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The less-known varietals and styles to watch

Publish Date: 24 Nov 2017

Authored by: Jane Faulkner

Halliday Wine Companion reviewer Jane Faulkner shares insights from this year's Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show, including notes on some rare Italian wines and skin-contact whites. 

While most of Australia seems obsessed with a horse race held on the first Tuesday in November, for me it signifies the beginning of the most exciting week in wine. The Melbourne Cup coincides with the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show, which is in its seventeenth year.

Today the show stands proudly for diversity and distinction, inspiring producers to try something new, rare or to reinvigorate a variety losing ground and therefore scarce. The slogan ‘more than a wine show’ still holds true.

Held in Mildura, Victoria, it’s where a community of growers, viticulturists, winemakers, retailers, writers and wine drinkers can come together to discuss and share their love of these wines. It offers the opportunity to glean information about varieties and styles that haven’t yet entered the mainstream (although some, such as vermentino, nero d’Avola and tempranillo, may one day soon). From the 800-odd entries made by 226 producers this year, more than 100 varieties were sampled either as varietal wines or in blends.

While ‘alternative’ is a part of the traditional name for the show, I don’t label the varieties as such. Instead, I use the grape name (sangiovese, for example, is hardly alternative in Italy). It’s just that in Australia these varieties often play second fiddle to the French grapes that dominate, and while I enjoy those as much as anyone else, I want to drink widely and with gusto. I crave Spanish styles, Portuguese varieties and more, but I especially crave the savouriness of Italian reds and whites. The flavours are different. Their shapes are different. They are delicious in their own right.

Synonymous with the wine show and the importation of Italian grape varieties is the Chalmers family. Their substantial plantings in Heathcote and Merbein provide the fruit for their eponymous label, as well as those of other producers large and small. The inspiration for the family to settle on Italian varieties largely came from the late Dr Rod Bonfiglioli, who worked with Bruce and Jenni Chalmers at their first nursery/vine-grafting business. They describe Dr Rod as “a passionate, eccentric scientist, whose dogged determination and visionary foresight brought so much colour, interest and integrity to Australian wine”.

Chalmers have just released a range of drink-now wines in Dr Rod’s honour simply named ‘Dott’. It includes a superb schioppettino, malvasia istriana and, wait for it, pavana. When was the last time you had one of those? Probably never. The red wine pavana barely rates a mention in Italy, but Dr Rod was crazy for its perfume and herbal edges. “Dr Rod sought out these rare grapes for our collection seeing their promise long before we did, and for that we are grateful,” Bruce and Jenni say.

Returning to the wine show, it’s worth noting that French varieties such as viognier or savagnin fall under the alternative banner. It’s thrilling, then, that the 2013 Crittenden Estate Cri de Coeur Savagnin Sous Voile won the trophy for best white wine, while the 2017 Hither & Yon Nero d’Avola snapped up best red and the trophy for wine of show. The latter is a gorgeous, juicy drink with loads of personality, and it’s pleasing that so many producers are embracing this lighter style.

The show also champions different styles, including a new class introduced this year devoted to skin-contact white wines. What? Who did that and why? Well, I did. I’m the chief of judges, so I can. Importantly, it meant the wines would be judged fairly, as in like-with-like*.

Skin-contact whites have been hijacked by hipster sommeliers, lambasted by technical winemakers as faulty, derided as nonsensical natural wines by mild-mannered folk and more besides. Let’s put the record straight.

While some are clumsy and riddled with faults, just as any style or variety can be, I find joy in the beautiful ones made with care and attention to detail. Ones from producers who appreciate the history, which goes right back to the beginning of winemaking, and the skill involved in these phenolic white wines. These wines include tannins from the skins, just like red wine, so they are loaded with texture and flavour. Depending on the grapes used, the colours range from straw to amber and deep orange, and can be clear or cloudy. Be open-minded.

If you’re not familiar with skin-contact whites, try them with food rather than on their own – their structure makes them a match for dishes as diverse as seafood risotto, tung po pork, carbonara, a salumi plate, or aged cheese such as Comté or Parmigiano Reggiano. If you still don’t dig them that’s OK. They aren’t for everyone. Choice and diversity are key: we can all drink to that.

*As an aside, no trophy was awarded in the skin-contact whites class because the wine that should have won the inaugural gong was unlabelled and therefore ineligible. It’s the 2016 Pandora’s Taurian, an amphora-fermented friulano from the Tamar Valley made by Glenn James and Jo Marsh. It is exceptional. It will be labelled and released in 2018.

2013 Crittenden Estate Cri de Coeur Savagnin Sous Voile
96 points

In French, ‘sous voile’ literally means under a veil and in this instance, it is flor, a special layer of yeast across the surface of a wine while in barrel. Flor keeps the wine underneath both protected and fresh. For winemaker Rollo Crittenden, the inspiration came from France’s famed Jura wine, vin jaune, where savagnin reigns supreme. The 2013 spent four years under flor in old French barriques and yes, it is an oxidative style, akin to dry sherry. This is savoury complexity to the max, with a hint of lemon thyme, preserved Meyer lemons and grilled almonds, although it’s all about the palate – textural, creamy, neat phenolics, finishing dry with a twist of saline tang. One of the most remarkable wines crafted in Australia. Bravo.

RRP $80 | 2023 | Crittenden Estate

2015 Yangarra Roux Beauté Roussanne
96 points

Using two ceramic egg vessels, half the fruit is fermented on skins for 160 days in one, the other half with juice only. The final outcome a 60/40% blend respectively. What a wine. Complex yet refined, notes of preserved ginger, herbal tea, honeycomb and clotted cream, with neat phenolics and gossamer-like acidity.

RRP $72 | 2023 | Yangarra Estate Vineyard

2015 Quealy Turbul Friulano
93 points

The Quealy family has been instrumental in championing skin-contact white wines and the Italian variety Friulano, which hails from Friuli. Turbul in dialect means cloudy hinting at the style, given it is unfiltered, yet the 2015 has clarity. A mid-straw, amber hue with wafts of ginger blossom and freshly pickled ginger, sun-bleached hay with a miso-paste-umami flavour giving this a super-savoury edge. Some chew and grip to the tannins, there’s texture, refreshing acidity and it finishes very dry.

RRP $35 | 2022 | Quealy Winemakers


Next article: High country wines reaching new heights.

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