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Varieties on the Edge of Oblivion
– 2021 Top 50 Winemakers Feature

Wines Of Now
11 May 2021. Words by YGOW.

Wine is subject to fashion like anything else, with grapes and methods falling in and out of favour, sometimes quickly, sometimes over decades. Grape varieties that have been vital contributors in years past have turned into footnotes, often with ancient vines removed to plant more profitable grapes – or other crops – erasing irreplaceable history. But some of those marginalised grapes are given new breath by today’s makers, with a fresh approach seeing them mesh neatly with the evolving tastes of drinkers. The 2021 Young Gun Top 50 features Jean-Paul Trijsburg (Wines by Jean-Paul), Dan Graham (Sigurd) and Hadyn Black (Black & Ginger) who are all championing varieties that have almost been pushed to oblivion, either in their regions or globally. (Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.)

Perhaps there are few varieties that have been restored from the brink like carménère, with it thought to be functionally extinct until the 1990s. A native of the Bordeaux region, it was wiped out by phylloxera in the 19th century. Not being an easy variety to farm, it was relegated to the history books, with new plantings favouring cabernet sauvignon et al. However, in 1994, it was proven that most of Chile’s merlot was indeed carménère.

Jean-Paul Trijsburg (Wines by Jean-Paul) first encountered the variety while working in Chile in 2009. “Carménère is one of my favourite varieties,” he says. “Originally from Bordeaux, it doesn’t really suit the region, as it’s rather sensitive to the cold and wet springs – it needs sunny hot summers for full potential. There are few grapes so flavoursome and distinctive cabernet-esque, but with soft tannin and drinkability. It’s related to cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, but I think it’s better than both.”

Above: Jean-Paul Trijsburg, loves carménère, and says the variety is, “sensitive to the cold and wet springs – it needs sunny hot summers for full potential.” Opposite: Carménère grapes (image courtesy of Heathcote Winegrowers).
“There are few grapes so flavoursome and distinctive cabernet-esque, but with soft tannin and drinkability. It’s related to cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, but I think it’s better than both.”

Landing in Australia in 2012, Trijsburg’s chances of finding carménère were low, but he stumbled across the grape in Heathcote, and has made wines since 2015. “I am still making and loving Carménère,” he says. “But I have a few other varieties on my bucket list including roussanne and grenache blanc, and I would love to find more gamay, carignan and cinsault – I love the elegance and lighter weight of these varieties.”

Carignan and cinsault may be harder to find in Victoria, but they were a meaningful part of South Australian wine production in earlier times. With the rise of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, those grapes fell into decline, with many vines removed. And that’s a familiar story, with an oversupply of grapes in the 1980s seeing so many historic vines uprooted.

When he founded Rockford in the 1980s, Rocky Callaghan was intent on preserving Barossa history as a vibrant, living endeavour. He was ardent in his pursuit of preserving venerable vines from the ‘vine pull’ scheme that was seeing unprofitable (old and low yielding) vineyards converted to other crops. The quest to preserve shiraz and grenache vines is a well-known one, but Callaghan also championed semillon, which he calls a “pioneer Barossa variety”.

Callaghan found a loyal following for his semillon, working with the Kalleske, Sibley and Cirillo families, with the latter in possession of 1848 vines in Vine Vale. Marco Cirillo (2015 YGOW Award Finalist) later launched the family label, clawing Barossa semillon’s fate back further with his ‘ancestor vine’ bottling.

The Cirillos also sold fruit to Turkey Flat, where Pete Schell (the 2009 Young Gun of Wine) was working when he launched Spinifex in 2001, with his first ‘Lola’ white coming a few years later. That wine would come to hinge on ugni blanc (trebbiano) and semillon, varieties that Schell sees as uniquely suited to the soils and climate, proving themselves since the 1850s. David Geyer (Geyer Wine Co – 2018 YGOW Award finalist), David Franz and Edenflo’s Andrew Wardlaw also now make notable modern takes on the grape.

“There was a lot of semillon planted in the Barossa,” says Sigurd’s Dan Graham, who notes that what is left is still being removed. “But it works so well here, with great acid when picked right – it makes beautiful wine. Yes, it is a hard one to sell to consumers, but I will try soon! It is always a shame to see beautiful old vineyards pulled because they have fallen out of favour, something winemaking friends and I are trying to slow down.”

Graham also works with chenin blanc, which is a grape that is now well and truly in renaissance phase, after many years of neglect, with fruit increasingly hard to come by, while carignan is very much still finding its way. He currently makes a varietal carignan under the Sigurd label, as well as contributing to his ‘Red blend’, along with grenache, syrah and mourvèdre.

Dan Graham of Sigurd makes a number of wines with carignin. “I’ve had a lot of fun making the single varietal,” he says, “and in the blend, it offers structure and lovely savoury notes, showing depth of fruit without being overly sweet, like shiraz and grenache can be.”
“There is only so long you can make sangiovese like shiraz before people get really bored with it.”

There is some confusion around carignan, with many old vines now identified as bonvedro (a Portuguese variety). But most were uprooted in the 20th century, so how much genuine carignan was planted is unknown, but it’s likely that both were commonly used in historic blends. True carignan is being planted again, though. McLaren Vale’s Bondar and Hither & Yon both have vines, with the latter making a varietal wine, while Graham works with ‘true’ material from a young vineyard in Ebenezer, Barossa.

