Although the palette of grapes in this country is becoming ever more colourful, with emerging varieties starting to share the spotlight with hero varieties like pinot noir, shiraz, chardonnay and pinot gris, for example, there are also ones that had fallen somewhat out of fashion with progressive makers or been traditionally marginalised. Today, cutting-edge makers are embracing varieties that have been blended away, ignored or been seen as too traditional. Some of these have been given new wings a little while back and are now firmly making their mark, while others are slowly emerging from the shadows.
Chenin blanc is an undoubtedly noble variety, producing some of the world’s greatest and most age-worthy white wines in France’s Loire Valley, but it has had a rocky road in this country, often being blended away in regional white blends. Its fortunes are certainly on the rise, but it’s only a few years ago that Steffi Snook of Yayoi had to almost plead with growers for a small amount of fruit.
“I made many cold calls to growers trying to find someone to sell to me with my first vintage, only wanting to take 1–2 tonnes. I kept being told, ‘NO, NO, NO,’ it’s not worth their time,” says Snook, noting that there was so little value in the fruit cost per tonne that a small hand-pick was out of the question.
“It wasn’t until I had a grower stop and ask me why I was looking to make chenin blanc. I explained my love for the wine, and how I just thought the history was so fascinating and yet it hadn’t been taken seriously as a dry table wine over here in Australia. This is where I got my first parcel from 65-year-old vines in Blewitt Springs, where I have been lucky enough to make wines from over the past few years.”
Snook’s fascination with the grape was fostered in fine dining, where she worked for several years as a sommelier. “Tasting small snippets of grand wines of Burgundy left me addicted and chasing, wanting more! My heart was in Burgundy at this stage, but my wallet was not. This is where I began my quest to find alternative white wines expressive of variety and terroir. This is where I stumbled upon a wine from Brézé, Saumur [Loire Valley].”
That wine was tried blind, and Snook thought it was a Premier Cru Burgundy. “But boy was I wrong,” she says. “This ignited a quest to drive deep into the variety, and I had so much to learn. I discovered so many great expressions from the Loire, South Africa and California but was stumped as to why Australia wasn’t on the map as a leader in showcasing the variety.”
A notable importation of Chenin came to Australia via South Africa, subsequently being planted in Western Australia’s Swan Valley – where it was often mistaken for other varieties – and later Margaret River, with the regions now accounting for over 30 per cent of the crush of chenin. Most of the rest is in the Riverland. Riverina etc. where it goes to bulk wine, but both the Barossa and McLaren have notable plantings. Today, makers in the Swan like Tom Daniel of Chouette are elevating the expressions, while Snook has joined a small but growing band working from South Australian fruit to grow the appreciation of the variety.
Another white grape that has been in this country for a long time is marsanne, and though it certainly goes into some notable Rhône styled blends, the varietal bottling that most people would recognise belongs to the perennially well-priced, clean and fresh version made by Château Tahbilk. They have 1927 plantings, which are likely the oldest in the country, but the grape has been in steep decline, with a 40 per cent decrease in plantings over the last two decades, leaving a little over 160 hectares.
“Of the three Northern Rhône Valley whites, marsanne speaks to me as the most compelling as a single varietal,” says Emily Kinsman of ECK Wines. “It is such a great food wine, and while it is often blended, I believe there’s something so unique and pure about making marsanne on its own, capturing its own compelling expression and letting it tell its own story. Marsanne holds its own, and it pairs well with food. It’s a wine that complements, rather than being overpowered or outweighed by rich flavours – a unique characteristic for a white wine.”
Kinsman picks early to retain acidity, rather than tinkering with additions, and employs amphorae for fermentation and élevage. She also introduces a whisper of skin contact to build structure and texture. It’s a very lo-fi, handcrafted approach with the grape, giving it a new face for today’s drinker. That’s an approach that Rutherglen’s Rowly Milhinch also takes across his Scion label, shedding new light on varieties that are emblematic to his region.
