A glass less ordinary
Alternative grape varietals are a thing. Words Jeni Port
Can that next glass of wine you order really make a difference to a planet in climate crisis? It can. Australian wine producers are counting on it as they — all of us — stare down a warming climate with projections for average temperature increases of between 0.3 and 1.7 degrees Celsius by 2030. Drought, frost, heatwaves and other major weather events, as well as bushfires and associated smoke taint issues, are all part of the new norm for wine producers and, by association, wine drinkers. Grapes that can accommodate this changing climate are already in the ground and popping up on restaurant wine lists and retailer shelves. They even have their own collective identity: alternative grape varieties.
“We have experienced a transition in the industry,” says Joel Pizzini, a winemaker at Pizzini Wines in the King Valley, Victoria, where Italian grape varieties have widespread acceptance. “There is a real desire to grow these varieties and make them well.”
The Italians are at the core of the alternative grape variety push. White wine grapes such as fiano, vermentino, arneis and pinot grigio are the new chardonnay and sauvignon blanc — and just as easy, I have to say, to pronounce. Reds like nero d’Avola (aka nero), sangiovese (aka sange), montepulciano (aka monty) and others bring a range of flavours, often savoury, and textures to the world of wine. Their Aussie nicknames are a good sign of acceptance.
Increasingly, the Italians are joined by varieties from Portugal, Spain, Greece and Georgia. The chief asset that unites almost all of these grapes is an ability to cope well under pressure: to tolerate warm to hot temperatures without “sulking”, as one producer colourfully puts it. That is, they retain high natural acidity when the heat bears down. Most alternative varieties rely less on water — often a lot less — than the traditional French varieties that have dominated plantings in Australia for the past 200 years. And, importantly, many are less susceptible to disease and sunburn (the latter producing brown, cooked wines). This is Australian Viticultural Sustainability 101 in the 21st century.
Alternative varieties offer a different wine journey to the usual chardonnay-shiraz-cabernet wine cycle we often find ourselves in. “They stand up well,” says Michael Dal Zotto, winemaker at Dal Zotto Wines in the King Valley, “but, more importantly, they give the consumer another option.” That “option” can take many forms: textural (fiano), warm (nero d’Avola), spicy (montepulciano), citrus-led (assyrtiko), aromatic (mencía), savoury (sangiovese), earthy (saperavi), ferrous/leathery (aglianico) and more.
Drinkers shouldn’t expect a replica of the styles these grapes make in their homelands; rather, they are different by degree. Brown Brothers was one of the early Australian producers to delve deep into Italian varieties and remains excited by their overall quality. “What we see in the style of Italian varieties grown in Australia is a lifted fruit intensity and a little less savoury notes,” says Andrew Harris, wine ambassador/educator for Brown Brothers. “Although the savoury characters are becoming more evident as wineries are using more lees [dead yeast] contact and oak fermentation and maturation, and oxidatively handling [deliberately exposing to oxygen] the grapes and winemaking.”
In other words, Australian winemakers are increasingly inspired by European winemaking traditions when working with these grapes.
For a dip into the wonderful world of alternative grape varieties that will not only excite the senses, but also do good for the environment, make a start here.
It not only retains high natural acidity in the heat, but also brings a great depth of flavour to the table. Expect lifted notes of green apple, honeydew and pear, a light nuttiness and, above all, a delicious smoothness. Indigenous to southern Italy.
Try: Coriole, La Prova
Often compared to sauvignon blanc, such is the grape’s bright acidity and generally non-wooded celebration of citrus fruit and apple, with a varietal oyster shell or saline character. Positively embraces both hot and moderate Aussie climes. Indigenous to Italy.
Try: Chalmers, Oliver’s Taranga
This grape is setting itself up nicely in its new home. Can bring complexity and a touch of savouriness to the glass, offering a different white grape perspective to the usual. Indigenous to Portugal.
Try: Ricca Terra, Whistling Eagle Vineyard
The poster child for sustainable viticulture in Australia can take anything thrown at it while keeping a delicious vibrancy of fruit. A budding national treasure. Imagine dark cherry fruit, wild herbs and sweet spice among other treats. Indigenous to Sicily.
Try: Eldorado Road, Unico Zelo
“Monty” came late to the alternative grape party but it’s already a shining example of the new breed. The darkest purple in hue, it packs a lot of ripe, bitter herbals and savoury flavour into its light-medium frame. Indigenous to Italy.
Try: Calabria, S.C. Pannell
Holds its tannin and acidity in hot conditions — perfect for this country — and brings out some astonishing flavours in tandem with a firm structure. Aromatic bouquet, bramble, leather, cherry, cracked pepper. Indigenous to southern Italy.
Try: Fighting Gully Road, Billy Button Wines
And this is just a start.
The last word on alternative grape varieties in Australia belongs to Kim Chalmers, who with her family were among the earliest pioneers in exploring the possibilities of these grapes in a new land. For 20 years or more they have been importing them into Australia through their nursery in Mildura and not only sending them out to be planted across the land, but also leading the way in producing wines under their own Chalmers label in Mildura and Heathcote in Victoria. Their latest project is a vineyard to test the limits of dry growing, with new alternative grape varieties — negroamaro and inzolia — grown on minimal rainfall, less even than the driest climates in the Mediterranean where they hail from. “The purity and intensity of the [fruit] expression is amazing,” says Chalmers. “The result has the whole team at Chalmers enthralled. “We can’t wait to keep pushing this boundary,” she continues.
Neither, it has to be said, can the rest of us.
This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 78 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “A glass less ordinary”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.