Australia’s early white wine were marked by rustic winemaking methods, before a 20th century technical revolution resulted in wines of great fruit purity and freshness. Those wines became Australian benchmarks, dry and fresh with ultra-clear fruit characters – think Hunter semillon or Clare riesling. So many other varieties have since received the same treatment – pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, verdelho, chenin blanc, fiano… More recently, new wave makers have certainly flipped that script, rejoicing in extensive skin contact (whites made like reds) and uncommon blends of varieties. But today, the white wine landscape is even richer, with many new grape varieties thriving and so many wines nuanced with subtler tweaks, throwing the idea of style out the window, responding to fruit and site to make compelling wines that are built just as much on texture as they are on flavour.
“Once upon a time, I worked a corporate job where it was commonplace to fine the shit out of every white wine that came through the winery,” says winemaker Riley Harrison. “This always bothered me, as I knew some of those fruit parcels were suffering because of what we were taking out. I have no doubt that I went too far the other way and thrashed the skin contact thing for a few years after I’d left, but now I’m really happy with where I’ve settled… a bit of skin, more flavour, honed texture.”
Harrison makes wine under his eponymous micro-batch label, sourcing fruit from across South Australia, while his current day job is now at a more simpatico winery in McLaren Vale. His journey from testing boundaries, then refining practices to leave less of a thumbprint is an increasingly common one. Technically trained winemakers are typically taught to make pristine wine, which is a legacy of the evolution of Australian white wine in the 20th century.
A technical legacy
Local experiments had begun earlier in the 1930s to use refrigeration to preserve fruit character during fermentation and maturation, but stainless steel wasn’t on the scene until the 1950s. It was that introduction, along with sterile filtration, fining agents (which remove phenolics/tannins and matter that may make a wine cloudy), cultured yeasts that are effective at low temperatures, gas-blanketing to protect from oxidation and other methods that really revolutionised winemaking industry wide.
Those technologies influenced both red and white making, but it was with whites – and typically aromatic or moderately aromatic whites, with chardonnay following a more traditional Old-World path – that there was a major quantum shift. That technical approach killed off many faulty wines, and it also made consistent production of fresh varietal wine on a large scale possible. And while this approach can produce wines of real transparency that highlight site, there are many more that lack for detail and depth of interest.
“Once upon a time, I worked a corporate job where it was commonplace to fine the shit out of every white wine that came through the winery.”
“I was taught to make wine in the New-World modern frame – crisp, water white, purity of fruit above all else,” says winemaker Alex Beckett. “I began to feel pretty early that the wines were missing those subtle things that make them interesting – texture, weight, complexity of character. So, now I embrace a hybrid of classic European techniques for complexity with the benefits of modern technology to retain freshness and purity.”
Beckett makes wine in the Hunter Valley, arguably Australia’s most conservative wine region. He works at Briar Ridge, who have also been somewhat of a bastion of tradition, principally turning out classically styled wines from the Hunter’s marquee varieties. Of late, however, albariño, viognier, fiano and pinot gris have joined the range, and Beckett has very much focused on building subtle but meaningful texture across the white portfolio.
While Beckett makes a semillon in the classic style (a wine that is dedicated to Hunter legend Karl Stockhausen), the flagship ‘Dairy Hill’ semillon has been tweaked. That includes more solids in the ferments, native yeasts and slightly warmer ferment temperatures, while oxidative handling adds further layers. The result is a wine that is recognisably Hunter semillon, but noticeably progressive. And Beckett’s quest to add further nuance is ongoing.
“I began trialling large-format neutral oak with semillon in ’21, but I didn’t quite get the fruit texture right for it to be included in the final wine,” he says. “Better vineyard management techniques helped us achieve that fruit texture. From 2022, the ‘Dairy Hill’ Semillon is fermented in large old casks. Given that my primary focus is semillon, I think the closest comparison is the great dry white rieslings of Germany, where the combination of techniques creates exciting wines of precision, textural breadth and longevity.”
“Traditional styles are often good jumping off points, but it's important that dogma or fashion does not drive winemaking decisions.”