From rustic to pretty
Muscat is traditionally used in the region’s fortifieds, while durif is a rugged red grape that often makes equally rustic red wines. The variety is mainly grown in the predominantly bulk regions flanking the Murray, accounting for over 90 per cent of plantings, but it is in Rutherglen that varietal bottlings arguably have the most identity, even if the general perception of those wines is somewhat tarnished. It’s a perception that Milhinch is aiming to adjust.
“‘Fortrose’ has been an ongoing experiment since 2010,” he says. “Combining durif with viognier had always seemed obvious… The reality of consumer assumption, made rightly or wrongly, is that durif is always seen as a high-alcohol, high-flavour monster, and would not always allow efforts made in the vineyard and winery to be met with a willingness to taste what’s in the glass. So yes, let’s pretty things up. …Surely the addition of whole-cluster viognier pre-ferment would open up that door? In practice, it does… ‘Fortrose’ stands to celebrate durif as a fragrant, elegant and finely structured medium-bodied red. Yes, it can be done!”
It’s a grape that Tony Zafirakos of Aristotelis Ke Anthoula also works with, though he blends it with saperavi. “Saperavi is an old Georgian variety that holds its acid really well despite the scorching heat, while petite sirah [durif] creates this beautiful plush middle section that tempers the rustic saperavi,” says Zafirakos, noting that he works with both due to their climate-appropriate performance in vineyards, and because blending is something he does extensively in the range to find balance without making adjustments to the wines.
Zafirakos also makes his version of Retsina, employing pine sap sourced from an old farmer just outside of Athens and one of this country’s most maligned white grapes. He chooses to call is zibbibo (the Sicilian synonym), which is no wonder, as muscat gordo blanco (muscat of alexandria) has long been known as fuel for anonymous fruity cask wine, with thousands of hectares planted in the hot irrigation zones. His is sourced from the Riverland.
“It’s a super-aromatic variety that is so thick skinned it’s pretty much impossible to make a white wine out of it,” Zafirakos says. “This thick skin makes it super resilient, and the juice is incredibly fruity, sometimes verging on being too sickly sweet in flavour. We’re always trying to temper this, and three weeks of skin contact adds a little bit of spice, bitterness and stemmy complexity, but most of the balance for this wine comes from the addition of the pine resin. …It adds this green, fresh menthol bitterness that creates tension with the fruitiness, making the end wine balanced and moreish.”
Milhinch similarly works with reshaping muscat. “Along with durif and brown muscat, I’ve been crafting orange muscat into wines that have made up our core range for over ten years. I love that these grape varieties form my identity as a winemaker. They offer so many possibilities in the winery, especially because they’re not run-of-the-mill. …The ‘Blonde’ takes a known and presents the opposite. I use an unusual muscat variety, and present it as a refreshing, crisp and dry aromatic white… It’s great watching people trying to get their heads around this when the region is world famous for classified styles of sweet Muscat.”
Come to the cabernet
While cabernet sauvignon is one of this country’s most planted varieties, it’s no secret that it has dipped a little out of fashion, while its traditional blending partners, merlot, malbec, petit verdot and cabernet franc often dwell in its shadow. “Cabernet is complex and compelling and has a beautiful elegance. At its best, it can be lithe and delicate, or it can heavy-set and muscular, with quite a few variations in between,” says Kinsman.
Kinsman makes cabernet into dry red wines, which are built to take on some age. “I love that it is a wine with length and longevity, which will develop over time – it’s a slower thinker, a little like myself, but will always reward those who are willing to wait,” she says, noting that she also loves it rendered in lighter tones, crafting it into rosé as well.
“It still enjoys the benefits of being built on cabernet sauvignon fruit,” she stresses. “I press the whole bunches very, very early, and also very lightly, often keeping the last pressings aside, so that my rosé carries a very delicate tannin that provides balance to the medium palate. It’s pale salmon in colour, with a savoury dryness; a quality that is typical of the cabernet grape. It’s quite a structured wine, which I love, with an elegance and lasting softness.”
Marcus Rady of Gonzo Vino takes perhaps the least understood of the Bordeaux quintet, petit verdot, and turns out a gluggable and chillable but intense version for his bag-in-the box operation. “PV for me is a grape that was on the cards primarily due to affordability,” he says. “The question then becomes: ‘How do we treat this both in the vineyard with respect to picking times, and in the winery to temper its reputation as being a bit of a brute.’”
