It Doesn't Need to Taste Like Shiraz

Over the past couple of years I have been trying to share my enthusiasm for wines made from non-mainstream grape varieties.

Most of my friends are wine lovers who enjoy the good life. They travel widely and seek out new restaurants and exotic cuisines.

If I ever suggested that they should eat lamb chops with mashed potatoes and peas for dinner every day they would be appalled. But almost every bottle of wine they open is Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon or a blend of one of these varieties.

But doesn't taste like Shiraz," they say after I give them a glass of wine made from an uncommon winegrape variety.

Exactly, that's the point. The thing that makes wine such an interesting thing, apart from being a wonderful drink, is the endless variation wrought by grape varieties, wine styles, regions, vintages and winemakers skills.

Australian winemakers are now using varieties like Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Petit verdot to make impressive red wines. However many wine consumers are still only vaguely aware that a wonderful new world of choice is opening up for them.

So what are some of the things to look for in these new varieties?

The first thing to realise is that the main reason why the winemaker is using a different variety is to give the consumer a different taste experience. The aroma, flavour, texture and mouth feel will all be different, so you need to expect and enjoy the difference.

The thing I like best about Sangiovese is the finish. It leaves you with a slight tomato and oregano hint in the aftertaste. So it's obvious what foods you would match with Sangiovese. Many Italian wines have obvious acidity and tannin, rather than upfront fruit like Australian Shiraz. Thus the sound advice "drink Sangiovese with food". This applies to most Italian red wines. Some flavours to look for in Sangiovese wines include bitter cherries, all manner of herbs and that tomato aftertaste. The obvious food matches are pastas and pizzas, or perhaps with veal cutlets or Italian sausages.

Nebbiolo is a difficult variety in the vineyard, in the winery, and for consumers to come to grips with. To overcome these hurdles the variety must eventually produce good wine, and so it does. The first thing you notice about Nebbiolo is its colour. Even as young wine Nebbiolo is brownish. The nose of classic Nebbiolo is hot tar and roses, which sounds a bit off. When you smell a good example you will realise how pleasant the smell of hot tar can be. The flavours are quite complex, cherries and plums, cedar, spices and hints of mushrooms and rotting undergrowth. If you enjoy Pinot noir you probably find Nebbiolo to your taste. Finding a good Nebbiolo is like the search for the Holy Grail, difficult but worth the journey. The foods to pair with Nebbiolo wines are hearty winter stews, game and mushroom based dishes. Strong and ripe cheeses such as Gorgonzola also demand a wine with the sort of complexity and depth that Nebbiolo sometimes achieves.

Barbera is Nebbiolo's lightweight cousin, more approachable when young and it does sometimes resemble a lighter style Shiraz. Better examples will have well developed cherry flavours. Barbera's high acidity and low tannin combine to produce lighter, fruity styles. Again match this variety with antipasto and tomato based Italian dishes.

Tempranillo is the mainstay of the famous red wines of the Rioja region in Spain. It can be enjoyed young and fruity when its flavour is reminiscent of strawberries, but with some age it will improve. The colour is deep prefiguring flavours of blackberries, mulberries and cherries. The soft tannins and moderate acidity in many Tempranillo wines give a lush texture for easy drinking, but you can match them with ham, smoked meats and sausages, or with roast lamb. You may like to try some with soft ripe cheese such as Camembert.

Petit verdot is rapidly becoming popular in Australia as a varietal wine, surpassing its traditional role as a minor blending variety with Cabernet sauvignon. Look for the violet aromas in Petit verdot. The flavours are best described as spicy, with hints of aniseed or liquorice added to the fruit, maybe even bring to mind your mother's favourite Christmas cake. Lighter wines from the warmer wine regions can be enjoyed young but the richer more tannic wines need a few years in the bottle. Try them with barbecued meats or pastas with meat-based sauces.

Don't get me wrong, I still like Shiraz, but I don't drink it every time I have a red. Life is much more interesting than that.

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