Wine, like most things, falls victim to the whims of fashion. One minute a grape variety is riding a seemingly unstoppable wave of success, and the next minute growers can’t give the fruit away. Some grapes like cabernet sauvignon still remain very successful in certain regions, but the variety is often associated with a more traditional drinker, while grapes like merlot and sauvignon blanc are hardly the coolest kids in the class. And while emerging varieties are getting ample – and well-deserved – attention amongst some of our most progressive makers, just as many are dusting off the classics and giving them a makeover, either in big swings away from the familiar path or with subtle reinventions.
Sauvignon blanc is still a juggernaut in this country, if much of the wine comes from across the Tasman, but it’s a grape that is often held in disdain by winemakers and industry professionals. Its appeal to the general market is in its showy personality, it’s heart-on-the-sleeve style that leaves nothing up to the imagination. And that’s also the exact reason why so many wine folks disdain it. It’s also become something of a tool for the avant-garde, with fruit readily available at accessible prices.
“I started working with sauvignon blanc because I wanted fruit from Baw Baw shire and it was the only thing available,” says Entropy Wines’ Ryan Ponsford. “The variety was less important to me than the place it was grown. I think if the site is right, who cares what the variety is? As long as it makes delicious, expressive wines.”
“The variety was less important to me than the place it was grown. I think if the site is right, who cares what the variety is?”
For Ponsford, that expression of place was what ferried him away from a successful career as an artist to that of vigneron. And while he admits that even with variety taking a back seat to site and region, sauvignon blanc would hardly have been his first choice of variety, but, blended with some semillon (an equally uncool variety), it has fast become one of his flagship wines. “It is definitely one of my favourite cuvées,” he says.
A key factor for Ponsford was site, with unirrigated vines on red volcanic soils coupled with the local cool and wet climate producing intensely expressive berries. And that expressiveness is not in the way that most would expect, with a coiled intensity rather than overt aromatics. “It’s got a bit of a bad name in Australia because of a particular early picked, mass-produced style but just look how it expresses itself in some French wine regions,” he says. “I also feel like I need to advocate for it because not everyone’s going to reach for Australian sauvignon blanc.”
Shaking off prejudice
In the Adelaide Hills, Lauren Langfield, who also spent a number of years working in Gippsland, is also an advocate for the grape, and her inaugural release of eponymous 2021 wines see it paired with a variety that gets similar disdain in professional wine circles in this country. “I really love drinking sauvignon blanc and merlot, and I think most people do, too,” says Langfield. “Lots of winemaking friends were really excited when I told them my varieties and admitted they love drinking them too – always with the caveat that they like drinking ‘good’ sauvignon and merlot!”
“Lots of winemaking friends were really excited when I told them my varieties and admitted they love drinking them too.”
Merlot has had a similarly rough trot, with much of it destined for commercial production, plus for many years it was hampered by poor clonal material in vineyards that favoured yields over quality. “It’s a shame both varieties have been given pretty bad reputations by the big boys, over-cropped, over-manipulated and mass produced,” says Langfield.
That reality has certainly resulted in some pushback from consumers at certain levels. “Varietal prejudice is certainly alive and well in Australia,” says Ponsford. “I don’t have to push someone to drink Gippsland pinot noir for example, but sauvignon blanc is a harder sell. But it is nice to surprise people who aren’t expecting Australian sauvignon blanc to taste like this wine does. For me, delicious is delicious, regardless of what grape leads to that experience.”
Langfield takes a similar approach to Ponsford, with her sauvignon blanc picked at a slightly riper level, but both regions are distinctly cool climate, so the results are similarly intense but without the pungent high point aromatics so common. Both also see older oak, resulting in wines of subtle charm, texture and drive. There’s a kinship of spirit with the wines, and they’re reframing the variety in interesting ways.