“I think the beauty of carignan and similar tough-skinned varieties is their resilience to climate,” says Graham, “but that also makes them hard to deal with, due to big tannins, green seeds and a struggle to ripen.” He notes, though, that shifting tastes are creating a niche. “With a change in style from consumers to lighter and crunchier wines, we can really use these more resilient varieties more. I’ve had a lot of fun making the single varietal, and in the blend, it offers structure and lovely savoury notes, showing depth of fruit without being overly sweet, like shiraz and grenache can be.”

Cinsault has similarly slipped out of favour, but it is also resilient. It retains acidity well in the heat, making it ideal to blend with varieties that ripen more fully, or to make vibrant mid-weight standalone wines. Under his Micro label, Master Sommelier Jonathan Ross (2020 YGOW Award Finalist) makes a cinsault from the sandy soils of Barossa’s Vine Vale. “My experiences with cinsault were limited to tasting blends from Southern France where it can dominate the mix, a few things from South Africa, and the 1987 and ’88 releases by Tempier,” he says. “I’ve always been a believer, but I didn’t think sourcing it would have happened. I love the cinsault that I’m working with.”

Ross’ take on the grape leans towards the bright end of things, with blue florals and wild red and black berries at the sour end of the spectrum. It’s a light and crunchy red that’s brimming with character, a very of-the-moment style, which gives a vivid insight into cinsault’s aptness for today’s tastes.

Winemaker Hadyn Black (Black & Ginger) in Victoria’s Great Western, whose vineyard is planted to shiraz and merlot, says he’s, “looking at ripping out the merlot to replace with some interesting stuff. Orange muscat will be first. Consumers are looking for different flavours and textures.”

In Victoria’s Great Western, Hadyn Black took the familiar regional route of launching his label with a shiraz, but a crowded market saw him expand into less-familiar territory. With only two rows planted in the whole of Great Western, orange muscat was about as unfamiliar as it gets.

“I first saw the grapes when we used it as part of an Alsatian-style blend at Best’s,” says Black. “It has the most incredible aromas of fresh cut oranges and orange blossom. I knew Best’s weren’t going to use it after 2018, so I jumped on the chance to take the fruit. The plan was to make a single varietal, but it was a little too flabby and oily by itself, so I siphoned off a little bit of riesling to give it a bit of drive and acidity.”

The muscat grape comes in many forms, all being quite exotically aromatic. Much of it is destined for fortified or sweet wine production, with the talc and pungent floral notes being unfashionable for dry table wines. Emulations of the Northern Italy’s Moscato d’Asti have seen the muscat family brought somewhat back into currency, though orange muscat is still sparsely planted, mainly in North-East Victoria, and its unique flavour profile is rarely championed.

“My own vineyard is planted to merlot and shiraz,” Black says. “We’re looking at ripping out the merlot to replace with some interesting stuff. Orange muscat will be first. Consumers are looking for different flavours and textures, less-common varieties or even different styles using traditional varieties are being lapped up by consumers, just look at the explosion in styles of craft beer – there’s a whole rainbow of style and flavours out there. It takes a bit longer to move with the times with wine. We can’t change direction as fast as the beer guys, but it allows winemakers like myself to do some experimentation – it’s working for us so far!”

Graham believes the new appreciation for the potential of many forgotten grapes is rooted in makers who can see this type of potential, deviating from the established and often narrow norms. “I think a lot of the varieties that have been around for a while just needed a softer touch, like with the Italian varieties that have come in recently – there is only so long you can make sangiovese like shiraz before people get really bored with it.”

The Wines

Photo by James Morgan

2020 Black & Ginger ‘Miss Piggy’ Orange Muscat & Riesling $25

This is aromatic and lifted, with talc, orange blossom water, mandarin peel, lime pith, lemon zest and a puff of sherbet. The aromatic punch of the muscat is neatly played, knitting into the riesling without dominating, while adding plenty of layers. There’s a subtle plushness to the front and mid-palate, which is taken through a long dry finish, with vibrant acidity sheathed in subtly viscous texture.

See Black and Ginger’s website for purchase enquiries.

2015 Carménère by Jean-Paul $38

Distinct cabernet family aromatics here, with dark berries and a leafy edge, with fresh green peppercorns, but the fruit runs deep and full flavoured, with an intense and tarry blackberry note, giving it more heft and supple richness than say cabernet sauvignon, but there’s poise and freshness, too. The palate runs down a line of fine tannins supporting a silky, supple and generous texture.

See The Happy Winemaker by Jean-Paul for purchase enquiries.

2019 Sigurd ‘Red Blend’ $34

(Carignan, syrah, malbec, grenache.) This is deep and dark in colour, with a savoury and earthy nose, dark fruit notes, star anise, cassia, ferrous minerals, leather and graphite, with wild red berries peeking through. This is lightly slippery on the palate, with plenty of freshness and tension, salted sour plums and master stock spices, a nervy tension of bunchy tannins, wild sour berry acidity and an earthy sense of place.

See Sigurd’s website for purchase enquiries.