Not so long ago, in Australia, red grapes made proper red wine, white grapes made white wine, and rosé was confected, often profoundly sweet, and mostly ignored by serious wine drinkers. Thankfully, much has changed, with grapes bursting out of their boundaries: white grapes can make anything from water-clear wines to orange ones, while red grapes now arc over a spectrum from classic onion-skin rosé through various pale hues before it meets up with the inkier wines we are more accustomed to. And it’s certainly not just about colour, but wine made from red grapes now comes in an array of styles that reveal a diversity that was once never entertained. From chewy textural rosé through pale chillable red and up to wines that pitch in a fresher and more vibrant vein while still very much being in the red wine camp, Australian wine has a new rainbow.
It is no secret that many Australian drinkers are embracing red wine pitched more to the lighter end of the spectrum. Some say that’s a return to older ways, where lower alcohol wines were the order of the day, before red wine exploded in an orgy of overripe fruit, oak and alcohol towards the end of the 20th century. But times have changed, too, where those wines that are pitched at ready drinkability are simply a better fit.
It’s true that wines were more elegant back in the day, and some winemakers are harking back to that time, but for many the motivation is very much lifestyle based, a reflection of how we want to eat, drink and make merry. So, while many modern reds are pitched in a brighter key, favouring elegance over bombast, many others are walking an entirely new path, often ending up in the fridge and blurring the lines between rosé and red.
“I think this style of wine presents an opportunity for the rebirth of some of the more noble varieties in Australia for new generation of wine drinkers.”
Rowly Milhinch works from his own vineyard in Rutherglen, which is renowned for producing some of Victoria’s most rugged red wines (alongside the standard-bearing fortifieds). His approach is somewhat different, though. Under his Scion label, he works with traditional red varieties, making something of a feature of durif, arguably Rutherglen’s most rustic grape, often making dark-fruited and very tannic reds. Through a variety of practices, including picking earlier, whole bunch and whole berry ferments and the like, he casts the grape in a new light.
Perhaps the most non-traditional style he makes is an uber-pale red that begs to be chilled. His first ‘Daylight Red’ came from the Riverland, with his home harvest tainted with smoke from the 2020 fires. That first wine was a response to working with different fruit, with a short time on skins resulting in a wine that could never be classed as rosé, with a pale colour but red wine tones to the flavour and a decent bit of grape tannin to structure.
That diversification out of necessity spawned a style that Milhinch is persisting with, making a 2021 edition with his own fruit this time. “’Daylight’ is made from a high tannin variety, durif – think nebbiolo – yet coupled with fruit intensity and freshness,” he says. “It works because of the natural tannin that supports bright fruit. The tannin gives the impression of crunch and savoury appeal. I’m not a fan of fruit-forward wines, hence leaning on texture and structure to balance the ledger.”
That approach shows a serious side to a wine that will often get tucked into an Esky and drunk from tumblers, but that doesn’t trouble Milhinch. For him, the experience is up to the consumer, but the important element is the intent and the integrity of the maker – the notion that wines made from red grapes can only be serious if made in a particular way or drunk in a particular way is redundant.
“If a wine is well crafted and has a great vision, regardless of its shade of red, it should go well,” he says. “As the wine scene has developed into a kaleidoscope of colour and shade, purpose and connection to vineyard is increasingly more important. I feel that when going down a different path, understanding site and variety is really important. A connection to place makes wine all the more compelling.”
An Italian connection
In the King Valley, Gabe O’Brien tends to his wife’s family’s vineyard and makes wine under the Cavedon label, cementing a homage to Pia’s father Dino Cavedon who first planted in the 1970s and built a reputation for viticultural innovation. For O’Brien, an emphasis on brighter, lighter reds is very much built on experience and the Cavedon family traditions.
“For us, instead of trying to take cool climate sangiovese fruit and pushing it in the winery to make a wine comparable with a fuller style Chianti, we choose to make a fresher, lighter nouveau style, capturing a vibrant expression of the varietal fruit flavours, as well making room for its more delicate savoury and earthy undertones.”
“There seems to be shift toward lighter reds in Australia at the moment, but the concept isn’t so new to us,” he says. “It was common for the nonnos in Pia’s family to make a lighter style red for everyday table drinking using varieties like americana [a table grape], shiraz, merlot, cabernet franc… So, when we made our first batch of nouveau with tempranillo, it transported Pia and Dino back to sitting at the kitchen table drinking red in a tumbler.”
