New drop in the ocean

Water into wine—an explosion of new varieties has burst onto the market.

Water into wine—an explosion of new varieties has burst onto the market.

Just when you were beginning to think all wine was created equal, an explosion of new varieties has hit the market—and it looks like they’re here to stay.

These are exciting times in the Australian wine industry. Where once upon a time we could point to three or four wine styles that we produced with confidence and aplomb, the list has blown out to massive proportions and there’s no sign of things easing up.

Take Viognier, Pinot Gris, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Verdhelo, Durif, Nebbiolo, and Petit Verdot—10 years ago, only dedicated wine buffs would have heard of them. Now at the cutting edge of sophistication and style—and if restaurants aren’t already stocking them, they’ll have to start soon.
In wine lists, market forces rule.

Let’s face it, 15 years ago few would have predicted sauvignon blanc—with its grassy, herbaceous ‘cat’s pee’ characters—would have become so desperately trendy. Wind the clock back to the early ‘80s and chardonnay was also a newcomer. Today, it accounts for 45 per cent of the white wine grown in Australia.

Australians are quick to experiment with new wines, and it’s a sign of our maturity as a wine nation that we do. Back in the boring old days of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when bottle shops bulged with little more than Cab Sav, Shiraz, Semillon and Riesling, adventurous wine lovers had no choice than to head for French and Italian drops.

But this is no more. Just as a tsunami of Chardonnay has flooded the market in the 25 years since we saw what California was doing with this sensational grape, our winemakers have shown pioneering fervour for almost every ‘new’ variety that’s come along. Why? Because they know what terrific wines can be made. “We can grow these grapes to good effect in Australia, and it’s natural that we should want to see how well the wines perform,” Louisa Rose, Yalumba’s chief white winemaker told me on a recent Barossa visit.

Take Viognier as an example—a style that Rose, more than most other winemakers, has helped to develop. First grown by Baillieu Myer on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula 30 years ago, it wasn’t until Robert Hill-Smith, chief executive at Yalumba, planted a few hectares that this wine saw the dawning of commercial reality. It has taken a decade but now this rich, slippery drop with its aromas of apricot and honeysuckle, is the pinnacle of fashion.

It’s much the same story with Pinot Gris, and again Yalumba has been at the forefront of popularising the style. Good drops are also made by Tim Adams (of Clare Valley), Miceli (Mornington Peninsula), Seppelt’s (Grampians), Oakridge (Yarra Valley), and Bimbadgen (Hunter Valley).

New red wines have been slower to catch the public’s imagination. Brown Brothers, for example, grubbed out its Nebbiolo a couple of years ago after nearly a decade of trying.

Thankfully, not all new reds suffer the same fate. One that has overcome an Everest of prejudice is Sangiovese—a soft easy-drinker with fine tannins that found a natural home in Tuscany more than 300 years ago. Two years ago Australian efforts to develop this wine were met with derision and laughter, but winemakers persevered and today Sangiovese is gaining ground as a delicious red that rocks with duck, lamb, pork, steak and even a spicy fish stew.

A good Sangiovese is medium bodied with a silky, velvety feel that comes from fine tannins. Try drops from Coriole (McLaren Vale), Pike’s (Clare Valley) and Bimbadgen (Hunter Valley). Even the el cheapos are good—Windy Peak Sangiovese by De Bortoli is a steal at less than $10.

Similarly, the recent plunge into Shiraz made with a dash of Viognier has been welcomed by consumers and critics. A style that comes from the Cote Roti of the northern Rhone Valley in France, this unusual blend of red and white grapes produces a sexy, elegantly restrained wine with style that transcends the traditional blockbuster nature of ‘straight’ Shiraz.

Laughing Magpie by d’Arenberg (of McLaren Vale) and Clonakilla (Canberra) are easily two of the best but there’s a very acceptable drop in the Wolf Blass gold label range that sells for around $22.

In terms of the future, keep an eye out for Petit Verdot, a spicy, richly flavoured red that puckers the mouth, and Durif, a powerful red that craves the biggest, bloodiest steak. Morris (Rutherglen) have been making it for years and there’s a rounder, smoother style under the Three Bridges label from West End Estate in the NSW Riverina that was hailed as best wine in the show at the recent Sunday Times Wine Club expo in London.

“People couldn’t believe how smooth and elegant it was,” laughs winemaker Bill Calabria. “And when they saw it was 15 per cent alcohol, they were blown away. Even Hugh Johnson, UK wine critic and chairman of the wine club, came back several times to look at the wines. He knows the Riverina and what we’re all about and I could tell he couldn’t believe what he was drinking. We took 100 cases with us and sold the lot—if we’d had more we’d have sold more.”

So, be prepared!

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