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Now may be the time for some alternative ideas

Stephanie Keoghan

Lawrie Stanford, AWBC manager information and analysis wrote in the January/February edition of Wine Australia magazine that growing alternative grape varieties is inherently a speculative activity.

Stanford said some varieties are tried and fail in terms of suitability or don’t get consumer traction, some bump along in a niche capacity, some rise and fall on fashion trends and some are embraced and accepted into mainstream (and are no longer called “alternative”).

“Investment in these alternative varieties provides the innovative edge that will allow adaptation to changing physical and market conditions," he said. "It will maintain interest in Australian wine and keep it ahead of the competition."

“Alternative grape varieties do not account for a large share of production and exports because they are by definition experimental and not mainstream. Their development seems to go through phases.

“The global wine market is becoming much more crowded and competitive and a new phase of discovering alternative varieties is in progress.

“The ABS vineyards survey (can be viewed on the Wine Australia website) allows us to track “alternative varieties” over time although not perfectly. Because of their small beginnings, alternative varieties first appear in the statistics as “other”.

“When they attract wider interest or some significance in production, they then become separate reported items. Sixteen varieties have been classified as alternatives and distinguished from the “old standards” and the “classics” in the statistics. With a combined 97,000t in 2008, these alternative varieties now account for a 5.3% share of total,” he said.

In Australia, Stanford said seven of the 16 alternative varieties (Pinot Gris, Viognier, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Mourvedre, Barbera and Nebbiolo) have largely emerged in the last decade, although Mourvedre did have a long-standing presence in the national vineyard as Mataro before recently re-emerging with a new image.

“Barbera and Nebbiolo have thus far occupied niche positions. Sangiovese and Mourvedre underwent some production growth in the early 2000s but areas have settled back in recent years,” he said. “Tempranillo appears to be growing steadily. Finally, Viognier and Pinot Gris have grown successfully and appear more and more mainstream. Pinot Gris in particular has grown from obscurity at 41ha in 2000 to 2077ha in 2008. It currently ranks as Australia’s eleventh highest produced variety."

Stanford said in the year ended November 2008, labelled exports of these seven varieties grew 61% over the year before to 11 million litres and accounted for 2% of all Australian wine exported in the period. Pinot Gris represented 85% of the volume shipped of these seven varietals.

"Single varietals predominate in the exports shipments of the seven alternative varietals examined here," he said. "By far the largest proportion (95% or more) of the Pinot Gris, Barbera and Tarrango volumes shipped were single varietals; around three quarters of the Tempranillo and Viognier, two thirds of the Sangiovese and a bit over half of the Nebbiolo."

"The major destinations for these varieties tended to be Australia’s major markets with some exceptions. The US easily leads the pack with three times the volume of second placed UK. Also high in the rankings are Canada and Ireland. China and Singapore are exceptions, being the number two markets for Mourvedre and Barbera respectively.

"The average value per litre of exported wine for these varieties was A$4.25 in the year ended November 2008, 18% above the average for all wine exports. The average value for the set of alternative varietals is skewed down by the predominance of the relatively lower-priced Pinot Gris in the mix (A$3.77/L). Single varietal Mourvedre recorded the highest average price among the varietals and their blends (A$30.83/L)," he said.

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