When does a grape variety cease being alternative?

by Larry Best

Larry Asks:

Reading your latest newsletter, it occurred to me that I too wondered when a grape variety became mainstream. The two varieties mentioned in your newsletter, ie Marsanne and Gewurztraminer (excuse the lack of umlaut) brought home to me that this becomes an interesting question.

Sangiovese is also a good example, as is tempranillo. These two varieties are becoming widely planted. Should we be looking at how many hectares have been planted, over how many regions the variety under cultivation or what quantity of wine is being produced from the particular variety, to determine an alternative variety status?

Considering the number of alternative grapes now being looked at, there will come a time when some criteria will probably be employed to establish a variety's alternative nomenclature.

Darby Replies:

This is a question without a real answer, or at least it depends on the context. The AAVWS has an exclusion list, ie anything but Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz... As I mentioned in the newsletter they have been debating Pinot Gris/Grigio for a while. They say something is 'alternative' if it doesn't have a class of its own at a major metropolitan wine show, so on this criterion PG should be considered no longer alternative.

In the context of Vinodiversity the decision is mine personally. I aim the site at consumers and I have a rule of thumb "does the average wine consumer know about this variety?" Of course my method is totally subjective, and I could easily decide one way or another for any of the varieties you mention.

Verdelho is an interesting case in this discussion. AAVWS don't consider it alternative. I do, it's not widely known in Victoria, I'm from Melbourne, I like the variety and it is a subjective decision. I've had a few wine people from NSW disagree with me, but it's my decision.

Thanks for opening this discussion Larry, I hope some other readers chime in with their opinions via the comments to this page.

Comments for When does a grape variety cease being alternative?

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Jan 19, 2010
More on alternative varieites
by: Darby

Some good comments from Chris at Vincognita.
I agree wholeheartedly about the need to make good examples of the alternative varieties. Using a different variety is not a magic bullet. Years of work in the vineyard and the winery are needed before we even think of marketing the wine.

I guess that what we actually see at the wine shows (like AAVWS etc) must be regarded as a work in progress and only a few have really made it through, but if you step back and look a lot has been achieved over the past couple of decades, the next few years will tell the tale for some in the pipeline. In my opinion we are further down the track with Temp, than Viognier, but both seem destined to play a big role in the future.

Spot on Dan. It is a mystery to me why Verdelho is not more widely marketed outside NSW. Most Victorian wine drinkers have never heard of it. There are heaps of Aussie growers/makers. I have 370+ wineries (160 in NSW) on my database using it.

We are being swamped by NZ sav blanc - most of it very ordinary - which is seen as the easy drinking wine. Well, doesn't it tell us that there is a gaping hole in the market for our producers to fill?

Dec 23, 2009
by: Dan Traucki

Hi Darby,

I agree with you, Verdelho is an alternative variety. Whilst there are a few winemakers in NSW- mainly the Hunter and one or two WA wineries who make Verdelhos, It is difficult to find outside of the Sydney market.

Go to your average bottleshop (outside of Sydney) and you are much more likely to find a Pinot Gris or Viognier than a Verdelho.

Dec 18, 2009
when do we progress from alternative?
by: Chris Dix

Perhaps we need to move on from the term 'alternative' altogether. I guess it was borrowed from music and if thats the case maybe 'World' varieties is more suited.

Nevertheless 30 years ago Chardonnay was an alternative!

Diversity is fantastic and I've always liked weird, wonderful & obscure varieties, however when has a variety reached mainstream and 'grown up' ? We still have a sheep mentality in Australian winemaking, always in a hurry to be first with the next best thing. We did it in the 80's with Chard, Pinot & Merlot, in the 90's with Sangiovese, Viognier & the '00's with Tempranillo. The '10's will be Vermentino, Fiano, Sagrantino ?. Just because 200 wineries have an acre of a variety, its not mainstream. Perhaps jump in a taxi and ask the driver if he's ever heard of the variety, there's the test.
We owe it to each variety to get it right, make a benchmark style and a super wine before deciding its no good and moving onto the next variety.

I don't think Pinot Gris or Tempranillo is there yet, Viognier is close for some. If you don't present your best effort to the trade & customers at a reasonable price, then no-one will take notice and the 'niche' market won't fire.
Vinodiversity has done a great job encouraging interest in the weird & wonderful, well done.

Chris Dix, winemaker Vincognita (Madeleines Wines)
2008 Primitivo - only Gold awarded 2009 AAVWS
2008 Viognier - Trophy 2009 National Cool Climate Wine Show

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