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Sunday 15 March 2015

Alternative grape varieties: the search for the next big thing in Australian wine

There is a lot more to wine in Australia than our current favourites chardonnay and shiraz.

From the warm Riverina to cool-climate Tasmania, winemakers are experimenting with unfamiliar grape varieties from countries as diverse as Italy, Austria, Spain and Georgia as they aim to produce wines with a point of difference.

So while you might not be familiar with grapes called touriga nacional, gruner veltliner and aleatico, it is worth remembering that 40 years ago chardonnay was unknown in Australia and we drank an awful lot of wine made from a dreadfully dull grape called crouchen.
Larry Jacobs with Hahndorf Hill gruner veltliner vines 

Today chardonnay is ubiquitous, along with sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, which was first planted in 1975.

Things change quickly on the wine front and new trends are constantly emerging. A decade ago few of us had heard of pinot gris/grigio, but now it is hugely fashionable. Could fellow Italian white grapes vermentino and arneis be next? Or maybe fiano?

Kym Anderson, director of the Wine Economics Centre at the University of Adelaide, says: “There is growing interest in making wine using 'alternative' varieties such as those grown in southern Europe and South America, in many instances because they are more suited to the Australian climate.

“But getting consumers to purchase wines made from varieties they are unfamiliar with can be a big risk for producers.”

Italian varieties such as sangiovese, barbera and nebbiolo are now almost mainstream, however, along with the increasingly popular Spanish red grape tempranillo and the Portuguese white variety verdelho, all succeeding as drinkers look for food-friendly, savoury alternatives to some of our vinous fruit bombs.

Coriole, from McLaren Vale, is the standard bearer for high-quality sangiovese, a Tuscan grape it first planted 25 years ago. Coriole's lead has been followed by Robin Day, former chief winemaker for Orlando, whose Domain Day vineyards at Mount Crawford feature plantings of garganega, lagrein and sagrantino, all Italian grapes, as well as saperavi, a red grape that's a native of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where its known for its concentrated flavours.

Yalumba has pioneered the French white grape viognier, which has found favour as both a stand-alone varietal and as a blending component that softens shiraz (Canberra's Clonakilla makes a benchmark example).

Zinfandel, a grape that enjoys huge popularity in California as is also known as primitivo, has been promoted by Margaret River winery Cape Mentelle, while the Italian variety prosecco, used in sparkling wines, has been a winner for Dal Zotto Wines and other producers in Victoria's King Valley.
Otto Dal Zotto in his prosecco vineyard 

It is certainly worth taking a step out of your wine comfort zone to sample a new taste sensation – and as many of these wine with unfamiliar names are new to the market some of the prices are relatively low.

So what's the next big thing?

Gruner veltliner, a savoury dry white wine from Austria, has proved very successful for producers including Hahndorf Hill and Geoff Hardy in the Adelaide Hills and Lark Hill outside Canberra.

Petit manseng, made from a little-known white grape from the south-west of France and similar to the Spanish grape albarinho, has shown great potential in warmer parts of the country.

Vermentino is an aromatic and refreshing white grape from Liguria and the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Corsica. It has been hugely successful in the Riverland and Riverina.

Nero d'Avola is the most popular red wine variety from Sicily, making dark, flavoursome wines. It has been grown with great success in McLaren Vale and Heathcote in Victoria.

Or maybe the German hybrid schonburger, or French light red gamay will find a niche in the market, or maybe a variety that is currently completely unknown. Wine drinkers will ultimately decide.


  1. Hi Winsor, isn't it paradoxical that most experimentation with alternative varieties is undertaken by small to medium sized wineries. I say that because the investment in alternatives (both in vineyard space and trial and error costs) is disproportionately large compared with what the cost would be for a large wine company. Conversely, large wine companies tend to have far more concentrated investment in a small and narrow portfolio of varieties that places them at heightened risk of exposure to fashion change/climate change - meaning that the companies that can best afford to experiment (and least afford not to?) and to trial consumers on new labels based on alternative varieties are the ones that don't tend to do so.

  2. A very interesting point well made.

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