Site, fruit & intuition
Hunter semillon also played a big part in inspiring Erin Frances Pooley when she first launched her Little Frances label, with the aged versions particularly capturing her imagination. Her fruit source was somewhat further away, though, with an extended stint in California seeing her make semillon from Lake County. “For a long time, I was consistently picking at low Baume, bottling young and releasing with bottle age,” she says
That path sounds a familiar one given the inspiration, but Pooley was also taking things down a different route. “I took creative license with the style by allowing malolactic to go through, barrel ageing and handling juice oxidatively,” she says. “So, ultimately my wines are quite different. Over the years, gaining experience with other white wines, it’s been important to stay open minded, to try new things and trust my palate and not be formulaic about processing.”
For Pooley, the style should always be driven by the fruit. “Traditional styles are often good jumping off points, but it’s important that dogma or fashion does not drive winemaking decisions,” she says. “The perspective of our industry is changing from robotically manufacturing what is in vogue, to making wines from grapes that make sense in the place they are grown. It takes courage to make wines people are unfamiliar with…. I am confident if we let the vineyard guide the way, both consumers and creator’s benefit.”
Being a slave to dogma can indeed affect both technically minded winemakers and those pursuing more contemporary styles. Those following what varieties work best in their regions and then experimenting and refining their approach are making some of this country’s most exciting whites. Luke Growden and Caleigh Hunt of Year Wines didn’t even have whites in their sights when they started their own label, but that has all changed with an influx of new varieties.
“McLaren Vale didn’t have a heap of quality white options, so we were focused on the reds that suit here,” says Growden. “We made plenty of whites in the day jobs, but everything from the Vale was for lower price points – neutral, inoffensive wine. Enter the Italians! Fiano has been a gamechanger, with grillo hot on its heels, vermentino perhaps… not sure. Can’t wait to see greco and carricante plantings come online.”
Hot regions like McLaren Vale and the Barossa have long struggled with an identity for white wine, but with southern Italian varieties well adapted to hot and dry conditions, that is all changing, as it is further inland, such as the Riverland, where the mercury rises even further. “They hold their acid so well, and you can play around with the amount of phenolics, lees work, oak et al in order to create a wine that has drive and interest but is still at its core refreshing and acid driven,” says Growden.
Skin in the game
That process of building texture and structure through phenolics (basically grape tannins and lees) is arguably one of the most significant developments in making white wine in this country. In the technical realm, tannins in wine were always seen as a fault. Always. That is changing, with the extremes of amber/orange skin contact wines being the most obvious examples, but there is an almost endless range in between, with gentle kisses of skin to longer extractions building flavour, texture and subtle structure while not tilting the wines towards wild or esoteric expressions.
Harrison sources grenache blanc and roussanne from McLaren Vale, and over time he has evolved his making to craft expressions that would keep both forward-thinking and classic drinkers satisfied. “I use skin contact to achieve the desired chalkiness,” he says. “But only minimal skin contact: 48 hours for roussanne, and 24 hours for grenache blanc. I used to go harder and longer but the resultant wines were blockier, chunkier and spoke more of technique than variety. It’s paramount that variety and place are visible in the finished wine.”
A bright future
Perhaps the exciting thing about Australian white wine now is its sheer diversity, with makers embracing technical learnings alongside ancient methods and those refined by working with the same parcels of fruit over many vintages. “We’ve barely scratched the surface of white wine possibilities in Australia; there is potential everywhere you look,” says Pooley, from reinterpreting the classics to evolving new styles and becoming familiar with emerging varieties.
“It’s a broad landscape,” says Harrison. “I really love a lot of very traditionally made Australian white wines. But along with those great examples, there is a lot of shit. There’s a lot of super-interesting, flavourful, textural white wines that are pushing boundaries and challenging norms. But in a similar way, there are also a lot of clumsy, faulty white wines masquerading as ‘interesting’ wines. We’re at a great moment in time where traditional norms are being challenged and there are a lot of people pushing boundaries… Australian white wine is only going to get better from here!”
There is little doubt that the Australian white wine landscape is as diverse as it has ever been, with a broad range of individual expressions, driven more and more by site and fruit than doctrine or recipe winemaking. “The future is bright,” says Beckett. “The minimalist winemaking branch has found its feet, and the quality of the wines in the category are creating so many great drinking adventures. On the other side, the producers melding classical techniques and modern technology to create wines that push the boundaries of excellence really excite me about our industry’s place in the world.”
