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Are alternative varieties the future of Australian wine?

Publish Date: 12 Apr 2017

Authored by: David Sly

Australian winemakers are increasingly looking to Mediterranean varieties to diversify their wine offerings and future-proof their businesses.

The future direction of Australian wine is revealed in new styles being made from Mediterranean grape varieties, according to Kim Chalmers of Chalmers Wines. “The next big thing in Australian wine is diversity,” says Kim, a staunch advocate of Italian varieties. “It’s not about finding the next sauvignon blanc. It’s embracing all the alternative grape varieties – and more producers are getting them right.”

Kim’s confidence and belief has been amplified since 21st Century Vino took place in London last September. It attracted 500 influential members of the UK media and trade, who tasted more than 50 Australian wines made from Italian varieties. “They were surprised by the maturity of the wines on offer – and the quality,” says Kim. “Many had thought Australian producers planted alternative varieties for a bit of fun, as a sideshow interest, but what they tasted seriously impressed them.”

Kim believes this reflects the diligence of people growing the new wave of Mediterranean varieties. “Most are in it for the right reasons. They want to grow the right grape varieties in the right places, resulting in beautifully balanced wines that accurately tell the story of where they come from.”

Pioneering vines
Some growers have embraced alternatives as a reaction to climate change, searching for vines that require less water. Others, like Mark Lloyd at Coriole in McLaren Vale, are simply besotted with delicious new flavours. Mark has championed what he calls “the new Australian varieties” since planting Australia’s first sangiovese in 1985. It now comprises 10 per cent of Coriole’s estate output, beside other significant plantings of barbera, nebbiolo and fiano. But it’s not all about Italian varieties; Coriole issued its first picpoul in last year, driven by Mark’s love of the rare Languedoc white grape’s distinctive character. “I couldn’t understand why the French didn’t regard picpoul with greater respect, because I think it’s delicious,”he says.

Mark has been patient in developing his own picpoul crop. Vines imported in 2008 remained in quarantine until 2011, when two were released to Coriole for propagation. Picpoul vines now cover only half a hectare and many are not fully grown, but enough grapes were picked in 2015 to enable the first commercial release.

Many of his McLaren Vale neighbours are similarly enthusiastic about Mediterranean varieties. Corrina Wright at Oliver’s Taranga works with some of the region’s oldest shiraz vines, but also has an eye for establishing Mediterranean grapes with exciting potential. Last year, she created a vivid cherry-coloured rosé made from mencia grapes – the winery’s first commercial release of this style. This northern Spanish variety sits comfortably amid several alternative grapes trialled at Oliver’s Taranga, including sagrantino, vermentino and fiano.

Fostering the future
Such varieties are now in big demand from vine nurseries, including Binjara, established in the mid-1980s by Bruce and Jenni Chalmers at Euston on the Murray River. By 2000, their nursery had 37 different varieties and 70 clones, but the Chalmers family sold this business in 2008, turning their attention to Chalmers’ vineyards at Merbein and Heathcote, now run by their daughter Kim.

One of Chalmers’ great strengths is vermentino, which is proving ideal for the dry Murray region. The family planted it first, in 2004, but now 60 producers have ensured two vermentino classes are judged at the annual Alternative Wine Show in Mildura; for a dry, crisp style with a firm texture, and more luscious full-fruited wines.

Geoff Hardy has been equally busy at his K1 vineyard at Kuitpo in the Adelaide Hills region, both as a nurseryman and winemaker. He produced five million cuttings of at least 30 varieties for commercial sale over 15 years, although this is now a minor business interest. He prefers instead to issue these exotic varieties under his three wine brands (K1, Pertaringa and Handcrafted by Geoff Hardy), using everything from little-known tannat, lagrein, siegerrebe, sylvaner and teroldego to more familiar varietals such as tempranillo.

More to come
Some look even further afield for especially rare grape varieties. The managing director of Jim Barry Wines, Peter Barry tasted assyrtiko in Santorini during 2007, and was smitten by its crisp meld of slate-like minerality and fresh citrus zing. Noting that the grapes grew on poor soils in windy, dry conditions – only 1200 hectares of assyrtiko is grown in Santorini and other pockets of Greece – Peter shipped cuttings to Australia in 1997. They spent two years in quarantine before being propagated at Yalumba’s vine nursery in the Barossa. In March 2012, half a hectare of assyrtiko was planted on a rugged, stony, east-facing slope at Jim Barry’s Lodge Hill vineyard in the Clare Valley. Some vines are trained to trellis, but others hug the ground and are woven into crowns like they are in Santorini, providing a protective circle for the grapes to grow sheltered from high winds. There are currently 1200 vines, which only produced 700 litres of wine last year, but Peter is enthusiastic about the results, saying 9000 new vines will be planted this year. “Introducing assyrtiko may seem like a big gamble, but these are grapes that have a sustainable future in this region,” says Peter. “We must face up to climate change and water scarcity and adapt our management appropriately. The fact it makes a delicious dry white wine means we’re really onto something.”

Originally published in the Dec/Jan issue of Halliday Wine Companion magazine as 'What's next?'.

Next article: check out this mix of Mediterranean styles

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