Italian, Spanish, Greek and Portuguese varieties are attracting a growing band of followers Down Under. Simon Woods looks at why Aussie winemakers are going mad for the Med
‘It’s not rocket science,’ says Steve Pannell. ‘Varieties that come from hot, dry climates are better adapted to growing in hot, dry climates.’
Pannell cut his teeth making red wines for some of Australia’s biggest names and was in charge of red wine production at Hardy’s for several years. However, his inquisitive mind – he has 14 vintages in Burgundy, Bordeaux, Barolo and Priorat under his belt – meant that he was never a typical big-company winemaker, and it came as no surprise to see him set up his own SC Pannell label in 2004.
Initially, he concentrated on the many small parcels of Shiraz and Grenache in and around his McLaren Vale home, but since then, much of his focus has been on grapes from other parts of Europe.
A catalyst for change came with the 2008 vintage. ‘It was ridiculously hot, with 13 days in late summer above 37°C. One Shiraz came in at 26% potential alcohol. At that time I picked my first ever Touriga from Langhorne Creek. It seemed to handle the weather better than all the varieties we had planted, and was just 13.5% abv. It was a lightbulb moment, when I thought to myself, “Maybe everything we are doing is wrong, and it has to start with the varieties we have planted.”’
Pannell still makes (excellent) Shiraz and Grenache, but his range now includes the aforementioned Touriga, plus Tempranillo, Nebbiolo and Barbera, with more non-French grapes on the horizon. ‘We recently picked our first Nero d’Avola and all I had to do was crush it into the tank, no winemaking additions – it was perfect, like it was meant to grow here. And we’re in the process of introducing eight Greek grape varieties to Australia – I love Xinomavro!’
Pannell is not the only person in Australia to look outside the familiar ‘international’ grapes – French varieties, in other words – for inspiration, and he certainly wasn’t the first. Thirty-five years ago, a few Italian and Spanish grapes could be found dotted around vineyards throughout Australia.
However, arguably the first major step on their rise in fortunes came in 1985 when Mark Lloyd of Coriole in McLaren Vale planted Tuscany’s main grape, Sangiovese. It wasn’t an immediate success. The vines were young, and the clone he’d planted was prone to overcrop.
This was a time when big, bold reds were all the rage, and anything in a lighter style struggled to find an audience, so the first vintages of Coriole Sangiovese saw dollops of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz being used to provide extra colour and fruit. But as both the vines and the winemaking team matured, the quality rose, and the need for these enhancers disappeared.
Not long after Coriole began ploughing the Sangiovese furrow, Garry Crittenden also started to take an interest in Italian grapes. But rather than plant them in his Dromana Estate vineyards in Mornington Peninsula, he looked elsewhere in the state of Victoria for growers who could supply him with fruit.
He began with some Dolcetto bought from Viv Thomson of Best’s Great Western. Then he found some Barbera and Nebbiolo in the King Valley, then some Arneis, then some Sangiovese… In fact he found so many that he had to come up with a new label for these Italianate wines. He called them simply ‘i’.
Crittenden was so convinced about the potential for such wines that in 1999 he co-authored a small book called Italian Winegrape Varieties in Australia’, detailing how conditions in local vineyards were similar to those back in Italy for a range of grapes.
Several other people shared his convictions. The year 1999 also saw a group of enthusiasts gathered in Mildura for an event called the Long Italian Lunch incorporating the Australian Sangiovese Awards, which has since evolved into the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show.
The 2017 AAVWS attracted more than 800 entries from 226 different producers made from over 100 non-mainstream grapes, including Malvasia Istriana, Schioppettino and Canaiolo, with the Best Wine of Show trophy going to a McLaren Vale Nero d’Avola from Hither & Yon.
Where once, growers were rushing to plant the familiar French varieties, today there’s increased demand for these more unusual grapes. Growers who anticipated this rise in popularity (Ricca Terra Farms and the Chalmers family are two of the most visible) are struggling to keep up with demand, and more obscure new grapes are being planted with each vintage. Top viticultural consultant Mark Walpole, has Mtsvane, Egiodola and Saperavi in his Beechworth vineyard.
There can be spanners in the works of this expansion. It takes a few years for imported cuttings to get through quarantine, and even once they’ve been released, there can be problems. Just under 10 years ago, a visiting French ampelographer discovered that the Albariño being propagated in Australia was actually Savagnin Blanc, while more recently, what people thought of as Grillo turned out to be an obscure grape called Slankamenka Bela.
But generally, life is sweet for ‘alternative’ grapes in Australia, and the general move in particular away from heavier reds to lighter, more savoury styles has provided an opportunity for many of them to shine. Will they ever become as popular as Shiraz and Co? You could argue that some of them have already entered the mainstream – Penfolds has been making Sangiovese since 1998, for example.
And as for the complaint from some quarters that the wines don’t taste like they do back in Europe, I put that point to Coriole’s Mark Lloyd many years ago and will never forget the reply.
