News & Feature

The Taste Revolution: A new crop of Mediterranean varieties are changing Australian wine



Thirty glasses of red wine are lined up on the table in front of me. As I slowly taste my way through them, I write notes and scores on a judging sheet attached to a clipboard. At tables around me other judges are studiously sniffing, swirling, scribbling, spitting. It looks like any other wine competition. But it’s not. The Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show is different. Very different.

The 30 glasses on the table don’t contain shiraz or cabernet or merlot. They contain red wines made from touriga, aglianico, tannat, negroamaro, saperavi—a remarkably diverse array of grapes and flavors and tastes. Earlier in the day I judged a sensational class of nebbiolos. Another panel of judges worked their way through more than 50 tempranillos and a dozen vermentinos. And the class of “other whites” boasted—among others—a few petit mansengs, a schonberger and Australia’s first examples of grüner veltliner and friulano.

Now ten years old, the AAVWS is held each year in Mildura, in the heart of Australia’s inland, irrigated commercial winegrowing district, and I’ve been involved with the show since the beginning (as chief judge for the last five years). In that time, I’ve seen the interest in alternative grape varieties grow from a curiosity, a fringe activity, to a serious part of Australia’s ongoing viticultural development.

Back in 1999, most of the wine producers growing and making alternative grapes were either pioneers with small-scale productions—people like Kathleen Quealy and Kevin McCarthy, playing with pinot grigio on the Mornington Peninsula—or larger wineries like Yalumba, dabbling in viognier. This year, the AAVWS was inundated with 600 entries, including some with production runs in the tens of thousands of cases from large producers such as Foster’s, McGuigan and Yellow Tail.

While the number of different grape varieties grown commercially in Australian vineyards has grown from 75 to 150 in the last ten years, these alternative grapes collectively make up a very small proportion of the national crush. The top ten so-called classic varieties—chardonnay, shiraz, cabernet et al.—still account for over 90 percent of Australia’s annual wine production.

But some of the newcomers are spreading rapidly, already moving from niche players to household names: With close to 7,500 acres of vines in the ground and 30,000 tonnes of grapes picked each vintage, pinot gris, for example—virtually unknown in Australia in 1999—is now the fifth most widely planted white grape in the country, after chardonnay, semillon, sauvignon blanc and riesling.

There are now 250 Australian wineries growing and making tempranillo (I think this will eventually become Australia’s second most important red grape after shiraz); another 250 producing sangiovese and no fewer than 500 making viognier (or blending a little viognier with their shiraz). The hugely popular, globally distributed Jacob’s Creek Classic and Sparkling ranges now feature, respectively, a tempranillo and two sparkling moscatos—Mediterranean wine styles seldom seen in 1999—and senior winemakers like Glenn James from Foster’s have come out in loud support of southern Italian white grapes like fiano and vermentino.

So, why the steady growth of alternative varieties over the last decade?

Louisa Rose is chief winemaker for Yalumba and chair of the AAVWS. She says that interest in new varieties is a natural evolution in Australian wine, and she points out that some of the country’s most popular varieties were once considered exotic alternatives. “It’s important to remember,” she says, “that in the 1960s there were very few chardonnay vines in Australia. Even in 1980, it was being lumped in with the ‘other whites’ in official statistics. Now look at it.”

Winemaker Stephen Pannell, winner of the Best Wine trophy at this year’s AAVWS for his utterly beguiling 2007 Adelaide Hills Nebbiolo, believes that Australia is emerging from a “Francophile period”—a time when Burgundy and Bordeaux were held up as the ultimate expressions of fine wine—into a new era. Producers now embrace and emulate a greater diversity of European wine styles.

“For years, past generations of Australian winemakers were seduced by the French and lulled into the false idea that we live in a country whose climate is like France,” says Pannell. “We were totally obsessed with so-called classic French varieties; we planted them in the most inappropriate places and convinced ourselves that the wines were pretty good. And we struggled with the fact that other countries with climates much more similar to ours could grow and make wine as well.”

Now, though, with a whole new generation of winemakers like Pannell having traveled to Italy, Spain and Provence for vintage —rather than Burgundy, Bordeaux or Champagne, as their fathers did—and with a whole new generation of restaurateurs and sommeliers embracing new-wave Mediterranean food and wine, there is a surge of enthusiasm in less classic grape varieties.

Significantly, in the last three or four years, there has also been a surge of interest in alternative varieties—particularly those from the hot, dry southern Mediterranean regions—among large-scale commercial grape growers because of the changing climate, both physical and economic.

Since the early 2000s, the wine industry has been hammered by a continuing drought, a string of heat wave-shriveled vintages, bushfires, water restrictions (all manifestations of climate change), dwindling exports, the global financial crisis and a chronic oversupply of grapes. Many growers have been forced to take a long, hard look at the sustainability of their vineyards—and that has led them to explore other options, including planting more sensible (i.e., heat- and drought-tolerant) varieties.

Meanwhile, in old, established winegrowing regions such as the Barossa Valley, the small remaining plantings of red grapes such as mataro, carignan and cinsault, long considered second-rate varieties, are now sought-after both for their savory flavors and their suitability to hot, dry growing conditions. And in Rutherglen, in northeast Victoria, winemakers have realized that their old durif and marsanne vines are holding up very well in the changing climate.

Each year at the AAVWS I am allowed to award a trophy—the Chairman’s Wine to Watch—to an exhibit that particularly excites me, that sums up the boldness, newness and adventurous spirit of what’s happening with emerging grapes in Australia. This year I gave the gong to two wines, because they not only made me dance a little jig of joy when I tasted them, but they also point to a very bright—and very diverse—future for Australian wine.

The white was a greco di tufo—a variety from southern Italy’s Campania region—grown by brand new winery Beach Road in South Australia’s warm and increasingly dry Langhorne Creek region. Made in the hot 2009 vintage without any additions other than a little sulphur at bottling, it’s a magnificently textural, bone-dry white with an oily richness balanced by a mineral finish. About as far from a pristine, fruity, clean, fresh Aussie riesling as it’s possible to get.

The red was from d’Arenberg in McLaren Vale: The 2007 Cenosilicaphobic Cat, a brilliantly savory, unremittingly tannic yet impressively complex and plush-at-the-core blend of the Umbrian grape sagrantino (from very young vines) and a splash of the southern French grape cinsault (from very old vines). Just a stunningly original idea, to put these two grapes together—and surely the first time it’s ever been done, anywhere in the world.

These would be the perfect bottles to open the next time you hear anyone accuse Australian wine of being boring.

This article first appeared in W&S February 2010.