That’s not to say that O’Brien is trying to make ‘jug wine’. His approach is built around honouring the fruit from the cool of their King Valley vineyard in a modern way, as opposed to trying to mimic a European archetype. “We don’t go out of our way to make a wine just to buck a traditional style,” he says. “For us, instead of trying to take cool climate sangiovese fruit and pushing it in the winery to make a wine comparable with a fuller style Chianti, we choose to make a fresher, lighter nouveau style, capturing a vibrant expression of the varietal fruit flavours, as well making room for its more delicate savoury and earthy undertones.”
Like O’Brien, James Scarcebrook works with Italian varieties, but his focus is exclusively on them, sourcing from across Victoria. “Something I’ve been saying for a while is that I make white wines that appeal to red wine drinkers – generous textured and slightly fuller on the palate – and red wines for white wine drinkers – bright and pretty on the nose, lighter and crunchier on the palate. For me, that’s where a lot of Italian red varieties really shine, and you can handle them very gently without a lot of massaging.”
Scarcebrook is at pains to point out, though, that impeccable viticulture is key. Making a successful wine in a bright, crunchy mould is not the easy option, rather it requires natural balance in the vineyard. “Provided that they are cared for in the vineyard and are picked at the right time, they can have lots of flavour while maintaining high natural acidity,” he says. “This is what gives the wine that bite that I love from Italy, and I love it in almost all my reds. Though some are more intense than others, all my reds end up in a fresher mould thanks to this.”
A rosé by any other name
Scarcebrook’s approach to both red and white wine making is almost precisely echoed by Sven Joschke, although he works with a different palette of varieties, and in quite a different climate. “As our winemaking philosophy, we craft whites in a red manner, and reds in a white manner,” he says. “Give whites air and maturation time in barrel; reds are carefully fermented and pulled of skins quickly for vibrancy with minimal oak.”
Based in the Barossa, Joschke seeks to channel Old-World lessons into his part of the world, but like O’Brien, imitation is never part of the picture. Along with more elegant reds, Joschke makes a rosé that gently challenges convention. Using traditional rosé varieties, he maceratesmourvèdre, grenache and cinsault until he gets a deeper blush than is classic, with an almost tangerine-like hue. The result is a wine that is part familiar and part revolutionary.
“As our winemaking philosophy, we craft whites in a red manner, and reds in a white manner. Give whites air and maturation time in barrel; reds are carefully fermented and pulled of skins quickly for vibrancy with minimal oak.”
“Having experience in France’s famous Rosé production regions, and dealing with Barossa’s finest fruit, we’re aiming at encapsulating the best of both worlds,” says Joschke. “Bandol producers figured out over a long period what varieties contributed to the finest rosés. We’re just taking their discoveries and adapting it to a style that gives a little more for us. Barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation, time and natural settling we find round out the wine to give a little added depth and complexity.”
And while the wine is certainly identifiably rosé, with early picked fruit, it’s a distinct step away from the typical expression, and one where red grapes are given a highly individual voice. “A well-known producer once said to me re rosé, it’s ‘colour, colour, colour’,” says Joschke. “I think that’s crap aimed at the end drinker’s visual purchasing preference. True, rosé needs to be visibly sexy like any other wine, but colour, fruit, acid etc. need to be in balance like all other wine to make it spectacular.”
Classic regions – new styles
For Dylan Arvidson of Margaret River’s LS Merchants, making lighter style reds was part preference and part thinking on his feet, responding to the fruit rather than being guided by tradition. His Mataro is a case in point. “I remember going to the vineyard for the first time and tasting the fruit thinking wow this has the most insane aromatics and juicy fruit profile!” he says. “The tannins in the skin were pretty mean, so I thought why not whole bunch it with no to little crushing over the time it’s fermenting and just try to isolate the lifted fruit and aromatics then use the pressing and stems to control the tannin profile.”
“The grower said I was mad: ‘You can't make pretty wine from mataro.’ So that made me even more determined to find out!”
The result is a wine that is buoyantly fragrant, lithe and very approachable but no less complex for it. “It makes me think of the wines we were drinking at the time, being a lot of light to medium-bodied grenache and whole bunchsyrah, while also delving more into sangiovese and nebbiolo,” says Arvidson. “The grower said I was mad: ‘You can’t make pretty wine from mataro.’ So that made me even more determined to find out!”
In McLaren Vale, Luke Growden makes a suite of wines, but he’s arguably best known for an ever-changing red blend. “I think lighter style reds are definitely more about high drinkability than anything else,” he says. “From a winemaking perspective, this is why they are fun to make. There’s a lot of freedom. For example, our ‘Sausage in Bread’ has five or six random varieties in there. It’s just about producing something that is super drinkable with a good acid backbone and less weight.”
