Melbourne-based wine writer Max Allen loves a good Shiraz as much as the next guy. He just thinks there is so much more Australia can do, it's time to shake things up. In his book, The Future Makers: Australian Wines for the 21st Century (available online and soon to be published in the U.S.), he argues that a wide range of styles is also coming into focus for existing varieties, made by winegrowers who have adopted organic viticulture, biodynamics and, especially, grape varieties new to Australia.
Allen has been on this bandwagon for some time. He is one of the original organizers of the Alternative Varieties wine judging, which just concluded last week. At my request he grabbed a few favorites from this year's lineup and tasted through them with me on my first day in Melbourne.
"All these guys, making Tempranillo, Vermentino, Pinot Gris, and other off-the-beaten-path varieties, had these visions of what Australian wine could be, and it jibed with what I was thinking," said Allen, who has been the chief judge for the competition for seven years. During that time Pinot Gris has been planted on so many acres that it is no longer eligible for the competition. He looks like a proud parent when he notes how many wineries are having success with the grape variety.
I wondered aloud if a focus on alternative varieties tacitly admits that the Shiraz, Grenache, Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sémillon that dominate the Australian landscape aren't making it. He shook his head. "In McLaren Vale no one is questioning for a second that Grenache and Shiraz are great. But in the last McLaren Vale show, a Tempranillo-Touriga blend was voted best," he noted. "That tells you something."
He also believes that Chardonnay is the most exciting white wine grape in Australia today. The lean, minerally style that is coming on so strong is gaining traction fast, he noted. The wines have nerve without giving up the ripe flavors that Australia can get so easily.
But today wasn't about Chardonnay. It was about wines such as Oliver's Taranga Vermentino 2011, tangy, minerally, with almond and citrus notes made from a grape grown widely in warmer regions in Italy. The grape is becoming the next big thing in Riverland, the hot Central Valley of Australia. "It's a perfect grape for them to grow," Allen noted. "It has much more character than Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc grown there. And it's easy to market a wine like that by standing at the cellar door (winery tasting room), putting a few sardines on the table and telling the Mediterranean story."
Indeed, Yalumba and Jacobs Creek are making successful, relatively inexpensive wines with Vermentino.
I also liked the Scott Fiano Adelaide Hills 2011, made from an ancient grape native to Italy's Campania region. Bright, jazzy, flavorful, with big hits of lime, mineral and spice flavors, it also had a hint of apricot on the dry, chalky finish.
"Isn't it hard to sell Italian Fiano?" I mused. "Not my problem," Allen responded. "I don't have to sell the wine. I just want to drink it. I think others will, too." He's right. He's not an industry consultant. He's thinking like a journalist.
Rhône grapes made the light, floral Yalumba Viognier Y Series 2011, with its pear and apricot flavors, the Hall Roussanne 2010, broad and satiny, and Syrahmi Mourvèdre 2009, surprisingly clean and velvety, a delicate style, very precise.
Some of the wines rubbed me the wrong way, including one from a German grape called Kerner (I didn't like its aspirin note on the finish). But I loved, absolutely loved, S.C. Pannell Nebbiolo 2008, an Adelaide Hills wine that put me in mind of crisp, focused Barbaresco, with its pretty raspberry, white pepper, and floral flavors on a lively frame.
It's the vineyard managers in the bigger companies that are pushing for these varieties, Allen noted. "They want to find what will grow best in their big vineyards in the warm regions," he said. Here's a hint. It's not always Shiraz.
A trend well under way is to move away from varietals to blends. One of the more intriguing wines was Mount Majura Vineyard TSG 2010, a blend of Tempranillo, Shiraz and Graciano. The Canberra winery is already known for its Tempranillo, but the blend has a welcome mineral edge to tight, focused blackberry and pepper jam flavors, all finishing light and silky. Another Tempranillo, from Western Australia, was much more tannic, with a tobacco-centric flavor profile reminiscent of Rioja.
What will happen from all this? "Australia could make some amazing wines with these varieties," Allen began. "Nothing will topple Shiraz, nor is Chardonnay going away, but a regional market is already emerging for these less-familiar grapes."
"But again, that's not my problem," he added. "I'm looking for stories. It's a good story when people take risks."
One option, he argued, once vignerons figure out what works best where, is a return to regional blends, where the varieties are not stated explicitly on the front label. "That's how it was when you could still call your wine Burgundy or Chablis. You knew what to expect from a [wine labeled] McLaren Vale Burgundy, even though you had no idea which grape varieties went into it.
"Someday, I hope we might have a wine called Riverina White. Why not evolve a style of wine that reflects each region? Let the winemakers decide what varieties to use to achieve it. We are a long ways off from that, but trying all these varieties, that's a start."