Australian wine has long centred on the most noble recognisable grape varieties, and predominantly French ones at that. But much has changed, with grapes that would have been seen as obscure to many drinkers only a decade ago, now firm favourites. Well-known Italian and Spanish grapes have been joined by those less familiar, and they are gaining traction at a remarkable rate, with makers driven by the quest to find more climate apt varieties, as well as those that channel site in increasingly varied and exciting ways. The 2021 Top 50 features David Caporaletti (Architects of Wine), James Scarcebrook (Vino Intrepido), Raquel Jones (Weathercraft), Nathan Brown (Linear), Anita Goode (Wangolina), Ben Caldwell and Mauricio Ruiz Cantú (Somos), Sam Dunlevy (Berg Herring), Duncan Lloyd (Coriole) and Sam Berketa (Alpha Box & Dice), who are all making a splash with alternative varieties.
(Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.)
“With alternatives, the variety itself is the experiment for the drinker, so we always must make something delicious to both please the drinker, and champion the variety.”
The Australian wine industry has been centred around some very familiar grape varieties, with the usual suspects of shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and family, grenache, pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling, semillon, sauvignon blanc and pinot gris hogging the limelight. But so-called alternative varieties are starting to gather some meaningful market share, led by notable champions like the Lloyd family of Coriole – who have famously elevated the profile of sangiovese and fiano, amongst other varieties – and the Chalmers family who have supplied vine material to so many growers, as well as working tirelessly to refine wines made from a raft of mainly Italian grapes.
Some varieties that have been planted for some time, like sangiovese and nebbiolo have already made waves – albeit slowly – while others that have been here a short time, like nero d’avola, have rocketed into consumer acceptance, with a suitability to a warm and ever-warming climate generating compelling expressions. Either way, the die is certainly cast, with the range of less-familiar grapes expanding exponentially, and the shelves and fridges of wine stores filling with wines made from a diverse range of grapes, and in an equally diverse range of styles.
“We see more of our customers keen to try new things,” says Anita Goode of Mount Benson’s Wangolina. “We are seeing higher growth in our sales of our alternative varieties than our classic styles. Wangolina now sells more tempranillo than it does shiraz and more lagrein than cabernet.”
That exploration of varieties began when Goode grafted some semillon over to grüner veltliner in 2015, and she hasn’t looked back. Based on small-batch wines produced from a trial block, she has been isolating varieties that perform well in the region. Over the last six years, Goode has trialled ten varieties, with Malvasia istriana planted meaningfully in 2019, and garganega (the principal grape of Soave) planned for 2021. But she also notes that moscato giallo, ribolla gialla and parellada have also piqued her interest.
“In Mount Benson, I have been looking mainly towards white varieties,” says Goode. “Grüner has been doing really well for us, with some lovely nectarine skin, pear and white pepper aromatics. Viticulturally it’s very easy to care for, with a good-yielding nature and minimal growing demands. I work with tempranillo, lagrein, mencía, montepulciano, dolcetto and carménère from Mundulla, which is one of the warmer areas. The wines show bright aromatics as well as a rich tannin profile. This is not all there is in the Limestone Coast, either, with cabernet franc in Coonawarra, barbera in Wrattonbully and graciano in Padthaway also exciting.”
In Victoria’s Beechworth, Raquel Jones has a razor-sharp focus on exploring a variety that has been planted for some time, though it has arguably not made a big impression at the quality end of the market. “My family background is Spanish,” she says. “So naturally, I have a strong interest in all Spanish wines, though my true passion is for high-quality tempranillo.”
That focus saw Jones deeply investigate the soils and climate nuances of the Weathercraft site to select the most-suited clonal material. A previous lack of diversity in vine material has hampered the progression of the variety here, with wines often rich, tannic and one-dimensional. Jones, though, was able to source three newly imported clones.
“They are from the same region as Vega Sicilia and Alejandro Fernandez’s Pesquera vines,” she says. “We are one of the first in Australia to have fruit from them in bottle. To have Ribera clones is very special. For me, they produce a more elegant style of tempranillo with gorgeous colour and unique fruit expression.”
That striving to improve the expression of alternative varieties is a key one to their continued success, both through planting the most suitable vine material as well as working better in the winery. David Caporaletti of Architects of Wine works with several less-known grapes, but his prime muse is nebbiolo.
“Nebbiolo is gaining in popularity,” he says, “and I think it’s now that the Adelaide Hills vineyards have become more mature that we’re starting to see the wines at their best. That combined with winemakers having a better understanding of how the wines should be made. I’m a firm believer that nebbiolo should be made the old traditionalists way with long macerations, old oak, and not released too early. For me, this always produces the best expressions of nebbiolo. If only there was more planted!”
