Alternative Australia: Moving away from traditional grape varieties

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

27 August 2020

Climate change and shifting tastes are encouraging winemakers Down Under to look away from traditional Aussie grape varieties, finds Chris Losh

One of my favourite questions to winemakers on a trip to Australia last year was: ‘Knowing what you know now, if you could replant your vineyards for free overnight with any varieties you wanted, would you pick the same ones that you currently have?’

Every time, it created sighing, staring at the ceiling, and, before any form of response, a question as to whether anyone still had a Dictaphone on. Because in many cases the answer was ‘no they wouldn’t’.

A quick disclaimer. No-one anywhere is suggesting that Margaret River growers are looking at a wholesale removal of their Cabernet, or that the Barossa shouldn’t grow Shiraz.

But one of the things that the last 20 years has shown in Australia is that there are dozens of ‘alternative’ varieties out there which, frankly, are better suited to the climate of most of the country’s wine regions than, say, Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot.

‘Once the fruit comes in, the only thing we have to do in the winery is look over the newspaper once a day at the ferment,’ says Behn Peyten of his Yarra Sangiovese.

Drought has been a huge problem in Australia over the last 20 years, so grapes that can withstand heat and need less water have become understandably more attractive. Climate change is only going to exacerbate the situation.

Alt-var producers to try

  • Alpha Box & Dice – Boutinot
  • Chalmers – Enotria&Coe
  • Dal Zotto – Graft Wines
  • Delinquente – Indigo Wines
  • Koerner – Graft Wines
  • Peyten & Jones – ABS
  • Vinteloper – Graft Wines

The Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show (AAVWS) was decidedly niche when it began in 2001, with 160 entries. Now it has over 800. Co-founder Kim Chalmers has sold over 2m of the 45 ‘alternative’ varieties he brings in to his winery, and is selling ‘more every year’.

The entries are a fascinating snapshot into the world beyond Cab, Chard and Shiraz. Tempranillo is so widely planted as to be almost mainstream now, with Sangiovese, Montelpuciano and Nero d’Avola the next most common.

And while everything from Mencia and Touriga to Sagrantino and Montepulciano has its devotees, most growers I spoke to cited Nero d’Avola as the one to watch – particularly in McLaren Vale.

Last year, Hither & Yon’s Nero d’Avola won the top prize at the McLaren Vale wine show – the first time ever that a 100% alternative varietal wine has triumphed at the event. But it surely won’t be the last.

‘[Nero] is a great choice for the Vale,’ says Sam Berketa, winemaker at Alpha Box & Dice. ‘Besides being suited to our hot, dry climate, it also takes on a very unique set of characters, particularly when it's not over-extracted and made like a Shiraz.’

Many winemakers I’ve spoken to have said something similar: that Italian and Iberian varieties are, for the most part, simply easier to grow in the heat and aridity of Australia than their French counterparts (though pressure on Pinot Noir is leading many to look at Gamay, too).

Italian and Iberian varieties are, for the most part, simply easier to grow in the heat and aridity of Australia than their French counterparts

But this isn’t simply a question of ease of viticulture. A good number have been bitten by the Nebbiolo bug, and doubtless to the relief of producers in the Langhe, are finding it just as hard to grow as their counterparts in Piemonte.

Luke Lambert, winemaker at Denton Wines and a Nebbio-phile, recently bought a 36-acre property in the Upper Gouldburn Valley north of Yarra, and has planted it solely to what he happily admits is ‘a weird variety’. Named Sparkletown (by his nine-year-old daughter) it will be one to watch.

Warm whites

If there’s a wide range of alternative reds currently being successfully grown, and a huge number still being experimented with, for whites the field is narrower. Rhone whites (Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne) have their devotees, and Chenin’s natural acidity is seeing it gain ground as a sparkling wine grape.

But the stand-outs seem to be Gruner Veltliner, which is now quite widely planted in the cooler Adelaide Hills, Vermentino and, particularly, Fiano.

With its thicker skin, the latter withstands the intense Australian sun well, and combines plenty of flavour with a high natural acidity. As a warm-climate white, its potential looks enormous, and, perhaps most importantly, the Australian public have already embraced it.

‘Fiano is growing in popularity very quickly,’ said Damian North of Journey Wines in the Yarra. ‘It’s gone from people having never heard of it to looking for it.’

In fact this, perhaps, rather than viticulture or winemaking is the challenge for Australia’s alternative varieties. Growing them and making them is the easy bit. Selling them is the challenge. At least, it is in Europe which, as many sommeliers have pointed out to me, has plenty of ‘original’ Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and so on – often at lower prices.

But AAVWS organiser, Kim Chalmers believes this argument misses the point.  

People are keen to list them as authentic, modern, melting pot Australian wines

Kim Chalmers, AAVWS organiser

‘We are not trying to make a copy of this wine,’ he says. ‘We are making a truly distinct, regional Australian wine, with a grape variety that happens to be something that works really well in our climate, our region and our winery.

‘Is Aussie Shiraz just a poor pastiche of a St Joseph? No. It is its own thing.’

Graft Wines’ Nik Darlington agrees. ‘Because of the environmental suitability of many of these grapes, people are keen to list them as authentic, modern, melting pot Australian wines,’ he says. ‘They will often be more expensive than 'originals', but the more people try them the more they realise the value and, crucially, reliability inherent in a lot of the better examples. They’re varieties that are grown in the right places and made by people who understand them.’

Also from his trip to Australia, Chris Losh discusses why a 'Grenache revolution' is underway in the country.

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