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But Shiraz has not always held such a hold over the market. Until the mid nineties Cabernet Sauvignon was regarded as the superior variety and this was reflected in the prices paid at the cellar door. But the demand for exports has been mainly for Australian Shiraz and Cabernet has lost ground in the battle for consumer preference in Australia as well.
Shiraz's reign at the top of the tree really started in the middle of the 1950s when it replaced Grenache as the most popular red winegrape variety. In those days a much larger proportion of the wine market was devoted to fortified wine, what we used to call Port.
Looking into the future the role of Shiraz seems unassailable, but there are a few challengers on the horizon. The wine consumer is a fickle creature and fashions can change fairly quickly.
Merlot is the third most popular red winegrape variety in Australia. Much of the production goes into blends with Cabernet Sauvignon, reflecting its major role in Bordeaux. There are quite a few varietal Merlots also produced. There are two reasons for thinking that Merlot won't displace Shiraz as our major tipple. Firstly there are viticultural problems relating to poor clones and it performs poorly in cooler regions. Secondly at the consumer end the wine often lacks a distinctive varietal character. There seems to be no consensus among winemakers about what a good Merlot should be like. Meanwhile consumers think of Merlot as meaning mellow. It is hard to find any passion, for or against, this variety.
Another contender is Grenache. This variety is widely planted in South Australia, particularly in the Barossa and McLaren Vale regions. In the 1980s it was subject to government sponsored vine pull schemes in the belief that its days were over. Its star is on the rise again both as a varietal and as the key to blends with Shiraz and Mourvedre. Notwithstanding this recent return to favour, Grenache will not seriously challenge Shiraz because of its need for a relatively warm climate.
Sangiovese is a variety with a large and growing fan club. There are now over a hundred winemakers using this variety. One factor which has held the variety back in the past has been clonal variation, this has been overcome by careful selection by vine nurseries. Over the past few years a significant number of producers have been able to show just what the variety is capable of. The wines show plum and cherry flavours and to my mind these flavours as well as the Italian wine textures will mean that the bandwagon for this variety will keep rolling for quite a while. The number of winemakers and consumers in Australia with an Italian background continues to provide plenty of champions for the variety.
Spain's answer to Sangiovese is Tempranillo. It is growing in popularity in many Australian wine regions. To a large extent the jury is still as many of the plantings are still quite new. Among the champions of the variety are James Halliday and Mark Walpole of Brown Brothers. Tempranillo matures a little earlier than Shiraz or Sangiovese so it can be grown in slightly cooler regions, Indeed Manton Creek Vineyard in the Mornington Peninsula is one of the more highly regarded producers.
The Durif variety is regarded as a warm climate variety, indeed it seemed as though Rutherglen held a monopoly on the variety. But in fact is relatively early ripening, as demonstrated by John Vale at Balnarring on the Mornington Peninsula. The outstanding feature of Durif is the high level of tannins, but if these can be mastered then the variety could become more popular
There are a few other varieties attracting attention which will figure in the mix over the next decade or so. Petit verdot is becoming much more popular in the warmer areas. It was pioneered in Australia by Pirramirra in McLaren Vale but it is now grown extensively in the Murray Darling and Riverina.
Barbera and Nebbiolo are the two other Italian varieties which are highly regarded in Australia. Lagrein is a little known Italian variety, in fact it is from the North East of Italy. It is an early ripening variety and as such can be grown in the cooler climates. Cobaw Ridge in the Macedon Ranges region has a wonderful Lagrein.
Since this article was written in 2004 I have changed my opinion. To my mind the best performing new variety in Australia is Tempranillo, especially in regions with a continental climate. But we may see some serious challenges from other varieites from Italy such as Sagrantino and Nero d'Avola. In the longer term look out for Susumaniello!
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