And while Caporaletti goes long on nebbiolo, with five subregional bottlings, he’s not limited by it. “I love Italian wines and Italian varieties,” he says. “It allows me to create some unique wines from varieties that many people may not have tried before or even heard of. A still, dry, skin-contact moscato giallo, a brachetto pét-nat, and a carbonically macerated lambrusco are all pretty unique expressions of these varieties, which people seem to love.”
In McLaren Vale, Sam Dunlevy of Berg Herring works with alternative varieties for two prime reasons. “The wines I like to drink are fruit forward and balanced,” he says, “with moderate alcohol, good acid and moderate tannin. Emerging varieties are well suited to making this style of wine. The wines drink perfectly in our climate, but the grapes are also showing to perform excellently in the vineyard. Alternates, particularly Mediterranean ones, show a resistance to the hot and dry conditions. They crop well, require less water and are resilient to extreme heat, producing balanced wines that are full of flavour.”
This natural balance is something that Ben Caldwell of Somos, also based in the Vale, says is critical to the approach he and Mauricio Ruiz Cantú favour. “Climate-appropriate varieties are a joy in the vineyard,” says Caldwell. “Things just come together and taste great, with good sugar, acid and flavour developing at the same time, which is not necessarily a common thing with the traditional varieties like shiraz, for example. This allows us to make minimal-intervention wines of natural acidity and poise without the need for amelioration in the winery.”
Dunlevy believes that the variety and range of new varieties will only deepen over time, predicting a burgeoning interest in alternative white grapes in the Vale. “Chardonnay, sauvignon, riesling, etc., don’t perform well in the extreme heat,” he says. “There will be a shift toward Mediterranean whites that ripen slowly and retain acid. Fiano, vermentino are on the radar… pecorino, grillo, greco, piquepoul, falanghina and assyrtiko are also gaining interest.”
Although much focus is placed on securing varieties that survive, indeed thrive, in a warming climate – especially given the huge volume of wine that comes from already hot regions – Caporaletti stresses that we shouldn’t be boxed in by that thinking. “Nero d’avola, for example, is a variety that suits the hot dry Australian climate very well, but it also produces amazing wines grown in a cool, wet part of the Adelaide Hills, where you’d typically grow something like nebbiolo, pinot noir or chardonnay. The resulting wines are so much prettier and more lithe than their warm-clime counterparts.”
Caldwell and Ruiz Cantú also note that their aim is not just solving climate-related winegrowing problems, but rather to focus on grapes they are drawn to for their inherent character. “Mencía is one of Mauricio’s favourite red wine grapes, and I love neutral and textural Italian white wines such as the vermentino wines of Sardinia,” says Caldwell, “there is often a perception that mencía is a hot-climate variety; however, it is from Northern Spain, in particular the wines from a DO called Ribeira Sacra, which Maurizio and I love. This part of Spain is warm in summer but is cool in the ripening period in autumn, with a high rainfall. Our mencía vineyard is in Macclesfield, Adelaide Hills, which shares many climatic characteristics.”
That pursuit of site has become a key driver of all the best makers of alternative varieties, whether it’s a producer like Goode extensively testing and trialling before planting, while also sourcing further afield, or the approaches of Caporaletti, Dunlevy, Caldwell and Ruiz Cantú, chasing sites that give them the best chance of making wines that suit their style. And from there, almost anything goes.
“There are no preconceived ideas about how these wines should look and taste as consumers are often trying these for the first time,” says Dunlevy. “For ‘traditionals’, the precedence is set, consumers expect a shiraz from a given region to look and taste a certain way, and they judge accordingly. Alternate varieties have a clean slate – consumers buy these anticipating a new experience, so there is much more room to have a play.”
Interestingly, Caldwell sees thigs a little differently. “You can make something quite strange and avant-garde just for the sake of it with a traditional variety” he says, “as there is a broad church drinking those varieties, and people are willing to experiment on style. With alternatives, the variety itself is the experiment for the drinker, so we always must make something delicious to both please the drinker, and champion the variety.”
Whatever the approach, the growth in new varieties and the firm cementing of established ‘alternative’ varieties is fuelling a rich boom in wines that are not so much challenging the traditional stalwarts, but rather adding much-needed detail and depth to the wine-drinking landscape.
This is gently aromatic, with notes of golden delicious apples, apple blossom, yellow grapefruit, lemon pith and cut herbs, with the palate mirroring the flavours across a generously fruited mid-palate, tightening up through the dry and lightly saline finish.
