Over the last two decades, emerging varieties – those outside the usual, mostly French, suspects – have grown from a curio to being significant players that have become part of any avid wine drinker’s vocabulary. The accent has been largely Italian, though, especially with southern Italian grapes being so suited to our warmer regions. Varieties from Spain and Portugal have arguably had less impact on a whole, but there are some good reasons for that, from the sizeable plantings of tempranillo largely being from lesser clones to albariño getting off to a false start. But with new vineyards becoming productive, as well as a developing interest in grape varieties previously only used for fortified production, the future for Iberian varieties is a rosy one.
There is no doubt that tempranillo is the most widely planted Iberian variety in this country (setting aside garnacha/grenache and monastrell/mataro that are as French as they are Spanish), but there’s a long history of other Spanish and Portuguese varieties in this country. For example, the port grape touriga nacional has long had a role in fortified wines, while palomino and pedro ximénez – which are both used to make Sherry – were once widely planted in South Australia.
Touriga has seen something of a revival, with makers notably sourcing fruit from McLaren Vale, Rutherglen and newer plantings in Langhorne creek to make distinctive red table wine, often with lifted blue floral notes. The white grapes palomino and pedro ximénez still feature in old vineyards, largely in the Barossa, with some makers rediscovering them, but it was another Spanish white grape that really captured the public attention at the start of the 21st century.
A case of mistaken identity
Albariño, which makes some of Spain’s most famous white wines in the country’s north-west, principally in Rias Baixas, was somewhat in vogue here at the turn of the last century – as was Spanish cuisine – prompting many Australian growers to plant it. It was a grape potentially well suited to many regions, and it was ideal for making white wine of freshness and character.
But there was a problem. While the early versions were well received, the material planted was identified in 2009 as the French variety savagnin. It wasn’t until somewhat later the real deal was planted, although the local fascination with all things Spanish had lost a little of its heat. Some were happy to continue with savagnin, while others have picked up the baton, with albariño finally making a legitimate mark.
In the Hunter Valley (NSW), Briar Ridge’s Alex Beckett works with albariño that was grafted onto their old gewürztraminer block, with the first harvest coming in 2018. It’s a variety that he thinks has a big future in the region. “We’re investing in planting more on our site over the next three years to keep up with demand, as we sell out within months at this stage, but also because it’s really consistent,” Beckett says.
That consistency is a sign of its suitability to the at-times challenging region, with the typically high humidity creating elevated fungal disease pressure. “It works really well, with hardy thick skins that resist disease,” says Beckett. “It also holds acidity really well. It’s one of those ideal varieties that you can get perfectly ripe and guide through to bottle without need to meddle.”
In Beechworth, Victoria, Raquel Jones has albariño planted in her Jones Ridge Vineyard (making a varietal expression and a bend with chardonnay raised in clay amphora) which is the home of her Weathercraft label. Although the vineyard was an established one, it only had shiraz planted, and she was intent on developing a strong suit in Spanish grapes. “Spain is my heritage,” she says. “It’s in my blood. I want to put Beechworth further on the map for Iberian varieties, and I hope to one day be recognised for producing an Iberian varietal wine that is of international standard.”
For Jones, producing wine of the highest standard starts in the vineyard, with her site an exemplar of best practice viticulture, but it was also the vine material that she meticulously researched before planting. “All varieties and clones grown on our vineyard have been carefully selected to suit both our climate and soil,” she says, noting that she rigorously tasted wines both here and in Spain that aligned varieties and clones with similar sites in respect to soils and climate, and that was particularly important with tempranillo.
Although tempranillo has been in the country for some time and has officially grown to nearly 750 hectares (the data is from the last major survey in 2015), the vine material was substantially from high-yielding clones of arguably lesser character. That’s not to say quality wines were not made from them – and continue to be – but the examples that promoted Australian tempranillo as a wine of distinction were far outnumbered by those that were less inspiring.
Jones settled on material that had been imported more recently by Yalumba, whittling six clones down to three from Spain’s Ribera del Duero region due to their suitability for the Weathercraft – Jones Ridge site. Other new material has been planted around the country, too, with an early adopter of tempranillo, Henschke, bolstering their vineyards by importing three of their own clones to build more complexity and detail in the finished wines – and the early signs are promising.
Jones’s vines are productive now, with a ‘joven’ (young wine meant for earlier consumption) wine currently produced, but there is also a ‘reserva’ style in barrel awaiting release. “The reception has been really warm to our joven-style tempranillo,” Jones says, with the wine selling out in quick time, and more plantings on the cards.
“In a changing climate, Iberian varieties could be the way forward for many regions where heat and scarcity of water will become an issue.”
In Mount Benson (in South Australia’s Limestone Coast zone), Anita Goode grows a patchwork of emerging varieties, both Italian and Iberian, though mainly white, on her Wangolina Vineyard. She also sources some red grapes from further inland. “I started working with tempranillo in 2012,” she says. “I loved the bright flavours and the more medium weight of the wine. It was one of the first alternative varieties I made. It was a gateway variety that opened my eyes… I started working with mencía in 2020, and I loved the way the juicy fresh flavours popped with vibrancy. I thought the lighter style suited the contemporary Australian drinker.”
Mencía is a grape that grows mainly in Galicia, Spain, that produces immensely characterful wines that are flush with bright fruits and distinctly heady red floral aromatics, while the fruit can be plush on a midweight frame with gently supple tannins. The footprint for mencía is very small in this country, with most of it grown in McLaren Vale, where it was first planted by Oliver’s Taranga in 2011. The variety has a striking future, though, proving it can work in warmer sites as long as the conditions are right.