A lighter take
Merlot is also taken in another direction by Langfield, with the fruit picked to emphasise freshness and whole-bunch fermentation employed to produce a spicy, crunchy and vibrant expression. “I want to make wines with great acid structure, light palate weight, precision, and lower alcohols,” she says. “It’s an approach that’s taken somewhat further by Peta Kotz in the Hunter for her Sabi Wabi label.
“Varietal prejudice is certainly alive and well in Australia.”
“Merlot – isn’t it great?!” Kotz declares. Having dabbled with it while working for others, she wanted to extend the idea of making it into rosé to make a brighter style of red. “I think merlot makes great rosé, so I thought perhaps I could pick it early and try to make a light, bright and vibrant style of red that perhaps might get people talking about merlot again?”
That push further towards the vibrant end of the spectrum is also one that is helping cabernet sauvignon find a new audience. “I think cabernet is a variety that you aren’t exposed to as much as a new wine drinker,” says Luke Tocaciu of Patrick of Coonawarra. “It’s a variety that isn’t typically made to be young, fresh and fruit driven and generally one that you grow into once your understanding of wine gets to a level to appreciate it in a traditionally made style.”
Shaking up the heartland
In Australian cabernet’s heartland, Tocaciu is as focused on drawing in a new audience as he is catering to an established one. “A modern spin on cabernet is needed to bring the variety back into the spotlight and create some excitement around it,” he says. “I am trying to showcase its diversity in making both traditional styles and modern, unique interpretations. There is often the old versus new producer conversation, but we are showing that both can coexist within the same business.”
His less-familiar styles range from an early-picked ‘nouveau’ style to one that celebrates the eucalypt character that is so prevalent in the wines of Coonawarra, with both made in his Méthode series. Eucalypt character is a controversial one in Australian wine, but it’s proven to be a successful angle for Tocaciu. “Drinkers in cellar door love the story about picking within 50 metres of the gumtrees, and they’re so surprised when they can actually taste the eucalyptus in the wine,” he says. “Some locals and industry have also reached out and commended me for embracing a character that would be typically seen as a flavour they want to keep out of the wine.”
In equally prime territory for cabernet sauvignon, LS Merchants’ Dylan Arvidson also works classically and experimentally with the grape. “I think cabernet is one of the varieties that can be moulded into so many different styles and wines,” he says. “It has beautiful, primary fruit and a fruit weight that is hard to beat.”
That view is very much at odds with the public perception of cabernet, outside of its afficionados, who see it as very much an old-school dry red. But Arvidson believes that view is not the fault of the grape. “It has very malleable tannins, so we can achieve soft and powdery tannins with little skin contact or lighter maceration,” he says. “We can also coax out powerful tannins with extreme length and power with extended macerations and more work during fermentation.”
Arvidson emphasises that while these styles are possible, the fruit must be right. “We approach it very much like everything at LS: vineyard first,” he says. “I had to have quality fruit that could achieve full ripeness – not green! – with fruit concentration. We make it into a couple of styles, ‘Hoi Polloi’ which is lighter and more approachable with fruit to the front, and then the more traditional style will full extraction and power.”
A franc approach
A little further south, on her family’s 45-year-old Galafrey vineyard in Mount Barker, Kim Tyrer is also recasting a cabernet variety that is mainly submerged into blends. Cabernet franc was often the other variety listed in a cabernet sauvignon blend, feeling as dustily old school as its progeny (cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc are the parents of cabernet sauvignon). But franc is on the rise, perhaps buoyed by a renewed interest in the red wines of France’s Loire Valley where it proliferates.
But for Tyrer, the interest is a local one. “I have seen many varieties fall in and out of flavour,” she says. “A brand like ours is built on our story and sense of place. I grew up drinking some great local straight varieties of cab franc and loved their ability to age. So, I was keen to show of the merits as a standalone variety.”
That expression has seen Tyrer pull back from the wines that she recalls, with no oak used at all in her version. “I make it more modern to let the natural tannins of the wine speak for themselves, making more of a crunchy one-year-old drink-now red. With the beautiful perfume and choc mint notes, it’s fantastic and goes well with duck. It’s very popular both at cellar door and on restaurant wine lists.”
