Indigenous and lesser-known grape varieties are seemingly on the move, providing interest and intrigue outside of their traditional homes, finds Justin Keay
There was a time, really not so long ago, that non-international grape varieties knew their place. And likewise, we knew of them through association with that place.
Albariño? From Rias-Baixas in Galicia (unless spelled Alvarinho then it would be from Portugal’s adjacent Minho). Assyrtiko? Santorini for sure. Nero d’Avola? Sicily. Fiano? Southern Italy. The list goes on.
Today, however, consumers increasingly are tasting wines – made typically by young producers in the New World – from varieties transposed far from their place of origin. As Theresa May might have put it, these varieties have become ‘citizens of nowhere’. The result is that Uruguayan Albariño, Australian Fiano and Nero d’Avola and indeed, Chinese Riesling are now de rigueur.
Australian winemaker Peter Barry’s (main picture) introduction was damascene. ‘I was on the beach in Santorini and asked what the locals drink. When I was handed some Assyrtiko, it was different from anything I had ever tasted. I just couldn’t get enough of it.’
Barry got in touch with Yiannis Paraskevopoulos of Gaia Wines, which produces some of the world’s most acclaimed Assyrtiko, to learn what it is – aside from terroir, which is key to Santorini-produced Assyrtiko – that makes this variety so special. Paraskevopoulos then provided the cuttings which Barry planted at his Lodge Hill vineyard back in South Australia.
When the first Jim Barry vintage was released in 2016, just 30,000 bottles, critics praised the world’s first ever non-Greek incarnation of Assyrtiko, even though the grapes are not grown Santorini basket-style, and Clare Valley soil is very different from the Greek island’s volcanic terrain.
The 2018 vintage is restrained, with just 12.5% alcohol, but most importantly has the minerality, fragrance and zest which make this such an appealing variety.
However, such is the demand for Assyrtiko – driving prices on Santorini to record highs – others have gotten in on the act, elsewhere in Greece, and beyond. Lebanon’s Chateau Oumsiyat produces Cuvée Membliarus, which launched at the Hallgarten & Novum tasting this year. It may not have the sheer saline intensity of Santorini’s expressions, but its fine acidity, freshness and lower price make it a good fit for today’s market.
Sales manager Nicolas Angelino says Lebanon’s mountain terroirs and Mediterranean climate are perfect for Greek and Italian varieties. ‘We believe other varieties such as Nero d’Avola, Grillo and Zibibbo from Sicily can be successfully grown here.’
For the UK trade, the alternative variety wake-up call was two tastings held by Wine Australia in 2015 and 2017: three floors of the High Commission were filled with Sangiovese, Nero d’Avola, Fiano, Arneis, Nebbiolo and even Umbria’s native Sagrantino and Campania’s Aglianico, all produced by mainly small Australian producers. Although Touriga Nacional and Tempranillo were also there, the emphasis on Italian varieties was unsurprising, given the large ethnic Italian population, some of whom are now second and third generation Australian.
Sam Atkins, owner of Fox Gordon Wines in South Australia, has never looked back since focusing on Italian varieties: ‘An Italian grape-growing family in the Adelaide Hills brought us cuttings of Nero d’Avola and Fiano over 20 years ago; they also grow Montepulciano and Sangiovese which we also buy in. Our first Fiano was in 2006. These Mediterranean varieties are extremely well suited to our climate and terroir, producing fruit with great balance and flavours.’
Over in Western Australia, producer Larry Cherubino has been growing Fiano since 2006, alongside his more familiar Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. ‘Customers are keen to try it and always like it when they do. And it’s easy to pronounce, which helps. We have also planted a selection of Touriga Nacional, Mencía, Tempranillo, Mourvedre, Counoise, Nebbiolo and Grüner Veltliner,’ he says.
For long-time industry observers, the trend seems a natural evolution from the previous emphasis on French varietals. ‘Back in the 1970s, winemakers felt that if Australia was to be taken seriously it had to look to France. Now a younger generation of winemakers – many of Italian origin – reckon varieties more accustomed to what are increasingly hot weather conditions might actually work better,’ says David Gleave MW, managing director of Liberty Wines, suggesting climate change is accelerating the trend.
Whilst people may be drinking less they are drinking better, Gleave reckons, which is why more unusual premium wines have such an appeal, particularly amongst the key 25-40 age group.
‘Wine must have a story and a Nero d’Avola from Mount Horrocks in Clare Valley or a Tempranillo/Touriga or Nebbiolo from S.C. Pannell in McLaren Vale will always be more novel than a bog-standard Australian Chardonnay or Shiraz.’
As well as tasting familiar varieties from unexpected places, wine drinkers are also increasingly attracted to grapes they might never have heard of before because the wines rarely left home. Growing winemaker ambition and improved techniques − resulting in better wine and therefore greater opportunity to sell into export markets rather than just the domestic market – have changed all this. Coupled with the growing consumer demand for novelty, the result has been the likes of Hungarian Furmint, Greek Xinomavro, and Georgian Saperavi and Rkatsiteli appearing on UK menus and shop shelves, often for the first time.
This trend has been boosted by people increasingly wanting to try more ambitious native foods and match them with the right indigenous wines. ‘Wines must combine authenticity and expression with a great flavour profile at a price people want to pay – and alternative varieties play a very big role in this,’ says Steve Daniel, wine buyer at Hallgarten & Novum. ‘Who accompanies a nice Lebanese or Greek meal with Chablis or a French Syrah? It just doesn’t work.’
As people become more ambitious cooks and grow more curious about the wider world of wine, the shift towards alternative varieties is also happening in the off-trade. The Wine Society has been leading the trend, with Romania’s Feteasca Neagra and Feteasca Alba and Greece’s white Moschofilero, Malagousia and red Agiorgitiko amongst the varieties selling well.
However, for its buyer Freddy Bulmer it is Grüner Veltliner, boosted by a strong push by ambitious producers in its native Austria but also notably New Zealand; Xinomavro – Greece’s answer to Nebbiolo; Furmint and Assyrtiko that have the most appeal because they are ‘mainstream alternative’ – alternative grapes which people are a little more likely to have heard of.
‘I’d put Grüner Veltliner at number one because of its sheer potential in all price brackets, then Xinomavro in the £10+ bracket, then Furmint, because although it can make some excellent wines there’s a lot of not very good stuff out there. I would place Assyrtiko fourth, because while it can make breath-taking wines, it’s hard to replicate the quality of Santorini, and there the limiting factor is price.’ Maybe the bottom line is that the trend towards alternative varieties is being led by simple human curiosity and better-made wine. ‘If you can choose between two delicious wines at the same price, chances are you will go for the one with the most captivating story.
This can be something as simple as: “This is a variety which actually comes from Greece but X moved to set up a new life in Australia and took vine cuttings with him”,’ he says. ‘The key thing is that the industry is at a point where it is very easy for the consumer to browse and they therefore want choice. These indigenous varieties provide intrigue and allow people to try something new.’