Monday, April 4, 2011

The beginnings of a Golden Age in Australian wine? Future Alternative Varietal Icons

This article was originally published on the Wine Communicators of Australia Blog -

For all of the negative press around Australian wine in the past few years, I can’t but help think this is in fact the most exciting time in Australia’s modern wine history. I think there are a number of factors at work at present that are resulting in some genuinely remarkable wine being produced, and that these same factors will lead to an even greater number of world class wines in 5-10 years time. These factors includes -

A greater understanding and exploration of site – with each passing year there is a greater emphasis that wineries and winemakers place on understanding and expressing single sites. There are more and more single vineyard wines coming onto the market each year, and these are some of the most interesting and expressive Australian wines I’ve tasted.

Vine Age – Whether you are looking at exciting, upcoming regions like Macedon, Tumbarumba, and Tasmania, or more established regions like the Yarra Valley and Margaret River, many of the vines and vineyards in Australia are still very young. Generally speaking vignerons talk about vines needing about 20-30 years before producing the kind of concentrated, complex fruit they are after. In many regions around Australia the vines are yet to reach this mature age.

Clones – Australian winemakers have a better understanding of different vine clones than ever before. Put simply, different clones of grape variety perform and taste different. Some of the less than successful experiences with Australian wine can in some part be put down to clone selection (or lack thereof), but this is now beginning to change.

Organics/Biodynamics – regardless of one’s thoughts on the extent to which one should be fully organic or fully biodynamic, what the growth in this type of viticultural practice signals to me is that vignerons care about the health of their vineyard more than ever. In paying this level of attention in the vineyard, the quality of the fruit they produce will undoubtedly continue to improve.

Screwcaps – Kind of like climate change deniers, each passing year further pushes cork advocates further to the margins. Wines that have been 5-10 years under screwcap are ageing consistently and with a very small percentage of closure issues (at least compared to cork). In the next decade we will be drinking many a beautifully aged Australian wine.

Alternative Varietals

The factors discussed above all deserve an article in themselves, but one final factor that I think is very exciting, and what I wanted to focus on, is the explosion of alternative varietals in Australia in the past decade. By “alternative” varietals I am simply referring to grape varieties that have not been a mainstay in Australian wine production. There are some doubters, who would argue that many of these varietals can only be truly successful in their native environments in Europe. However, to my mind, when I cast forward 10 years, I’ve no doubt we will be able to talk about a number of iconic Australian wines that are made from such grapes.

Whether it’s Gruner Veltliner, Nebbiolo, Fiano, or Sangiovese, there are an ever increasing number of alternative varieties in Australia. Many wineries, both old and new, have at least one alternative varietal in their wine range. Some wineries may be doing this as much to meet trendy consumer demand as anything, but many, if not most, however, seem to be approaching their foray into alternative varietals with intent and ambition. Without wishing anyone ill, I think many of these attempts will be unsuccessful, at least in so far as producing truly great wine. Many regions will ultimately show themselves to be unsuitable or at least limited for a certain grape variety, and mistakes will inevitably be made with varietals that vignerons are less familiar with. However, for all these potential issues, some attempts will be successful, and there’s every chance that in a decade’s time we will have world class alternative wines coming from particular sites or regions, and indeed at that point we will stop referring to them as “alternative’.


In particular I have high hopes for Australian Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. In terms of Nebbiolo, many have made the case that the terroir in and around Barolo in Piemonte, Italy, is so unique, and that Nebbiolo is such a finicky a grape variety, that somewhere like Australia will never produce great Nebbiolo. My personal experience suggests otherwise. There are seemingly 3 regions really striving to produce great Nebbiolo in Australia – the Adelaide Hills, Heathcote, and the King Valley. The most impressive I’ve yet had from these regions is the 2007 SC Pannell Nebbiolo. It’s a wine that could hold its own amongst many a Barolo. The thing that really made me sit up and take notice with this wine, beyond its inherent qualities, was that it is only the 3rd vintage of this wine off 10 year old vines in the Adelaide Hills. Where might future vintages of this wine be in another decade, when the vines are 20 years old, and the viticulturist and winemaker have another 10 years of understanding the vineyard under their belts? I think it’s safe to say there’s a bright future for this wine. Indeed the same type of story could be told for other producers of Australian Nebbiolo like Pizzini, Arrivo, and Luke Lambert. All up, there is more than enough promise being shown at a very early stage of development to suggest we will be talking about a great Australian Nebbiolo in 10 years time.


Sangiovese has been more widely planted than Nebbiolo thus far, and there is plenty of decent Oz Sangiovese out there. Is there an iconic, world class Australian Sangiovese yet? I’d argue not, though we’re perhaps not far off either. Castagna Sangiovese from Beechworth, and from all reports the Coriole Vita Reserve Sangiovese (a wine I’ve not tried), are certainly starting to make a case. One Sangiovese, however, that I think we may all be talking about in 10 years is the Greenstone Sangiovese. From a vineyard in Heathcote planted in 2005, the 2007 Greenstone Sangiovese is a superb first up effort. When I tasted it last year, there is no way I would have assumed it was such a young wine in all respects. It managed to be beautifully balanced between tasting like a Sangiovese as well as expressing a sense of place. It’s amazing to think where this wine might be with some more vine age.

As with Nebbiolo, there will be some failures, and some sites that are ultimately limited in the Sangiovese they can produce. But such is the promise of a number of these wines, that it’s hard not to envisage an iconic Australian Sangiovese in the not too distant future.

There’s many an exciting Australian wine being made at the moment, and the greater exploration and understanding of terroir, increasing vine age, better clone selection, and more organic/biodynamic practices, all point to the emergence of a golden age in Australian wine during the next decade. These very same factors will see alternative varietals occupy an increasingly prominent position. In the same way that we saw the arrival of world class Australian Pinot Noir during the noughties, I believe we will see iconic Nebbiolo and Sangiovese emerge over the next decade.


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