If one had to choose a single adjective to describe the Australian wine scene over the past few years, then it would have to be ‘evolution’. No matter which perspective you look at the modern Australian wine industry from - that of the grower, the winemaker or the consumer – positive evolution is everywhere. These changes are manifesting themselves in the emergence of exciting new wine regions, such as Tasmania and Mornington Peninsula, boundary pushing winemakers as showcased at the Artisans of Australian Wine tasting, and even new wine styles, including ‘natural wines’ and ‘skin contact wines’.
Nowhere, however, is this pace of change more evident than when it comes to grape varieties. At present, there are more than one hundred commercially planted grape varieties in Australia, and while production is still dominated by the likes of Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Semillon, there’s been a recent surge of interest in the so-called ‘alternative varieties’.
In our latest story of Australian wine, we’ll look at some of these new varieties, where they are being grown and how they are contributing to the thrillingly vibrant scene that is modern Australian wine.
Alternative Australian varieties: The ones to watch…
- Assyrtiko – is a white grape that is closely associated with the Greek island of Santorini where it produces everything from vibrant, fresh-tasting dry wines to syrupy desert styles. Its capacity to retain its acidity and produce top-quality wines even in the face of intense heat has meant it has the potential to attract many Australian winemakers. The first of these is Clare Valley legend, Jim Barry, who first fell for the grape while holidaying in Greece in 2006. As consumers look for fresher, cleaner Australian whites that will drink well as either solo sippers or with food, Assyrtiko could well be a variety that we will see more of in the future.
- Nero d’Avola – with its origins either in Sicily or Calabria depending on which wine book you read, this is a southern Italian classic which has seen a resurgence of interest around the world. Again, its ability to withstand heat and create wines of generous, well-balanced flavours that retain their acidity have been key factors in attracting Australian vine growers to it. As well as being climatically well-suited to Australia, Nero d’Avola’s other great advantage is its versatility. Depending on where it’s planted and the desires of the winemaker, Nero d’Avola can make anything from a heady, cherry and berry red that’s capable of ageing, through to a fresh, strawberry and raspberry tinted rosé.
- Gruner Veltliner – one of those vines that is synonymous with a single country – in this case Austria – Gruner Veltliner is now finding favour in Australia. At a recent tasting in the cool (in both senses of the word) Adelaide Hills, a number of examples of Gruner Veltliners which combined freshness and minerality with admirable depth and fruit character were on show. When the winemakers were asked about their decision to plant this high quality yet not especially commercial grape, their answer was refreshingly simple, ‘It’s the right variety for the Adelaide Hills.’ You can’t really argue with that sort of logic...
- Tempranillo – Spain’s finest red grape variety, with its love of heat, intrinsic quality, versatility and willingness to partner with other Australian varieties such as Grenache, this is a vine that was bound to find its way to Australia. With well over 200 producers now growing Tempranillo – including names such as Tim Adams, Gemtree, Brown Brothers and Brooklands – it’s a grape that has found favour from the Canberra District to the McLaren Vale. Warm region Australian Tempranillo’s tend to be powerful, saturated, blackberry and spice driven wines that despite their fulsome size retain a balancing acidity. In cool climate regions, such as the Adelaide Hills, pioneers like Nepenthe produce a Tempranillo that is notably more elegant, fresher and extremely food-friendly.
- Vermentino – Corsica’s most important white grape is also found on Sardinia and on Italy’s Tuscan coast in and around the relatively new DOCG of Vermentino di Gallura, Vermentino is a grape with huge potential in Australia. During its short history in Australia, Vermentino has found particular favour in the King Valley and with warmer climate producers including Yalumba, Chalmers and Oliver’s Taranga. In terms of characteristics, Australian Vermentino has the ability to produce wines that are aromatic with good acidity – even in the warmest of vintages – and tones that range from pears and melons to tropical fruits with hints of spice.
- Touriga Nacional – When it comes to thriving when the heat is on, Touriga Nacional is up there with Grenache. Accordingly, it is being given a warm welcome in Australia in areas as diverse as South Australia, Victoria (Bendigo, Goulburn Valley and Rutherglen) and New South Wales (Hunter Valley, Mudgee and Canberra District). The wines produced are typically well-coloured, rich and powerful and with good balance. The future for Touriga Nacional in Australia looks bright, both as a varietal wine and when blended (as in Portugal) with Tempranillo as in S C Pannell’s superb McLaren Vale Tempranillo/Touriga
- Fiano – Another Italian vine that’s doing well in Australia, Fiano has reputation for creating full flavoured aromatic wines with notes of honey, nuts and spices. With its small berries and low yields, it has a natural tendency toward quality and premium production. It is perhaps unsurprising then that Coriole’s Fiano from the McLaren Vale is an excellent example of what this intriguing Italian variety can do in the right Australian hands.
- Nebbiolo – given the often-breath-taking quality of Nebbiolo, it was only a matter of time before this fickle beauty came to Australia. In Nebbiolo’s case it’s also arguable that the immense challenge associated with producing it was one that was too tempting for Australia’s winemakers to resist. This was certainly the case for Luke Lambert, one of Australian wine’s most pioneering young winemakers, even though he confesses it is the hardest grape to work with and requires attention every step of the way. As is its wont, Nebbiolo in Australia is picky (to say the least) about where it is planted and microsites seem to be key. Success has already come from a wide range of regions, including The Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills, McLaren Vale and the Clare Valley. As elsewhere in the world, Australian Nebbiolo comes in a variety of guises; but the ‘tar and roses’ nose is a common theme, as are high tannins and acidity. Like its noble cousin, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo has real potential in Australia; the keys to its success will be getting enough winemakers to take up the task and in getting consumers to love this hugely idiosyncratic variety.
Alternative Australian varieties: Reasons behind the rise
So, what’s driving this rise of alternative varieties in Australia? There’s no simple answer, but one of the major drivers is undoubtedly climate change. With many of Australia’s classic wine regions becoming warmer and drier and with growing seasons becoming shorter, quality-conscious winemakers have looked to vines that are suited to the new growing environment. Add to this the industry’s commitment to sustainable viticulture and vines that need less water, which many of the ones mentioned above do, and you have compelling reasons for vine change.
There’s also a commercial imperative. In the ‘80s and ‘90s Australian Chardonnay and Shiraz were the breath of fresh air that the doctor ordered. Now, in a global market with wine producing nations ranging from Argentina to Zimbabwe, Australia needs to find another USP and unusual, high-quality new wines are just the thing to inspire a new generation of wine lovers.
Of course, it’s not simply about sales. Australian winemakers have always had a pioneering spirit and with many routinely plying their trade across the world these days, so influences and inspiration from other regions is continuing to come thick and fast.
Ultimately the rise of these new, alternative varieties can only be a good thing for Australian wine. Not only will they help off-set the effects of climate change, but they will keep the industry vibrant and give consumers an even greater wealth of extraordinary Australian wines to enjoy, now and into the future.
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