved higher average prices than the red average.
Among the white Italian varieties in the cool/temperate regions, only Fiano achieved a higher average than the overall white average price, while in the warm regions Fiano, Prosecco, and Vermentino exceeded the white average price.
Celebrating alternatives and looking to the future
Most of these Italian varieties will be on show at the AAVWS later this week. The first AAVWS was held in Mildura in November 2001, following the Australian Italian Wine Show that kicked off interest back in 2000.
Emerging varieties are grown across Australia’s wine regions, and researchers and grapegrowers are working together to grow the pool of knowledge about where in the world to look for varieties that might suit the varying regional conditions across the Australian continent from Western Australia’s Margaret River to Queensland’s Granite Belt.
Wine Australia’s Regional Program in Queensland has seen the planting of more than 100 emerging and hybrid varieties – including those with more unfamiliar names such as Viosinho – at a trial vineyard in Stanthorpe to find varieties suited to the region’s high rainfall and humidity.
In a separate initiative, Orange viticulturist Marty Gransden will use his Nuffield Scholarship to hunt for alternative wine grape varieties from countries such as Greece, Croatia, Slovenia and Georgia, seeking both those varieties completely new to Australia and those that might be here on a small scale but not fully explored.
And, with the CSIRO on the case developing new and hybrid varieties specifically suited to Australian conditions you can be sure that ‘alternatives’ will continue to be a growing category.