Aromas of yellow and pink grapefruit, white currant, not-quite-ripe pawpaw and guava, along with rosemary flowers and sea spray notes. This is pale in colour but surprisingly rich and textural on the palate, with a slippery feel across the tongue and honey-like viscosity, with flavours that echo the nose but with a suggestion of white strawberry and charred pineapple. Acid is present, but the slip of texture takes the lead here, with a broad fan of flavours running long through the finish.
This has the dusky floral notes typical of mencía, with bright but brooding red fruits, sour cherries, spiced plums, white pepper and traces of almond essence. There’s a nervy sprightliness to this, with intense fruit lifted by whole bunch spice and a nervy play of tannin, which sits with the bright acidity to give this real freshness and pep, wild sour fruits closing out.
Classically deep fruited, with dark plums, black cherries, tar, cola and coffee grounds, blueberries and red berries peeking through. This has plenty of tannin, with an appealing rugged feel, though there’s nothing gruff about it, just a naturally grapey feel, with the weight somewhere in the middle, and an even balance of fruit-forward and savoury notes, a lingering sour raspberry and cherry note leaving a lingering freshness.
Vibrant and lifted, with classic notes of red cherries at the fore, this is zippy and mid-weight, with just a slip of smart French oak providing a silky accent of vanilla bean and brown sugar. There’s zip in the mouth, with fine tannins and sprightly acidity, the fruit flavours fanning out through a fine spectrum of cherry flavours, from market fresh, to preserved sour cherries, to pleasingly sour wild cherry notes.
A classic nose of dried red fruits, cherry, cranberry, fennel seeds and red florals, with a touch of warm terracotta and cassia. This is savoury and tightly wound, but with plenty of bright fruit bound up in it, sour cherry and orange peel, with a decent spike of acidity guiding the wine long, tannins assertive but fine. This carries long, with a lingering finish.
This is lifted and brightly fruited with cherry-scented fruit, both red and black, star anise, a bitumen-like mineral note and some wild herbs. It feels very forward and expressive, but with amaro herbs, spices and that mineral overlay adding depth. A gentle sherbetty spritz on the palate gives this buoyancy with fine tannins, racy acidity and a closing sense of sour wild fruits cinching the flavours in.
A blend of montepulciano, sangiovese, negroamaro and nero d’avola that have been co-fermented, this is a neat meshing of the varieties, with dark forest berries, wild raspberries, master stock spices, kicked earth, warm terracotta notes, leather and fennel seeds. This has a silky glide through the palate, allied with fine but classically grippy tannins providing direction and firming up a savoury finish.
2017 Alpha Box & Dice ‘F is for Fog’ Adelaide Hills Nebbiolo $30
There’s a brooding quality to this, with red and dark forest fruits, leather, brown spices, a hint of scorched honey. There’s ample fruit and weight, but it’s typically savoury, as nebbiolo plays it, though a fruit sweetness runs through the wine, giving it texture and a suppleness, tannins present as expected, but quite fine.
Classically savoury, with dried cherry, ferrous minerals, kicked earth and dried woody herbs on the nose. That savoury overlay is supported by bright red fruits on the palate, but it’s the dry-toned and earthy notes that carry the theme, evoking the Heathcote region and the variety.
From McLaren Vale fruit, this is exuberantly fresh, with ripe raspberries, red and black cherries, and blackberry pastille, with savoury nuances of licorice, bitumen and a gentle lift of cut herbs, perhaps from whole-bunch fermentation. This is full-flavoured and supple, with tannins ripe and fine, with a grapey/stemmy complexity adding appealing chew, closing out with some nicely bright acidity.
Spiced plum, red and dark berries, cherries and coffee grounds feature on the nose on what is an elegant expression of the grape. On the palate, this has a vibrant drive of fine but insistent tannins and a fresh line of acidity, which is so often absent in tempranillo, with the wine finishing crisply bright and vibrant.
Today’s broad stylistic diversity of shiraz (or, syrah) in Australia is increasing at a rapid rate. The 2021 YGOW Awards Top 50 features Charlotte Dalton Wines, Minimum, White Gate Wine Co., The Stoke, Silent Noise, Weathercraft, Made by Monks, Dirt Candy and Wangolina, who are all championing new expressions of shiraz. Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.
The wine zone of Western Victoria contains three major regions: the Grampians, the Pyrenees and Henty. Well, there are four actually, with Great Western effectively a parcel within the Grampians. This year’s Top 50 features Leighton Joy from Pyren Vineyard, in the Pyrenees, and Black & Ginger’s Hadyn Black, from Great Western.
Aside from the few who are pushing the boundaries of avant-garde experimentation, Riesling in this country is often a very straight up and down proposition. Typically, the grapes are gently pressed to stainless steel tanks, where the juice is fermented with cultured yeast at a cool temperature to preserve fruit flavour, then kept there for…