Some unexpected grape varieties add a frisson of excitement to the usual January round of tastings
The on-trade wine buyer at the Australia Day Tasting sidled up to me with the furtive air of a peddler of adult videos in 1960s Soho.
'You tried the Jim Barry Assyrtiko?' he breathed urgently. 'Amazing. In the corner. Give it a go…' And with an 'in-the-know' wink, he disappeared into the throng.
It is part of the game of big tastings that you're constantly sharing recommendations with people you run into: essential information like what's tasting well, who's got a striking new launch and who's got a new haircut.
The Australia tasting was no different. But it was striking how often, as well as a tip for a single-vineyard Shiraz or Burgundian-style Chardonnay, Australia's 'alternative varieties' came up in conversation.
Sangiovese, Fiano, Tempranillo et al have, of course, been planted Down Under for a while. Growers started to experiment with them fifteen years ago when the country was in the middle of a ten-year drought and people wanted more heat- and drought-resistant varieties.
It is part of the game of big tastings that you're constantly sharing recommendations with people you run into
And we've seen the odd bottle over here at various times since then.
But now they're starting to gain a bit of momentum. Total plantings of Italian/Spanish grapes over there are, for sure, still small – estimated at around 3% of the total. But I'd say that now they are a 'niche' rather than an 'oddity' – and one that’s growing. I don't think it’s unrealistic to expect them to be up around the 5-10% mark in a decade's time.
Moreover, the Aussies are not alone in the Oddball Movement. The week before the Roo-a-thon, Imbibe ran a story from the Kiwi tasting, focusing on, ahem, 'wacky' grape varieties like Grüner and Albarino.
Both of these seem to be settling in well and might, finally, offer the white alternatives to Sauvignon and Chardonnay that Riesling was meant (but has largely failed) to provide.
Interestingly, at the same time that tasters were last week cooing over South Island Albarino, across London a dozen or so somms were getting to grips with a range of wines from Turkey's oldest producer, Kavaklidere.
The latter has a series of polished international varieties – produced, ironically, for the home market. But the somms (rightly) had little interest in those, homing in, for the most part, on the indigenous Turkish grapes. The fact that the tasters could no more pronounce them than fly to the moon merely added to their exotic appeal.
They were wines you could love or hate, but they emphatically weren't wines that you could ignore. Nor were they wines that were on our radar even five years ago
So, all in all, three stimulating tastings with wines of genuine interest.
The question is, are any of these newbies wines that you can sell or is their interest purely academic? In other words, is the world falling over itself for Wairau Grüner, Barossa Rioja blends or a grape (Bogazkere) so tannic that its name in Turkish means 'throat burner'?
Interestingly, from an on-trade perspective at least, I'd say that the Turkish wines have potential. They are well priced, unique and different, but not, for the most part, scarily so. Moreover, they have no direct competitors.
The same cannot be said for Kiwi Albarino or Australian Nero d'Avola, however. In themselves, many of these wines are good – occasionally even exciting. And the public are not exactly unaware of the likes of Tempranillo and Montepulciano so on one level they are less of a gamble for your customers.
But the problem is the price. If you want a Primitivo, you can pick even a good one up for a song from Italy… why spend twice as much for an Australian version?
With time, as growers find the best spots and start to make truly excellent versions of these wines, this will be less of an issue. But in the early stages (where we are now) it could slow down their development.
Still, three genuinely interesting tastings in ten days? Could it be that 2017 is the year when wine finally starts to get its mojo back?