Wines for our times
That acceptance for less classic styles is something that Tocaciu says has proven similarly breezy in his most conservative of regions. “I thought that the Méthode range would attract a younger demographic looking for something new and exciting, but I have been surprised by who is buying it,” he says. “Existing customers that have traditionally bought high-end wines are ordering them to try something new.”
That uptake is surely a sign of the times, with drinkers eager to find wines that better fit their modern lives, with our cuisine and lifestyle crying out for greater variety. “I like to think that the wines are for different occasions rather than different demographics,” says Tocaciu. “A fresh, fruit-driven style slightly chilled on a warm afternoon versus a more traditional cabernet with a bit more age and oak for a cold winter’s night.”
2021 White Gate Cabernet Sauvignon
Barossa Valley, 13.7% ABV, $32
Although this is a bright expression of Barossa cabernet, it’s got plenty of depth and flavour ripeness, with macerated dark forest berries, cassis, mulberries, dried herbal notes and flashes of spice. The absence of obvious oak is a pleasing element here, letting the natural grape tannins and silky feel of the fruit hold sway over the palate, the mouthfeel laced with a refined interplay between perfect ripeness of fruit, gently leafy and spicy notes and a vigorous line of acidity.
This is all merlot, with the pedal taken off ripeness and instead focused on bright freshness, with sour plums, mulberries, redcurrants and tart cherries accented with woodsy herbs. This sits on the palate lightly, with zippy freshness, cool tannins and all those tart red fruits giving this real life and brightness.
2020 LS Merchants ‘Jolliffe Vineyard’ Cabernet Sauvignon
Margaret River 14.5% ABV, $125
There’s classic Margaret River power here, with aromas of dark berries, mulberry, ripe raspberry and currants, but there’s also restraint, with new oak knit well into the wine, and balance en pointe. The tannins are impeccably fine, with a silky suppleness delivering them quietly but with no less impact. This is pleasing now, but it’s clearly a wine that will benefit greatly with time in bottle, unlocking more detail and fragrance.
This is not your typical sauvignon blanc, with it allowed to get ripe enough to knock of those highly aromatic green notes so typical of the variety. But coming from a cool place, the wine has retained elegance, with a gentle herbal note, more in the sage spectrum, wafting over dried pineapple, candied lemon rind and golden apples. Oak is a factor here, though never intruding, rounding off the flavours and adding subtly smoky notes, a subtly textural palate deepening the interest significantly.
This cashes in on many elements that you’d like from merlot, with blood plums, currants, mulberries and moist tobacco notes, but there’s an exuberance that comes out with air that gives this another angle, with an increasing impact of white pepper spice and fresh bay leaf. That brightness is there on the palate, too, with a buoyancy weighted equally with serious complexity and varietal detail, a blackberry pastille note chiming in through the finish of fine but impactful tannins.
2021 Galafrey Cabernet Franc
Mount Barker, 13.5% ABV, $28
There’s a pleasingly plush elegance to this, with perfectly pitched ripe dark berries, mulberries and currants, accented with classic leafy and peppery notes. This is midweight, with silky, supple and ultra-fine tannins, emphasising the natural grapey grip, uncluttered by oak. This has classic cabernet family presence, but there’s an ease, a natural charm that pitches into a distinctly modern spectrum.
This takes the generally heightened aromatics of sauvignon blanc – albeit in league with semillon – and tones them down, though with no loss of intensity, flavour and interest. A gentle brush of wild herbs, chamomile, Meyer lemon zest, blackcurrant leaf and cool stone fruit all feature, with a subtle winemaking complexity that enriches both nose and palate, a subtle saline textural feel running through the palate. This clocks in at chardonnay weight, but that flavour play keeps it well in varietal territory, with elegance walking hand in hand with characterful depth.
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