While both meníca and tempranillo are also grown in warmer sites in Spain and Portugal, many of the finest expressions come from sites that balance sunshine with a meaningful shift between daytime and night-time temperatures. “My meníca and tempranillo come from Mundulla, which is in the northern part of the Limestone Coast,” says Goode. “Mundulla is the warmest region in the Limestone Coast, but it is still moderated by cooler nights. We get great ripeness in these varieties, but they retain a lot of the aromatic profile.”
Goode also firmly believes that many Iberian varieties are suited to even warmer climates further north. “For too long, we have been trying to grow varieties that are just not as suited to the hot dry climate of some of our regions,” she says. “The fruit quality and wine from Iberian varieties coming out of warmer climates shows that these areas are not just about cheap bulk wine.”
And while arinto, souzão, tinta cão, touriga nacional, tinta cão, tinta barroca, tinta amarela and tinta caiada are not exactly household names yet, these grapes are touted as future stars – albeit often as blending components – for regions like South Australia’s Riverland, thriving in the warm climate and being significantly less dependent on irrigation. “In a changing climate, Iberian varieties could be the way forward for many regions where heat and scarcity of water will become an issue,” says Goode.
In McLaren Vale (South Australia), Paxton winemaker Ashleigh Seymour takes a similar stance. “If we want to last the distance, it is fundamental that the Australian Wine industry moves faster into varieties that are suited to our climate,” she says, noting that we don’t have strict rules of what varieties to plant where, like in established European regions. “We can plant any variety in any place that we want over this rugged and changing landscape, but we must be smart about it, and experimenting with these Iberian varieties is definitely a place to start.”
A light touch
Seymour’s background has been dominated by an 11-year stint in Tuscany, but since arriving in the Vale, she has been working with both graciano and tempranillo, alongside a slew of other grapes. “They are radically different but distinctive,” she says. “I think that’s why consumers identify with them, especially when they are made in a low-intervention manner. For consumers, the ‘traditional’ varieties grown in Australia can be hard to tell apart when manipulated in the winery or exposed to copious amounts of oak. When they stick their nose into a glass of graciano and that piquant white pepper and rhubarb combination comes out at them, they know where they are.”
The making for Seymour is structured about expressing these flavours, but that’s not to say that she’s making simple versions, with medium to long skin contact to extract complex tannins and time in oak to build harmony and complexity, thought the oak is always French and always old and the maturation is no more than ten months – this combination of ‘old oak’ and it’s handling is with the intent of building texture in the wine, without imparting oak flavours, such as vanilla. “We are accompanying a journey from grapes to wine, and we work incredibly hard not to have to intervene,” she says. “It’s a privilege to be along for the ride, the transformation.”
Seymour is firmly convinced that the individual character and sheer drinkability of wines like this will be a key to their ongoing success. “They have you salivating and going back for another glass,” she says. “I find even friends of mine who are very much into the big reds of Australia absolutely love these wines. There’s an equilibrium of matter in these wines which, when made to respect the fruit, has your palate jumping for joy like a thousand tiny people are at a rave on your tongue.”
It’s clear that the early setbacks for some key Iberian varieties have been substantially overcome, while many more are just beginning to make their mark. And that growth comes at a time when the Australian wine drinking public couldn’t be any thirstier for wines of ready drinkability that speak of place and utterly individual varietal character. “I think people are really open to high-quality, interesting wines that take them in a journey through the glass,” says Jones.
Albariño, chardonnay. Pressed to clay amphora and fermented wild, this has been stirred now and then over its six months maturation. There’s a zippy and fine feel to this, with green apple, tart white peach, lemon pith and a chalky, saline minerality. There’s texture and stone-fruit-kernel grip on the palate, allied with a purity of fruit and a drive of acidity, leaving this mouth-puckeringly thirst quenching, with that mineral complexity trailing interest through the finish.
There’s a bright lift here of wild fruits, a jumble of forest berries, pink peppercorns, white pepper, dried cranberries, blue florals and salted plums. The palate hits more in the midweight spectrum, with fine, pithy tannins and bright acidity giving the fruit fine architecture to drape over – the overall impression being a wine of fruit vibrancy combined with gentle savouriness. A food-friendly affair made that scores high for general drinkability, too.
This is bright and seductive mencía, with sour dark fruits, red berries, graphite and red florals accented with black spices and framed by whispers of smoke. There’s a tangle of spicy salinity on the palate that gives this a real point of difference, bright acidity and a pleasantly nervy tannin profile adding zip to the midweight frame.
2021 Saltfleet Touriga Nacional
McLaren Vale, 14% ABV, $35
There’s a savouriness across this that you’d expect from the variety, with leathery and tarry notes featuring, but they mingle amongst bright fruit, with wild forest berries, plum skin and blueberries cropping up, a saline liquorice lick of minerality adding more complexity on the palate. Notes of pumpernickel and rye also chime in, a decent tannic grip giving this plenty of structural resolve, with plenty of fruit but no overt fruit sweetness.
2021 Briar Ridge Albariño
Hunter Valley, 13.1% ABV, $30
There’s an ample sense of flavour here, with an array of citrus notes, with lemon pith and yellow grapefruit, but it also tips into golden apple and custard apple notes, with apple blossom scenting. The wine is bright and fresh, but it also sits plush in the mouth, with a textural play of lees-derived richness, subtly slippery, with acid driving through the long finish.
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 riesling landscape has become somewhat richer in the last little while, with a wealth of wines that combine electric acidity with balancing deposits of sugar. It’s a very exciting category, one that produces wines that are seductive in their youth and can age astonishingly well, as well as pairing with myriad cuisines.