The (anti) French revolution: New grape varieties in Australia

As it enters its third century the Australian wine industry is undergoing a revolution in the grape varieties it is based on. Until quite recently virtually all of the grapes used were French; there were a couple of exceptions, some of the varieties used for fortified wines were from Portugal or Mediterranean countries.
For two hundred years Australian winemakers were using varieties such as Shiraz, Grenache, Riesling, Semillon, Cabernet sauvignon as the mainstays of premium wine production. A number of other varieties were widely used to make bulk and lower-priced wines. These high yielding varieties included Ugni blanc, (aka Trebbiano) and Sultana (Thompsons seedless) and Chenin blanc in Western Australia.

Around 1980 Chardonnay was introduced to Australia and it proved an outstanding success, but some grapegrowers and winemakers wanted to push the envelope a little further. By the late 1980s a number of innovators started to look for new varieties.

One of the reasons why Shiraz and Chardonnay are so popular in Australia is that the vines are very versatile and can thrive in a wide range of climates. In warmer areas they can produce good wine from vineyards with moderate to high yields. In cooler areas they produce wine with strong varietal and regional characteristics.

Most other varieties need to be matched more closely with the environment in which they are grown. Muller Thurgau, for example, can only be grown on a practical basis in the colder wine regions. If it is planted in a mild or warm climate the acid levels in the grape juice is so low that the wine is of very poor quality. In a cool climate and in the hands of skilled viticulturalist and winemakers it can make excellent wine.

So what are the new varieties that are making an impact?
The first group of varieties to consider are the other French varieties, those that are not used in the classic wines from the classic French vineyards. Among these Petit Verdot and Durif are becoming more popular, especially in the warmer regions. The white wine varieties Viognier and Pinot gris (called grigio in Italy) have become almost mainstream varieties over the past few years. Both play a dual role. Viognier is used in small quantities (between two and ten percent) to add a little something to Shiraz, and it is used to make varietal white wine as well. PG, as some wine experts like to call it can make flinty dry style (Pinot grigio) or a fuller well rounded wine (Pinot gris)

Other French varieties, which are being introduced or used much more widely in Australia, are Chenin blanc, Mourvedre, Malbec, Tannat and Meunier.

Italy is a huge source of wine grape varieties. Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Barbera are three red wine varieties that are becoming increasingly popular with Australian wine makers and consumers. There are a few other Italian red grape varieties, which are coming onto to the radar screen. Lagrein and Marzemino are two to watch. Apart from Pinot grigio, which is the same variety as the French Pinot gris, the only Italian white wine variety of note is Arneis. Some very good wines have been made from this variety already. Vermentino is a white variety that is used on the islands of Corsica and Sardegna. Some vineyards in Australia are coming into production with this variety.

The most important Spanish variety used in Australia is Tempranillo. Some impressive wines have already been made with this variety, and it plantings of Tempranillo are being made all over Australia. We are sure to see more of this on shelves and wine lists in the next couple of years. Another Spanish red wine variety, Graciano, is also attracting interest.

Verdelho is a white wine variety that is used in Portugal, especially on the island of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean of the coast of Africa, where it is used to make fortified wine. In Australia this variety is becoming increasingly popular for producing easy drinking, fruity dry white styles, so much so that Verdelho could soon be challenging Sauvignon blanc as an alternative to Chardonnay.

The Russian (or Georgian) variety Saperavi has turned some heads in the wine world. The wines are intensely coloured; the word Saperavi means "dyer" in Russian, and loaded with tannins. Some winemakers are showing interest in using Saperavi in Australia.

Gruner Veltliner is a white wine that may be attractive to you if you want to impress your friends. It is used extensively in Austria, so there may be some use for it cooler Australian regions.

Finally, there are some homegrown, dinky di, Australian wine grape varieties. These are not really native to Australia as they are derived from imported European vines, but as varieties they are true blue Aussies.

The CSIRO has had a long-term program to breed varieties suitable for Australia. Some of these to actually come into production are Cienna, Tarrango, Taminga and Tyrian.

Three other Australian varieties are worth a mention. Shalistin and Malian are both varieties which have been propagated from natural sports of Cabernet sauvignon and commercialised by Cleggett Wines in Langhorne Creek. Mann wines in Western Australia use their own homegrown variety Cygne blanc to make a sparkling wine. This variety was developed from a promising seedling found near a Cabernet vineyard.

But the varietal picture will never be completely painted. Rimfire Vineyard in the Darling Downs of Queensland make a white wine from an unnamed variety. The only known vines are in an old vineyard and they have been unsuccessful in finding what the variety really is. In the meantime they are calling the wine 1893, after the year that the vineyard was planted.

So there is a revolution in Australian winemaking, but most of the varieties now getting their liberty, equality and fraternity downunder are not French.

So browse around and find some of these new varieties and try them for yourself.

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