Coming from a warmer region with scant white grapes planted (though that is changing, with many southern Italian grapes making their mark in the Vale), it’s also a wine style that is much more versatile. “It’s a style that works so well for us here especially in the warmer months, and they suit such a wide range of cuisines and occasions,” says Growden. “I reckon you’d be hard pressed to find a wine list these days that doesn’t include a couple of light red options that can be served slightly cooler, especially in summer.”
A bright future
Red grapes in this country are certainly being given new voices, from redefining rosé to turning down the volume a little on classic grapes, to everything in between. It’s an exciting time, with makers trusting their instincts and reading the room to make wines that match out climate, cuisine and lifestyle. And those styles are here to stay.
“I think fresher, lighter drink now style red wines have got a bright future on the Australian wine scene,” says O’Brien. “We’ve recently planted some alternative varieties like mencía, which we are pretty excited to make in this style and think it will do really well. Alternative varieties aside, I think this style of wine presents an opportunity for the rebirth of some of the more noble varieties in Australia for new generation of wine drinkers.”
2021 Scion ‘Daylight’ Red
This is super pale for a darkly gruff variety like durif, but the colour sits firmly in a red wine spectrum, well clear of rosé. The nose is also a notch well up from rosé, with a brambly riot of summer berries, both red and black, with tart pops of blackberry and raspberry, macerated strawberries, rhubarb and some woodsy herbs. All that is intensely but light-footedly represented, as this is all about freshness and fun, a red to be chilled and drilled. A park wine, if you must.
2021 Sven Joschke ‘La Adeline’ Rosé
Barossa Valley, 11.5% ABV, $29
Mourvèdre, grenache, cinsault. Orangey pink hue, on the deeper side, with aromas of orange peel, cranberry, wild strawberry, dried raspberry, watermelon and a hint of musk and rose petals. This is quite full in flavour with plenty of pithy texture, but the brush of cool tannins and vibrant acidity give it a genuine briskness, with a pink grapefruit pith note on the palate joining the other flavours.
2021 Cavedon Sangiovese Nouveau
King Valley, 13.5% ABV, $33
Fragrant and lifted, with notes of wild berries, redcurrants, pomegranate and bright red cherries, this is a super fresh expression, a wine you could certainly chill, but it’s a smart offering at a cool room temperature. Sitting at something on a pinot noir weight, the flavours are firmly sangiovese, but there’s a wild-fruited succulence with none of the savoury feel of ‘properly’ red versions of the grape, but there’s no confection, either. A gentle tug of tannin and zippy acidity carry the wine long, fresh and flavoursome.
This is led by an intensely vibrant nose of both red and black cherries with a maraschino cherry accent, wild sour berries adding detail, along with a brush of bracken adding a subtle herbal complexity. This is bright and buoyant on the palate, with that sour-fruited feel giving the fruit real freshness, dolcetto’s trademark tannins providing ample structural support, while a gentle spritz injects further life and brightness.
2021 LS Merchants ‘WB’ Mataro
Margaret River, 13.2% ABV, $45
An often rugged variety, this is anything but, exploding with juicy yet elegant freshness, a tangle of spice riding over bright black cherries, sour plums and wild raspberries. Like the nose, this sits up perkily on the palate, with a lacing of racy acidity pairing with the fine grapey tannins to give this real freshness and drive, those bright fruit flavours echoing through the finish.
This is a bright, fresh red with sour red berries and plums accented with chopped green herbs and white-pepper spice. This is all shiraz, with some white wine lees added for textural ballast and plenty of whole bunch to add interest. At a low 11.5% alcohol, this is naturally zippy and linear, but there’s lots of flavour suspended on a line of cool tannins and bright acidity, with some blue floral notes blooming on the back palate.
Year Wines Sausage in Bread 2021
McLaren Vale, 12.4% ABV, $26
A blend of grenache, cinsault, shiraz and mataro this emphasises the bright side of the varieties, but still with considerable depth and detail. Though detail isn’t the point, as this is meant to be necked. Pause, though, and there’s a charmingly complex array of wild red and black fruits, woody herbs and a lilting note of rosewater. There’s spice there from shiraz, and blue florals probably attributable to the cinsault, while mataro seems to lend gently meaty and herbal notes. That aside, this is just a riot of deliciousness, and it can take a light chill, just don’t take it too far or the nuances are obscured.
The 2021 Top 50 features Made by Monks, Quiet Mutiny and Express Winemakers, who are all expressing semillon, riesling and sauvignon blanc in new and exciting ways. Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.
Heathcote is a relatively young region, which saw an explosion of growth in the 90s, driven by the trend towards powerful shiraz. But Heathcote is very different today, wth shiraz finding myriad expressions, and other varieties increasingly taking the lead. This year’s Top 50 features Bart van Olphen from Italian variety specialist Chalmers.