For years, Shiraz and Chardonnay have sat contently on their thrones as the King and Queen of the Australian wine growing scene. Back when the New World wine country was finding its feet in an industry dominated by Old World estates – with vines even older than Australia – it was the likes of Shiraz and Chardonnay grapes that made people sit up and take notice of the new kid on the block. However, the landscape has evolved in the past few years, and modern Australian wine is a far cry from where it first began. In Australia, it’s all about diversity – new wine regions are emerging, new winemakers are breaking through, and new styles are being pursued.
But perhaps the biggest change of all is with grape varieties. At present, there are more than one hundred commercially planted grape varieties in Australia; however, a new wave of Mediterranean varieties are making a name for themselves Down Under. From Nero d’Avola to Vermentino, Australia is bursting with new arrivals and lesser-known grape varieties which are grabbing the attention of critics, sommeliers and wine drinkers around the world.
There’s no doubt the Australian wine scene is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, but the reasons behind the varietal explosion are far more complex.
For one, climate change has had a major impact. With many of Australia’s classic wine regions becoming warmer and drier – and growing seasons becoming shorter – winemakers have turned to vines that are better suited to their soils and conditions, as a means to future-proof the industry.
Of course, commercial objectives are not missing from the equation, and investing in alternative varietals helps Australian producers find a new USP in an increasingly crowded market.
The third piece of the puzzle boils down to the people behind the labels and their inherent pioneering spirit. Aussie winemakers are curious and willing to challenge convention, keen to try new things and discover how different varieties express themselves in Australia’s distinct terroir. However, many winemakers felt that such a hegemony of international varieties was squandering Australia’s potential and so, without laws restricting what can be planted and where, Australia has become a hotbed of innovation and experimentation.
Under the care of our passionate Australian Buyer, Maggie Macpherson, Enotria&Coe’s portfolio has evolved over the years, and now reflects this new diversity in Australian wine, with producers such as Chalmers, Heartland, d’Arenberg and Henschke forging the path forward.
At Heartland, Mediterranean varieties have always been on the radar, with vines planted with Fiano, Malbec, Dolcetto, Tempranillo, Lagrein and many more.
“All Australian wine regions remain young by international standards. Both Barossa and Langhorne Creek are well over a hundred years and running, but we’re not closing the gap on Burgundy any time soon. It takes a while to understand a terroir and work out what varieties work well in which soil, aspect and climate. As a nation, we have worked out that there are lots of varietal options for the thousands of different facets of our landscape,” says Ben Glaetzer.
For Heartland, the pursuit of alternative varietals has a lot to do with flavour and, as Nick Keukenmeester says, the fact that “we like to make them, the journos like them, we get medals and they sell. Why argue?”
For influential wine writer, Matthew Jukes, who’s been working with Australia’s best wines for more than three decades now, the groundswell can be put down to sheer curiosity.
“It is easy to sell the first bottle. But the more interesting thing is, do customers come back for a second glass, bottle or case? These wines are often part of a ‘diffusion brand’ within a winery’s range which, like in fashion, a second label can divert the eye for a while, before you return to the classics. We are riding a fashion wave at the moment and only the best versions of these wines will survive," he says.
While the interest in alternative varieties is certainly picking up speed, Matthew warns that before we too quickly jump ship from the country’s tried and tasted grapes, it’s worth taking a step back and assessing the broader picture.
A decade ago, when Matthew co-authored his third book on Australia, Taste Food & Wine 2009, he was decidedly nonplussed by the shortlist of 200 alternative reds. Ten years on, although he notes the situation has evolved slightly, we’re still not experiencing the avalanche of fascinating, great new wines everyone expected.
“There are certainly some new wines, but few of them compare to the level of skill and flair shown by the Rieslings, Chardonnays, Semillon, Shirazes, Cabernets and so on.
“Granted, a decade on, I have more wines in my 100 Best Australian Wines Report, which are made from alternatives, but they are window dressing on the main act – the founding varieties. My main issue is that wineries which grow alternatives are often looking for a quick fix or a trendy angle to get their wines in front of you.
"There is however, a strong band of wineries making smart wines, but as Matthew points out, they’ve been at it for years. “They know that these wines are not the mainstay of their businesses, but they provide something a little different.”
So where does all this leave us?
If we know one thing for certain, it’s that over the past few decades Australian winemakers have matured, and so too have their wines. No longer are wines from Down Under stereotyped as ‘sunshine in a bottle.’
As for the future of Australian wine, Ben rightly points out that the industry’s survival and success has always hinged on innovation and so, moving forward, we should look for more of the same. By which he means not more of the same, but rather constant change.
In contrast, while Matthew doesn’t foresee huge change in the industry in the coming years, he believes that “great wines will continue to capture hearts and palates, while the alternatives will surf the waves of fashion around the outside, bringing you into the vast ocean of choice which is the Australian wine world."