Early picking is key in the hot Riverland, with a potential alcohol kept low-ish and enough acid retained to avoid any adjustments, but also enough tannin ripeness to avoid green characters. “For the winery work, we want to pull back extraction and colour, and only allow for a small amount of tannin to leach, so we do 5 days of maceration and extraction, and a super-light press, so as not to overwork the bitter compounds. We shy away from oak, letting the natural fruit characters and natural earth/spice compounds play that part.”
It’s a take on the grape that suits the Gonzo Vino brand, but it is also a rare and perhaps unique take on the grape in this country. “The result is an incredibly pure, refreshing and balanced wine, which is reminiscent of bigger, bolder reds that the market is looking for, but still allows for personal winery style to shine through,” says Radny.
Although it’s hardly a variety that lacks for attention, sauvignon blanc, another Bordeaux staple, has certainly been viewed dimly by many winemakers and aficionados, almost consigned to beverage status, apart from some notable exceptions. “At the end of the day, all wine has a place,” says Justin Folloso of Cave Wines. “For some, sauvignon blanc has probably found its way into the same category of wines that are pigeonholed to a certain style that can fall in and out of favour. But if you look at the bones of the variety, there’s a lot to use to create a tasty wine of depth and concentration.”
Folloso is based in Tasmania’s south, “With Tassie’s sunlight hours and cooler temperatures, there’s great potential for a more structured style,” he says, making his take on the grape a little like chardonnay, with full solids and fermentation and maturation in old oak. “You have tropical characters, great acid and an ability to hold its aromatics,” he notes, not trying to shy away from or cloak its inherent varietal characters, which was common practice for a time with those that disdained the grape.
It’s that focus in on the grape that matters to Kinsman, too, rather than prevailing attitudes. “There’s something so special about working with classic, old world varieties, such as cabernet sauvignon and marsanne,” adds Kinsman. “They have a rich history, full of tradition, nuance and elegance, which are often overlooked when these grapes are blended with other varieties or forgotten about in today’s fast-paced world of fast fashions.”
2022 Scion ‘Blonde’ Dry White Muscat
Rutherglen, 12.2%, $30
Muscat, in all its guises, tends to make intensely aromatic, fruity styles. Old fashioned wines, in a way. Wines people think are sweet, even when they’re not, with those floral, musky, citrus blossom notes at the fore. This turns that idea on its head, but not at the expense of those heady citrus-blossom florals, peach skin and talcy bath salts aromatics, but it does so in a refined, elegant way, playing down a savoury, refreshing line. Dry, light and bright, this has a gently salty freshness to it, with some appealing citrus peel bitterness cinching in the finish.
Made from a co-ferment of durif and a little viognier with some whole bunches, this is a distinctly different take on the often-gruff durif. There’s still the earthy dark-fruited growl of the variety, but with red fruits, macerated cherries, raspberries and ripe mulberries. There are floral notes, too, with a background of twiggy spice accenting. The general cast is fresher, with lower alcohol than is typical, with a tart red-fruited tang both in flavour and feel on the palate, the tannins less rugged but with an almost Italianate dryness that make this a real foil for food.
2022 Yayoi Wines ‘Vallée of the Kings’ Chenin Blanc
McLaren Vale, 12.6%, $41
From 65-year-old vines in Blewitt Springs, this is fermented in older barrels and matured on lees. Notes of beeswax and lemon, tart cider apples and orchard florals come to mind on the nose, with a rounding out of flavours that comes with the barrel work. This is midweight, but there’s plenty of texture and slippery saline interest, the acidity mouth-watering but not overt.
Pale orangey pink in colour, this has plenty of bright fruit notes on the nose, with aromas of cool forest berries, rhubarb and blackcurrant leaf across a pretty savoury arrangement. There’s a classic rosé quality here, but it also sidesteps that cliché, with chewy, grapey tannin giving this a dry freshness across the palate where some of cabernet’s more herbal aromatics also kick up. It’s a rosé that can give the refreshment that the name implies, but it’s also well-set-up to tackle some food beyond the regular fare, with some weight, texture and tension to work its way through a meal.