‘No,’ he said, ‘my Sangiovese doesn’t taste like Chianti – it’s from Australia. I don’t see anyone complaining that my Shiraz doesn’t taste like French wine…’
Five top Aussie-Mediterranean wines
Luke Lambert Nebbiolo 2016, Yarra Valley
The 2016 is currently on the way to UK, and if it’s on a par with previous vintages, expect a pale but extremely interesting wine with delicate floral red fruit and light, orange-peel flavours, a touch of spice and the classic upright Nebbiolo spine of tannin and acidity.
14% abv, Indigo Wines, 020 7733 8391
Larry Cherubino Laissez-Faire Fiano 2016, Frankland River
A lovely mix of richness and bracing briny finesse, with pear and melon fruit tempered with mealy, nutty elements and wonderful texture. Quite full in body, but finishes with savoury precision.
13.7% abv, Hallgarten, 015 8272 2538
Alpha Box & Dice Dead Winemakers Society Dolcetto 2016, McLaren Vale
Weighing in at just 12.5% abv, dainty on its feet, combining gentle, gushing red cherry and raspberry with richer notes of almond and vanilla. Excellent chillable summer red.
Boutinot, 016 1908 1300
Jim Barry Assyrtiko 2017, Clare Valley
Now on its fourth vintage (although 2014 only yielded 15 litres), this has the sleek citrus, mineral and herb notes of its Greek counterparts, along with a richer, melon-like character. Seafood please.
12.5% abv, Negociants UK, 015 8279 7510
S C Pannell Tempranillo/Touriga Nacional 2016, McLaren Vale
Sets the juicy, plummy, berry and cocoa notes of Tempranillo alongside the darker, deeper, herbier character of Touriga Nacional to impressive effect, and finishes with a subtle, almost Rhône-like savoury spiciness.
14% abv, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350
What the somms are saying
Dalila Katia Leo, The Clove Club
We have an incredible Nebbiolo from LAS Vino in Margaret River. While the varietal character – high acidity, chalky tannins, flavours of roses, tar and cherries – makes it unmistakably a Nebbiolo, its flavour profile is juicier and fresher, more plush and playful than an Italian wine. It’s a great pairing with our signature lamb ribs, mint and seaweed dish.
Olivier Gasselin, Hakkasan
Mazza Graciano 2009 from Geographe in Western Australia is great with our traditional rib-eye beef cooked in Merlot sauce with black pepper.
Elly Owen, Fifteen Cornwall
The Dal Zotto Arneis from the King Valley has beautiful, bright acidity with a lovely mineral tone. I love it with gurnard or mackerel ‘carpione’; cured fish crudo with red onion, raisins and pine nuts and good vinegar. The wine stands up to the punchy flavours of the fish whilst the little savoury drops of pine nut draw on a delicious almond twang on the finish.
What the wine trade is saying
Nik Darlington, Red Squirrel WinesThe proliferation of Italian, Spanish and other alternative European varieties in Australia has definitely made the landscape more interesting. The downside of this is that the ‘brand value’ of the grape can trump the rationale of planting it in the first place. So you’re finding a lot of overripe, generic Tempranillo (and Sangiovese for that matter, among others), that undoubtedly attracts people domestically because it’s different; but when overseas and alongside the same varieties from their homeland, they can come up short. However, one of our bestselling wines ever, in every channel, has been Vinteloper’s silky Touriga Nacional from Langhorne Creek. According to Wine Australia, exports of Australian Touriga Nacional were up 575% last year, and we calculated that one-third of this was Vinteloper’s Touriga alone.
David Gleave, Liberty Wines
Grapes like Tempranillo and Touriga have done well, as has Nero d’Avola. People are willing to experiment in the mid-price range – up to about £20 a bottle retail – after which it gets more difficult. People love the Pannell Nebbiolo, or the Greenstone Sangiovese, but struggled to sell it when it went on a list against a good Barolo or Brunello. It will take time, but I’m sure it will come.
Roger Jones, The Harrow at Little Bedwyn
I am quite a traditionalist and think Australia excels with Chardonnay, Riesling, Shiraz and Cabernet, the wines that put them on the global wine map. However, we sell quality first and as long as a wine shines, we will sell it. We’ve been the largest UK buyer of Jim Barry Assyrtiko, and it’s been an instant success, so much so that customers have asked for more of this grape – which means going back to Greece!
Robin Naylor, Boutinot
I first introduced the Alpha Box & Dice range to the UK eight years ago, but they never really took off at the time. Re-launching them last year at the Australia Day Tastings after a five-year hiatus was far more successful. The market just seemed to want them more, and the reception from sommeliers and even specialist Italian buyers has been very positive. And in truth the wines are far better executed now. What has been really refreshing is seeing these varietals handled with an Old World respect for texture, acidity and place rather than outright fruit. It seems obvious, patronising even, to say so from a desk on this side of the planet but a lovely surprise is that some of these wines are really true expressions of a variety in its actual place rather than pretending to be from elsewhere.