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Earlier this year, Chris Losh attended an Australian tasting in the UK and got a glimpse of the future for the country's wine producers. Here's what he saw.

Could a dizzying array of varietals shape the future for Australias wine producers?

Could a dizzying array of varietals shape the future for Australia's wine producers?

"Have you heard?" The importer at the Australia Day Tastings in London shook his head dolefully. "Majestic are cutting back their listings of Aussie Chardonnay."

Majestic is the UK's largest specialist wine retailer. With over 200 stores, it's the kind of outfit that helped propel Australian wines over the last 20 to 30 years to their current position of power and it's often been ahead of the trends. When I contacted them about the claim, the group was tight-lipped about the plans for its Australian range. The fact that the trade thinks they might be cutting listings of such a one-time staple is, in itself, significant.

Australian Chardonnay is, by common consent, better than it's ever been, but it's a tough sell – a Blairite wine style in a Trumpian world – and proof that sheer improvements in quality are no longer enough to attract attention.

At a time when Burgundy prices are soaring and Chablis is facing immense supply issues, alternative styles of high-quality Chardonnay ought to have been high on the agenda of the London tasters at the trade tasting earlier this year. But, even here, the grape was about as fashionable as a 'Hilary for President' T-shirt.

Instead, there was much chat about Jim Barry's new Assyrtiko. It was interesting, for sure. But, being expensive, available in tiny quantities and unpronounceable to most consumers, its about as niche as it's possible to get.

There will be more of this 'alt-grape' stuff from Australia in the coming years, though. If you thought the country was, essentially, a giant vat of Shiraz, Cabernet and Chardonnay with a bit of Pinot and Riesling thrown in for good measure, then you would be wrong.

True, these first three varieties still account for two-thirds of the country's wine exports, but there are a growing number of wines from so-called 'alternative varieties' being made in Australia, mostly from Italian and Spanish varieties.

Tempranillo, at 700+ hectares, is the most widely planted, followed by Sangiovese, although there are plenty of growers experimenting with Greek and Portuguese varieties as well.

The experiments largely began in the middle of the 'Millennial Drought', 15 years ago, when growers were casting around for varieties that could handle heat and minimal rainfall better than the likes of Cabernet and Chardonnay. Hotter, drier parts of Europe seemed a logical place to go looking, and the trend took off. One producer I spoke to estimates that there are over 50 different varieties in the Barossa now, and there's no shortage of producers who are willing to talk enthusiastically about them either.

Even after just ten years, growers are starting to acquire a more nuanced understanding of their new arrivals. Tempranillo, for instance, is not the super-tolerant hot-climate variety that they first imagined, looking, rather, like a grape for cooler areas. The winemakers most in tune with it are now making it more like a Pinot Noir than a Shiraz, with gentler extraction and aromatics over body.

Italian varieties seem to handle hot areas rather better. Although plantings remain small - with the exception of Sangiovese - it wouldn't be surprising to see these varieties start to grow in significance over the next ten years.

Initial plantings, as one grower put it, tended to be "put in wherever there was room". But, while the finer nuances of terroir might be a few years down the track, there's already a broad-brush understanding of what works where, and an optimism that these grapes have really settled into their new home.

"If Australia was being planted from scratch, knowing what we know now, the country's varietal make-up would be very different," one winery manager told me. "There would be a lot less Chardonnay, for starters."

Fiano and Sangiovese are arguably the most obviously suited to Australia Mark II but, with such a scattergun approach to plantings, and champions for pretty much all of them, it's unlikely that any of them will acquire the critical mass to become 'The Next Shiraz': Not least because the issue here may well be less "what grows well", but more "how easy is it to sell".

Consumers, after all, are used to seeing certain grape varieties as single varietals. It's not that big a stretch from buying a Spanish Tempranillo or Italian Primitivo to an Australian one, whereas Touriga, Arneis, Assyrtiko and Aglianico might be tougher sells. It's a shame, because one of my favourite wines was a 100% Graciano.

But, I'm not holding my breath.

Currently, partly because available volumes remain relatively low, some producers are using their alternative varieties to add interest or structure to the likes of Shiraz in joint-varietal wines. It's a good way of getting consumers used to seeing the new arrivals on a label without being too intimidating.

That said, price remains a major issue. Australian wines in general can no longer be considered cheap - over 50% of the wines at the London tasting retailed at over US$18.60 - and the new Spanish and Italian versions are consistently above even that.

Why, you might wonder, would a restaurant or retailer take a punt on a Barossa Nero d'Avola or an Adelaide Hills Fiano for a trade price of upwards of $20 when it's possible to pick up an 'authentic' European version for half that price? However good the wines are (and some are very good) at a time when many outlets are cutting back their ranges, not increasing them, they remain a tough sell.

All of which makes me wonder whether, however beguiling it might be to uncover an amazing Arneis or Montepulciano where you weren't expecting to find it, the real varietal story might be a bit closer to home. There's been a growing movement in Australia over the last decade towards history, site-specificity and less manipulation of wines. Hearteningly, the obsession with deep-coloured reds seems to be falling by the wayside, too.

Add all this together, and maybe Grenache – a variety more sinned against than sinning – could be the answer. There are, after all, some spectacular gnarly old bush vines whose fruit used to be blended away but which are now, as one winemaker put it, "starting to be used for something appropriate".

With new classics in the offing, and the potential revival of a long-established variety, there's more to pique the interest from Down Under than at any time in the last 20 years.

Let's just hope that the gatekeepers – and consumers – wake up to the fact.


Sectors: Wine

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