Less than 10 per cent of this was fermented as whole berries in an amphora, with the rest gently pressed to old barrels. This has rich golden colour and an intense nose of golden apple and cooked pear, quince and characteristic honeysuckle notes, with a dusting of savoury brown spices and a flicker of cut herbs. The palate is textural, faintly slippery and saline, with a pithy chew at the end pulling in the richness.
Darkly coloured, but with a bright purplish hint, this ripples with black cherry, ripe mulberry and blackberry notes. That’s all accented with a floral lift of violet and lavender across a wine that has depth and freshness wound up together, with subtle hints of vanilla bean and spice adding detail.
2022 Aristotelis Ke Anthoula ‘Retsini’
Riverland, 13%, $45
An homage to Retsina, where Aleppo pine sap is infused into the wine, this version, with the pedal taken off the resin inclusion, uses zibibbo, which casts its typically aromatic spell, with notes of orange blossom, peach skin, talc and grapey freshness accompanied by, menthol and dried herbs. This is in the orange realm, with a skinsy feel, and an explosion of tropical flavours on the palate, with juicy pineapple, mango and pink grapefruit flavours on a generously textural palate pulled in with supple, grapey tannins, finishing clean and refreshing.
2022 Cave Wines Sauvignon Blanc
Coal River Valley, Tasmania, 13%, $28
There’s classic varietal sauvignon lift to this, but it’s got plenty of subtle complexity to it, too. Blackcurrant, curry leaf, papaya, dried peach and crystallised pineapple sit within a wine that has a bit of a chardonnay feel, if you like, showing gentle pops of winemaking input, subtle oak influence, leesy complexity and a textural edge that fills out the palate before the acidity swoops in, a green-apple crispness briskly carrying the flavours through a particularly long finish.
2022 Chouette ‘Fabric’ Chenin Blanc
Swan Valley, 11.7%, $35
This is hazy gold in the glass, with a savoury lift and an array of orchard fruits, from golden apples to tart pear and unripe peach. There’s a floral character here as well, with a fresh chamomile flower and subtle orange blossom note. Yellow-skinned citrus kicks in, too, with dried lemon rind, and Meyer lemon pith. The palate has a chewy grip, with that pith-like character textural as well as providing flavour. It’s lightly poised in weight, with the alcohol on the low side, but that amplifies the refreshment factor, with a pleasingly dry and drying finish.
Almost impenetrably dark in colour, this is an interesting combination of intensity and freshness. The colour leads into a mess of dark berries, black cherries and squishy plums, with some dried herbs and a graphite-like mineral note. There’s a bit of flavour to take in first up, but it’s generous rather than heavy, with that impression enhanced on the palate with a silky and slippery feel, that gloss of fruit sheathing the fine tannins. With such a gentle grip, this happily takes a chill, the fruit becoming more refreshing and the palate even more slurpable.
Over the last decade or so, the winemaking practice of keeping white grape skins in contact with fermenting juice – just like making red wine – has changed the wine landscape like few other developments. From wines with deeply amber hues to components adding complexity to blends, makers in the 2021 Young Gun of Wine Top 50 are using skin contact on white grapes to great effect, including Edenflo, Sigurd, Alpha Box & Dice, Moonlit Forest, Express Winemakers, Year Wines, Minimum and Alkimi. Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.
The roots of Henschke’s history run deep, but the journey is ongoing. Since her appointment as viticulturist in 1987, Prue Henschke has helped shape the family’s wines from the ground up. Their family’s commitment to manage vineyards for over 150 years adds weight to the term sustainable, yet what those practices translate to in the glass is perhaps even more significant.
“All old vines were young vines once,” says Stephen. “We’re curators of ancestor vines that are revered now. But once upon a time they were planted by people who – like Prue is now – were just exploring different grape varieties in this new country to see what would work. Back then, it was shiraz; now we’re planting nebbiolo, tempranillo, a whole multitude of new varieties that could well become old vines for future generations of Henschkes.”