Today’s Australian wine drinker is getting used to experimenting beyond the familiar. We are increasingly acquainted with more and more grapes that would have been a mystery to most only a few years ago. Much of that attention has been on Italian and Iberian grapes, but other European grapes have also been making an impression, with the growing interest in gamay a notable feature. What are known as the ‘noble’ grapes still account for much of our drinking habits, but a phalanx of exciting varieties sit behind them, and they’re producing some genuinely thrilling wines.
The marquee wine regions of the Old World have had the most impact on the plantings in the New World. And that’s hardly surprising, with ambitious makers wanting to emulate the success of places like Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Mosel. That has seen cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling etc. planted widely, with beneficial territories identified alongside the occasional misstep.
In the last little while, much attention has gone to planting varieties that suit warmer climates, both to better plant our hotter regions and to keep an eye on the future, with conditions undoubtedly heating up over the long term. That process has been a great boon to drinkers and a great asset to growers, but characterising Australian winegrowing as uniformly hot is obviously inaccurate.
It’s likely that we’ll see less Sicilian varieties planted in places like Tasmania, Macedon or the Adelaide Hills. Not that they don’t occasionally crop up in warmer sites, but the diversity in those places is more likely to be built from vines adapted to cooler temperatures. Beaujolais’ gamay is one such grape that can certainly take more heat than pinot noir, for example, retaining acidity if things warm up a bit, but it also ripens earlier than pinot, making it more reliable in colder years, though the high acidity can be a challenge in the colder sites and years.
“This is seriously one of the most exciting varieties I have come across in a long time,”
“This is seriously one of the most exciting varieties I have come across in a long time,” says Turon Wines’ Turon White, who is based in the Adelaide Hills. While the grape is only finding its feet, he emphasises that the excitement will only ratchet up, likening the clonal variation in vine material to pinot noir, allowing for great diversity and complexity going forward.
That’s a future that he believes will see the Hills become a major player, with several factors making gamay an ideal prospect. “The cool air in the Hills means the grapes hold onto their acidity and bright fruit flavours, but that’s not at the cost of tannin ripeness, structure, colour and savoury notes to add complexity to the vibrant fruit notes,” says White. “That’s not an easy combination for any grape, and it’s what gets me excited about its future here.”
From cool to hot
Gamay is increasingly being planted in areas that are proving a little too warm for pinot noir on a consistent basis, making it an exciting prospect in many regions, such as on the Valley floor in the Yarra. Another grape that takes to warming conditions well but expresses well in the cool is trousseau. That’s the more common French name, with it notably planted in the Jura to the east of Burgundy, where conditions can be bracingly cold at times.
However, the grape is known as bastardo in Portugal, where it notably contributes to Port production and flourishes in the heat. “Trousseau is a fabulous variety, which can produce a really wide range of wines, anywhere from a bigger riper bastardo style through to a light, bright, savoury trousseau style,” says Lauren Langfield of Orbis in McLaren Vale.
“I do enjoy the perverse challenge of making something beautiful from a variety overlooked by others.”
Although the temptation in the Vale may be to push towards the Portuguese model, given the relative warmth of the region, Langfield goes the other way, which suits the general style of Orbis towards midweight wines. “I really like to make the Jura-esque style of Trousseau,” she says. “And we’ve seen the market respond really well to it, too. So much so that we planted more of it in the vineyard in 2022, and have more planting planned again for spring 2023.”
Regent of “non-adjectival” wines
In Tasmania, chardonnay may be the leading white grape, but there is no doubt that it is enviable territory for aromatic whites, and Keira O’Brian of Rivulet believes that it’s also a pretty handy place for a notably non-aromatic white, sylvaner (or silvaner).
O’Brien quotes Andrew Jefford, who in an article on the grape for Decanter, separated wines into “adjectival” and “non-adjectival” categories, with the later defying flavour descriptors. Sylvaner, he wrote, was the “king or queen” of this evasiveness: “Silvaner… just is. Its being is pure wine, wine with almost all the adjectives stripped away. Its perfection is gloriously inarticulate.”