2021 Dazma Gewürztraminer
King Valley, 11.9% ABV, $30
There’s no mistaking the variety here, with notes of rose petals, talc, lychee and orange zest on the nose, complexed by apparent skin contact, with notes of crystallised ginger and woody herbs. That skinsy treatment and no filtration gives the visual appearance a tarnished brassy tone, with moderate haze. Those skins also neatly sub in gentle tannins to support the variety’s modest acidity, with a pulpy feel filling out the texture. Gentle salinity adds detail, exotic floral notes closing out.
This unfiltered white has a healthy dose of cloudy sediment in the bottom that adds to the texture of the wine, giving it a pillowy and lightly chewy dimension, while also complexing the flavours with chalky, waxy notes adding detail to the grapefruit, stone fruit and golden apple flavours. There’s vibrant freshness, with a zippy tail of acidity, but that’s buffered by the gentle grip and pithy cushioning.
Year Wines ‘Noodle Juice’ 2021
McLaren Vale, 12.3% ABV, $26
Grillo, riesling, muscat à petits grains. Little cloudy lemony gold colour, this is bright and lifted with lemon leaf and citrus oil notes, cool white peach, red apple skin, along with a gently spicy and sappy acacia-like note that hints at some skin contact. There’s zip and chew on the palate – a lemon barley water feel. It’s ultra-fresh and gluggable, but engagingly complex, too, with the tug of skinsy tannins never intruding but rather making this both thirst quenching and thirst making at the same time.
This is not remotely overt in the apricot spectrum like many a viognier, rather it layers in detail somewhat like a serious chardonnay, with nutty nougat notes, yellow stone fruit, hints of caramel and candied ginger, but with the gently exotic flex of orchard blossom et al that pulls it back into varietal line. That blurring accounts for a good deal of charm, with the palate textural but not broad, fruit intense but savoury, and a sufficiently crisp line of acidity carrying smoky barrel notes through the finish.
2016 Little Frances ‘Luchsinger Vineyard’ Semillon
Lake Country California, 10.7% ABV, $36
Notes of beeswax, lanolin and honey hover over the lemon-scented aromatic profile, with pith, peel and curd all present, but reflected in a subdued earthy way. This is fine, dry and poised, with a chalky and lemon barley water feel to it, the subtly judged texture giving it much more presence than the low alcohol would suggest. It’s the weight of a Hunter semillon, but it feels channelled through Loire Valley chenin blanc, and of course it’s neither, but rather a wholly individual expression.
Little Frances Pinot Gris 2021
North East Victoria, 13% ABV, $26
Bosc pear, orange blossom and damson plum on the nose, with hints of cinnamon, red florals and candied peel. This is touched by skins, but it doesn’t wear that heavily, rather the flavours are dialled into a more interesting spectrum, with subtle layers of complexity, subtle talc-like notes filtering in, with a gentle graphite texture giving this a mid-palate slipperiness.
Scents of lemongrass, lime and lemon leaves, wild grasses and a hint of chamomile on the nose, with a little more plump of flavour than the classic Hunter version. That theme continues on the palate, with the flavours persisting, and a cushioning texture rising up to meet the freshness and ride the classically racy spine of acidity. This has the zing and brightness of the classics, but there’s a supple flex that adds a layer of charm, while the flavours persist long after swallowing.
2021 Sabi Wabi Semillon
Hunter Valley, 11.2% ABV, $28
At classic Hunter Valley semillon ripeness, this deviates from the norm by being barrel fermented with native yeasts and being bottled un-fined an unfiltered. The first impression is very much in a bright and zippy vein, but there’s more complexity to it than the average young Hunter semillon, with notes of salted lemon, crystalised ginger, lanolin, tart lemon curd and beeswax. The palate has a coiled line of acidity, but there’s a gentle cushioning of texture, with those citric, waxy and saline notes carrying long.
Harrison ‘Sol’ Blanco 2021
McLaren Vale, 12.8% ABV, $35
A blend of roussanne and grenache blanc, this is both savoury and fresh, with notes of golden apples, sage, brown spices and bosc pear. The day or so of skin contact give this a pleasing tension that layers in some nutty notes on the nose, with a little fennel seed and caraway, while on the palate it builds in tension with gentle pithy tannin, some citrus notes chiming in. This sits midweight, fresh, chewy, satiating, asking for food but not demanding it.
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