Australian winemakers turn to alternative grape varieties

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 December, 2014, 4:27pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 11:17am

The wine-speak term "alternative" is fairly neutral - unlike its counterpart "interesting", usually a wine-speak euphemism for "faulty", "bizarre", or "borderline undrinkable".

On iTunes, "alternative" is a catchall, covering everyone from The Killers to your uncle's garage band. But something rarely considered "alternative" is Australia. To most drinkers, Australian wine is much more chardonnay than rotgipfler, more Kylie Minogue than Nick Cave.

So when this year's James Busby Australian wine trade tour offered an event titled "Alternative Adelaide", it left many attendees nonplussed or suspicious some kind of swingers' event was in store. But like Dorothy after hopping the rainbow, we were soon pleasantly surprised by the Technicolor world of Oz and its new category of "alternative".

Only a few years ago, our vanilla impression of Australian wine might have been more justifiable. But with the US market losing its taste for the behemoth shiraz, and then China's diminished interest in being the world's sponge for Jacob's Creek, Australian producers have had to do some soul searching to avoid being one-hit wonders.

A number of innovative minds - many in lesser-known regions of South Australia such as Langhorne Creek - have moved on from producing greatest hits shiraz and cabernet sauvignon to varieties that are a little more out there.

Fortunately, most have done their homework, choosing varieties from hot, arid climes such as touriga nacional from Portugal, tempranillo from Spain and sangiovese from Italy, which will hold bright acidity even after hours of sweetening sunshine.

Little old malbec from Argentina also has its fans, and makes an appealingly plump and juicy drink. Even grenache, long a staple blending grape, is embarking on a solo career, with impressive results. Winemaker Marco Cirillo's grenache, planted in 1850 on a field so sandy you'll want flip flops to cross it, is far too serious for a picnic on the beach.

On the white front, growers have cast wider nets, with cool climate varieties such as Austria's grüner veltliner rubbing shoulders with scorching hot Campania's fiano. Nobody's gone too bananas: the perfumed, peppery and pinkish surrey pinot meunier, native to frigid Champagne, is being planted in the chilly Adelaide Hills rather than Barossa.

Although most of the wines aren't quite as full of character as their old world cousins, they are well-made, fresh and pure. Also it's early days yet.

Producers of alternatives also see themselves less as copycats and more as cover artists bringing a fresh approach to a favourite tune.

Is there a need for alternatives? The world of wine is confusing enough without playing grape variety musical chairs. I would vouch for alternatives with these points:

  • The times, they are a-changin', or at least the climate is. Most of the new varieties being trialled are less thirsty, and in South Australia drought's always knockin' at the door.
  • Old, established doesn't equal good. The difficult truth is that there are remarkable old vineyards and average ones. Today's alternatives could be tomorrow's classics.
  • Just how much shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay do we need? In a competitive market, an alternative is a beautiful thing.

I don't want to listen to Maroon 5, Pharrell Williams or Taylor Swift constantly (or ever, in Swift's case). Sometimes I crave the woozy vocals and glockenspiel of Noughts and Exes.

Who, you ask? You'll find them on iTunes, though ironically not in "alternative".

Sarah Heller is a Hong Kong-based wine writer