“There are a few little pockets of sylvaner tucked into older vineyards in the Huon Valley,” says O’Brien. “The story goes that chardonnay cuttings were shared around back in the early days. When they grew, they were not chardonnay, they were Sylvaner! And while it’s regarded with disdain by other winemakers, when I first had the opportunity to work with it, I had in mind the wonderful wines from the Rheinhessen – Keller, Wagner Stempel, etc.”
“Silvaner… just is. Its being is pure wine, wine with almost all the adjectives stripped away. Its perfection is gloriously inarticulate.”
“While it’s regarded with disdain by other winemakers, when I first had the opportunity to work with it, I had in mind the wonderful wines from the Rheinhessen – Keller, Wagner Stempel, etc.”
Indeed, sylvaner can make wines of real distinction, even considering their apparent lack of distinctiveness. “The flavour descriptors don’t rush at you when you taste Sylvaner,” she continues. “They are quietly alluring wines of texture, with capacity for glorious structure and depth. For ‘Sylvie’, the fruit comes from the wonderful Elsewhere vineyard in the Huon Valley… To build texture and complexity, two parcels were fermented on skins, one pressed off just before the end of ferment and the other on skins for 21 days. The resulting wines were quite wild, with cider apple type skin tannins, peach fuzz and bruised apple flavours.”
Maturation in oak followed, with a small amount of new French oak employed to help knit the flavours together and create harmony and length. “I do enjoy the perverse challenge of making something beautiful from a variety overlooked by others,” adds O’Brien. “The wine was made at the Pooley winery, where Anna and Justin’s youngest daughter, Sylvie, is often around during school holidays or weekends. She’s a cute and cheeky kid with a crown of blond curls. Sylvie is also an old Latin name for the spirit of the forest, a mischievous sprite. It seemed an appropriate moniker for the wine, the way it sneaks up on you with its quiet, playful charms.”
A royale matchup
Müller-thurgau is another variety that gets cast considerable shade by winemakers. It is a hybrid developed by Dr Hermann Müller-Thurgau in the late 19th century, with the intention of combining riesling and sylvaner to create a more reliable, disease-resistant and earlier ripening take on riesling. He achieved many of those goals, but given that the sylvaner he used was actually a table grape called madeleine royale, the result was not quite as distinguished.
“I like the challenge of müller-thurgau because it has a bad reputation,” says Kim Tyrer who has had the grape planted at her family’s Galafrey vineyard in WA’s Mount Barker since 1977. “We wanted to lean into its uniqueness and make the best version of it we could.”
Tyrer notes that the key with making high-quality wine from müller-thurgau is targeting the right picking window. “Müller drops acidity really quickly, so it’s important to pick at its optimum. Then we press it on extra skins to give it a pithy structure, which holds the oily characters in a box-like structure. That palate with its beautiful floral notes, liner drive and delicate elegance make for a really interesting well-made wine from a unique variety.”
On Kangaroo Island, Nick Dugmore farms the Cassini Vineyard for his Stoke label, working with incumbent classic varieties, including shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and pinot gris. There is also a smattering of cabernet franc and roussanne. The former variety is certainly one on the rise, with makers looking to the Loire Valley for reference points – rather than following the Bordeaux model of blending – to make more elegant, peppery varietal expressions, or like Barossa’s Rollick who make a snappily dry and textural take on the grape with their rosé.
The Rhône Valley’s roussanne is another interesting prospect, with the grape seeing some varietal bottlings – it is often blended – starting to make a splash, notably from McLaren Vale’s Yangarra. While Dugmore is in the early phases of working with the grape, he sees an interesting future for it. “This was the first time we had made roussanne from our block. The original owner of the vineyard would blend it away with their shiraz. We only have 300 vines of roussanne and picked 660kg but felt it would be a shame to blend it away,” says Dugmore, noting that low yield was also the result of changing pruning methods and converting to organic farming after taking on the lease.
“So, we treated this roussanne quite simply to get an idea of what the fruit could do. It was wild fermented in barrel for a little texture and when dry it was racked to stainless. A small portion was fermented in stainless at a cooler temperature to retain aroma too. This year, we picked 1.1 tonnes and left it on skins for a day and fermented in tank on solids. We are changing it up with the making, as it is early days with this fruit, and we want to see what works best.”
