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April (No. 495)

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Australia the brave, grasps alternatives

Dan Traucki and Mark Jamieson

Australia’s stellar reputation in the wine world has been build on the basis of unbridled experimentation, the likes of which are impossible in the Old World. Australians aren’t afraid to try anything in the quest for better quality and/or more affordable wines. The most clichéd phrase in the industry is “over delivers on quality for the price”. This has been achieved by grasping new technology with both hands, trying new things in the winery, such as plank tanks instead of barrels, etc. and by blending varieties in a way the rest of the world would not have contemplated until we “arrived” on the scene.

So that’s how Australia has got to where it is today. How are we going to go forward from here? What is going to keep us ahead of the pack over the next few decades? How do we enhance our reputation (and sales) even further?

There is a limit to how many cost savings can be made before it compromises the quality of wines. There is also a limit as to how much one can fine-tune the vines so as to maximise fruit quality.

It is now recognised internationally, with very little argument, that Australia is the master of Shiraz/Syrah. The French have been working with Syrah for at least a millennia but yet, in the last 20 years or so, we have wrested the international ownership of the variety from them with nary a fight. So what now? We know that we can’t rest on our laurels, as the rest of the winemaking world plays “catch up”. Well there is a school of thought that says that our future will be secured or at least enhanced by Australia making “new” varieties from other parts of the world “ours,” just like we did with Shiraz.

In November 2004 the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show was held in Mildura. Whilst it seems industry largely ignores this show, we believe it is probably the most important wine show of the year, because it shows us possible directions for the future.

The show has grown from 66 entries in 1999, when first established by Stefano di Pieri and Bruce Chalmers, to 401 in 2004. This is where the adventurous of the industry show us their wares.

Summarising, there were 64 Pinot Grigio/Gris entries in two classes resulting in four gold medals being awarded, 42 Viogniers in two classes resulting in two gold medals. There were another 59 dry white wines entered in four classes. The varieties included, Marsanne, Rousanne, Vermentino, Gewurtztraminer, Verdelho, Arneis, Garganega, Pinot Blanc, Kerner, Petit Manseng, and Verduzzo. Two of the Gewurtztraminer’s and a Marsanne won gold medals. The judging panel was headed by Tim White, with Huon Hooke, Stephen Pannell, Louisa Rose, Glen James, Martin Cooper?? And Jon Osbeiston. One could really say that Verdelho, Viognier, Pinot Gris/Grigio and Marsanne whilst not “mainstream” have enough recognition to no longer be “new” or experimental.

In the sweet white class there were 11 entries ranging from Orange Muscat to Taminga with two silver medals being awarded.

In all there were 15 red classes. There were separate classes for: Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Petit Verdot, Durif, Tempranillo, Chambourcin and Zinfandel. The Nebbiolo class proved to be the strongest, with 50% of entrants receiving a medal. In the mixed classes there were varieties such as Graciano, Pinot Meunier, Lemberger, Malbec, Marzemino, Carnelian, Saperavi, Legrein, Touriga National, Dolcetto, St Macaire, Tannat, Cinsault, Basazi, Aglianico, Sagrintino, Teroldego and Rondinella.
We are not quite sure how Grenache qualifies as “alternative variety” but it was there.

Sure, there were some shockers that should not have been there, but more importantly from an industry perspective, there were also some excellent wines which auger well for the future of their variety in Australia.

A personal favourite was the Edwards & Chaffey Dolcetto 2003 (gold), which has lovely lifted aroma and depth of flavour reminiscent of a great Hunter Shiraz.

So what does the future hold? There are some “new” varieties, which show promise for the longer term. Whilst not yet a commercial success, Petit Verdot is becoming a naturalised Australian variety. There is more Petit Verdot planted here than in the rest of the world. Durif is starting to break out of its “Rutherglen cocoon” and spread its wings. There are a few great Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Zinfandel wines being made.
The most likely future path to success for most of these varieties will probably be, to be used as blenders with the mainstream varietals. Then having done their apprenticeship, and becoming recognised by the general drinking public, some might achieve stand-alone recognition. Remember that Merlot spend at least 15-20 years as a blender for Cabernet before achieving stand-alone recognition. Ironically in many parts of Europe they are now using the “classical varieties” as blenders with their native varieties. For example, in Spain winemakers add Cabernet to Tempranillo to make some of the best wines.

There are literally thousands of grape varieties around the world, and with the exception of a few brave souls like Randal Grahm at Bonny Doon in California, there are few people in the world who are prepared to experiment the way we are in Australia.

Our tip is to keep an eye out over the next few years for the following unheard of varieties in the whites: Vermentino, Albarino, Arneis and Petit Manseng. In the reds watch out for: Saperavi, Tannat, Tempranillo, Legrein, and Aglianico.



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