By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 16 February 2019
Temperatures are on the rise in Australian wine regions. With the mean January temperature increasing 0.6% since 1991, Aussie winemakers are searching for new ways of coping with heat spikes and drought.
The Aussies are well-known as resourceful experimenters – and they are wasting no time in adopting unusual varieties which can cope in the future to avoid berry shrivel and increasing alcohol levels.
“Australia’s industry was established on traditional French grapes across every region, without much thought to matching variety to region”, says winemaker Corrina Wright of Oliver’s Tarrango. “Now we are looking at alternative grapes which are drought-tolerant, sunburn resistant and requiring minimal water”.
French traditionals Shiraz (30%), Cabernet Sauvignon (18%) and Chardonnay (16%) are still by far the most planted grapes down-under, but with a renewed focus on southern European grapes like Fiano, Vermentino, Arinto, Touriga Nacional, Mencia, Tempranillo and Nebbiolo being grafted onto existing vines – with mainly Chardonnay being uprooted.
The most enthusiastic adopters of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese grapes are in two regions: McLaren Vale in South Australia (pictured below) and King Valley in Victoria.
“McLaren Vale is ideally suited for growing alternative grapes”, says Wright. “It has a maritime climate with a long growing season offering a good window of opportunity for ripening, no frost problems and 40+ soil types”.
The white frontrunner is Fiano (Australian Fiano imports to the UK were up 30% last year). Originally from Campania, this grape has settled well in McLaren Vale – and in Clare Valley, Riverland and Frankland River. Fiano is resistant to heat, producing lean citric wines like Bondar and Oliver’s Tarrango in McLaren Vale, Grossets in Clare Valley and Cherubino in Frankland – but there is a problem with price. Fiano is more expensive that most grapes, similar in price to premium Shiraz. It will be sometime before Aussie Fiano can compete with Italy.
Another successful white Italian in McLaren Vale is Vermentino, grown in Sardinia, Tuscany and Liguria. There are now 15 Vermentino producers across Australia, the best in New South Wales (de Bortoli), South Australia (Chalk Hill, Koerner and Spinifex) and Victoria (Yalumba, Brown Brothers, Fowles).
Victoria has always had a strong Italian focus. Italians arrived with the first fleet in 1770 lured to gold fields and the latest large influx was post-war 1950’s with many settling around Melbourne. With so many Italian Australians with a knowledge of mediterranean viticulture, families like Chalmers in Heathcote and Pizzini in King Valley focus on Italian grapes like Nebbiolo and Sangiovese - first planted here in 1970.
At the recent Australia Day Tasting Masterclass led by Sarah Ahmed (pictured right), it was the red grapes that impressed me. Italy’s Montepulciano and Nero d’Avola for example, a grape which commands the highest grape price of all; it requires only half the water that Chardonnay needs. They do not taste authentically Italian, but with ripe exuberant fruits. Spain’s Mencia (Oliver’s Tarrango) and Tempranillo (Hither & Yon) are also interesting – but most impressive of all is Portugal’s Touriga Nacional which tasted like a beautifully ripe Dao.
“It is hard to get Touriga Nacional ripe in the Barossa, but it works well in McLaren Vale”, says winemaker Joch Bosworth of Battle of Bosworth winery. “There are only two clones of Touriga Nacional available in Australia, but we hope to get more as Portugal is working hard on developing clones resistant to heat”.
So with all this replanting, will we see less of our staple Aussie Chardonnay and Shiraz in the future?
“Chardonnay is definitely being hit by alternative grape plantings”, says Wright. “I don’t think Shiraz is so challenged, but how Shiraz is being made is changing – now with more savoury-focused with natural tannins”.
Things are changing down-under. With quarantine time and replanting it can take 6 years before a newly imported vine is producing well, so it will take time to change the industry’s focus. However, it seems that the days of Chardonnay’s dominance in Australia are well and truly over.
FIANO 2018 Oliver’s Tarrango (12.5%)
Typical Aussie Fiano with lean citric character, light texture, juicy citric lime and grapefruit notes, crisp and dry. Sadly too pricey, it will struggle to compete with Italy.
‘OGGI’ 2015 Crittenden Estate (13.5%)
£19.95 Berry Bros & Rudd
Italian trio of grapes: Fiano, Arneis and Vermentino made like red wine with extended lees maturation. Winemaker Rollo Crittenden experiments annually with this blend in Mornington Peninsula. Very textured, full bodied, rich, honeyed with honeysuckle and waxy notes.
‘CHN’ CHENIN BLANC 2017 Brash Higgins (12%) ***STAR BUY***
£23 Vagabond Wines
Winemaker Bad Hickey’s third vintage of Chenin from white beach sand vineyards in Blewitt Springs. Suit those looking for Vouvray lookalikes down-under. Loved its honeyed nutty straw-like aromas and apple, pear flavours. Some might find it over-the-top oak-wise (11 months in oak), but I loved this heady Chenin.
DOMINO MONTEPULCIANO 2017 Lino Ramble (14.4%) N/A in UK
Italy’s high acid thick-skinned Montepulciano shows potential with upfront fruit sour red berry flavours and leathery notes. High alcohol, but not obvious. Sadly not yet imported into the UK, but will appear soon.
MENCIA 2016 Oliver’s Tarrango (13%)
Spain’s Mencia is new to Australia – this unoaked supple red has attractive red berry fruit, vibrant freshness and mid-weight that you don’t often see down-under.
HERETIC 2017 Battle of Bosworth (12.5%) ***STAR BUY***
Winning blend of Touriga Nacional (61%) giving pretty floral bergamo notes, alongside vibrant high-acid Graciano and spicy Shiraz. Loved the velvet smooth textures and soft tannin finish.
SIREN NERO D’AVOLA 2016 Alpha Box & Dice (12.7%)
£24 www.woodwinters.com; www.vincognito.co.uk
Sicilian grape Nero d’Avola grows well in sun-drenched maritime Blewitt Springs making a raisiny sour-acid cherry fruited red with savoury, spicy with burnt beeswax note – shows good potential for this grape.
THE STICKS & STONES 2014 d’Arenberg (14.5%)
£14.95 www.ndjohn.co.uk; www.bibendum-wine.co.uk
D’Arenberg are well known for their quirkily named wines and unusual blends. This sweet fruited Tempranillo and Grenache blend with Portuguese grapes Souzao and Tinta Cao matured in French oak is fragrant, earthy with an easy quaffability.
Join Rose’s Tasmania Masterclass in Edinburgh Thursday 11 July £42 www.rosemurraybrown.com