It’s a wine that Dugmore sees joining the Stoke portfolio for the long term, with it providing a distinctive flavour and structure profile. “The result is textural with a fine acid line,” he says. “The ’22 has really fleshed out in bottle, becoming more varietal palate-wise… Sandy and savoury and a bit flinty on the nose. It has a little oiliness typical of the variety but the natural acid cuts through nicely. It’s a medium-bodied food wine that would complement a salty crunchy dish of something…”
There is no doubt that the future will feature the ups and downs of trends and changing tastes, but one thing that seems certain is that we will have an ever enrichening wine landscape. With Italian and Iberian varieties now well ensconced alongside classic grapes, the exploration of other characterful grapes that don’t quite get the airtime of noble varieties is firmly on the rise.
2022 XO Wine Co. ‘Single Vineyard’ Gamay
Adelaide Hills, 13%, $32
This takes the lead from Beaujolais with a full carbonic fermentation, enhancing the bright red and black fruits, with wild raspberry and blackberry notes accented with white pepper. There’s a bright and crunchy freshness to this, but that’s tempered neatly with a savouriness and sprinkling of spice. Gently supple, silky and midweight, there’s a gentle but insistent tug of fine grapey tannin structuring through the finish.
This is on the brighter end of the gamay spectrum, eschewing the darker fruits and earthier elements for notes of red cherries, damson plum, musk and fresh herbs, with a lilting note of mint freshening in the background. There’s zip and a crunchy freshness on the palate, with a tart play of sour berries and rhubarb giving this poised energy through the finish.
2022 Galafrey Muller Thurgau
Mount Barker, 12%, $28
From the original 1977 plantings at Galafrey, this is one of few varietal müller-thurgau wines made in the country. A hybrid variety of riesling and a table grape, the former’s character is here, with subtle citrus notes, green apples and a fresh crispness but there’s also a gently exotic floral character, pickled ginger, cinnamon and pear. The palate has a mildly slippery textural feel up front with a wet rock mineral note, the acidity fresh but with a softness of feel, too.
All sylvaner, this spent between five days and three weeks on skins for fermentation, then was pressed to French oak, with a fifth new. The nose leads with smoky herbal notes, with curry leaves and green peppercorns over kiwi fruit, lemongrass, green apple and lemon pulp. The skins kick in on the palate, with a chewy side balancing the more slippery front palate texture, sitting midweight and savoury, with a graphite mineral edge giving way to a fresh finish.
This is pale red in appearance with a gentle haze to it, underling that it’s un-fined and unfiltered. There’s a savoury earthiness, along with aromas of plum, wild strawberry and raspberry, brown spices and crushed autumn leaves. The wine sits at the lighter end in terms of weight, but there’s an intense savouriness allied with pleasingly sour fruits and an invigorating lick of acidity, the fruit flavours fanning out through the finish.
Golden apple, Williams pear and a waxy, almond savouriness feature on the nose on a profile that has plenty to offer but also exercises restraint, showing the cool profile but with clear flavour development. That theme carries through to the palate, with a waxy, slippery and gently saline texture carrying the flavours from the nose, a hint of apple seed flavour and pithiness complexing the finish.
2022 Rollick ‘Coastal Days’ Rosé Cabernet Franc
Barossa Valley, $28
Pale pink, in a Provence mould, with that theme continuing on the nose (even though the variety is not a Provençal one), with lifted notes of fresh strawberries, wild raspberries, orange rind and floral notes. There’s generosity of flavour here, and that is carried through on the palate, but it leans on freshness built for drinking in the sun. The palate, though, has a nicely poised level of grip, along with frisky acidity that corrals that textural richness to give it weight and intensity but not at the expense of bright freshness.
Starting out is not always easy for a new wine project, with some makers taking years before taking the solo leap, while others tumble in headfirst with limited experience but a firm vision and a whole lot of chutzpah. Amongst the new labels in the YGOW Awards 2021 Top 50, Château Comme Ci, Comme Ça, Worlds Apart Wines, Sven Joschke, Tillie J and Cavedon. Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.
Fizz, white and, more recently, pink have held pride of place as the slakers of thirst on sunny summer afternoons. What about red? Why can’t we drink that cold? A couple of Melbourne’s top somms grabbed a handful of reds to find out.