Exotics grape varieties galore — but will any go mainstream?

The Winemakers’ Federation of Australia’s official vintage report for 2009 has little to say about the much talked about ‘alternative’ grape varieties now being explored enthusiastically by Australia’s winemakers.

The report reveals, for example, that our vignerons harvested 117 tonnes of the Italian red, barbera, and 449 tonnes of the CSIRO-bred tarrango. But it offers no insights on perhaps the most talked about red, the Spanish tempranillo. Presumably it’s lumped in with the 15,124 tonnes of ‘other’ red varieties – and this out of a total o 888,312 tonnes.

I notice among the whites, too, the report still records the harvest of 222 tonnes of palomino and pedro ximenez (leftovers from last century’s fortified wine production) but not of savagnin (the correct name for what we thought was albarino), nor the apparently fast-expanding, drought resistant vermentino; and that it still calls ‘gewürztraminer’ ‘traminer’, as if the two were synonymous.

But as our battered wine industry reforms itself over the next few years (reportedly 40 thousand hectares of vines need to be removed), we’ll definitely see and hear a lot more about emerging alternative varieties.

What the WFA figures reveal, though, is the enormity of the task should any of these newcomers make serious inroads into established varieties. The volumes that need to be replaced should any niche variety go mainstream are massive – making it difficult to visualise our future industry. But change it must with a surplus of 100 million dozen bottles and growing.

In 2009 we harvested 1.7 million tonnes of wine grapes – 888.3 thousand tonnes of red and 817.7 of whites. Shiraz, cabernet and merlot contributed 779.3 thousand tonnes, or 88 per cent of the red total. Chardonnay alone, at 398.6 thousand tonnes, accounted for almost half the white total.

By all accounts the surplus of chardonnay is huge. Sauvignon blanc overtook it as our preferred white tipple in 2009 – mainly at the hands of imports from Marlborough, driven by New Zealand’s overproduction, our strong dollar and, of course, our love of the flavour.

As we reduce our area under vine, and cut back on some varieties like chardonnay, how will the emerging varieties perform? Perhaps there’s a hint in past performance of niche varieties.

The white variety, marsanne became a big seller for Victoria’s Tahbilk decades ago, and it’s been adopted by many other wineries,  but few with significant success. We harvested only 1,678 tonnes of it in 2009.

Likewise, the white verdelho, so suited to our warm areas and present in Australian vineyards for about 150 years, remains a perennial niche player at 15,051 tonnes. And last decade’s darling, viognier, seems stuck at about 13 thousand tonnes a year (with a good deal of that going into red blends).

Some of the ‘emerging’ red varieties, have been with us for decades. Of these, barbera and sangiovese appear in the WFA vintage report at 117 tonnes and 3,921 tonnes respectively – confirming that currently they are minor players indeed.

Two niche red varieties deserve separate mention. Grenache (15,170 tonnes in 2009) and mourvedre (6,165 tonnes) have been with us for about two centuries, surviving swings in wine fashion (fortified to table wine) and are becoming increasingly important, notably in the Barossa, in blends with shiraz. In such regions, shiraz is certain to remain the star player but grenache and mourvedre will remain key support players.

I reckon the biggest change we’ll see in volume will be a retreat in the area of chardonnay under vine. It’s already lost its place as number one quaffing white, supplanted by sauvignon blanc. But it won’t disappear – rather it’ll retreat to cooler areas and continue to make complex, full bodied wine, the best of which will continue to be our most prized and expensive white wines.

This won’t be replaced by today’s champ, sauvignon blanc, as most of Australia simply doesn’t grow the variety well. New Zealand will continue to dominate this part of the market, but cool Australian areas, too, will carve a niche. Sauvignon blanc volume stood at a significant 63,253 tonnes.

As our winemakers search for drought and disease resistant varieties, especially along our ever-drier river lands, they’ll be looking for more than vine adaptability. It’s one thing to grow healthy vines that require little irrigation, but another to make from them wines that people enjoy drinking.

It’s worth the search. And it’d be a fair bet to say that the palette of wine flavours and textures we enjoy should continue to expand. Bring on the saperavi, nebbiolo, graciano, albarino, fiano, tempranillo, montepulciano, sagrantino, nero d’Avola, verdicchio and so on. But expect that most will remain as niche players.

Will any of them, though, become mainstream, to stand beside shiraz, cabernet, pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc? It’s quite likely. Don’t forget that Italy has hundreds of indigenous varieties and some, like montepulciano and sangiovese are very widely grown – in fact, satisfied most local demand until the classic French varieties gained a foothold in recent decades.

And in Spain, tempranillo reigns, often in tandem, with grenache. Plenty of commentators, myself included, see tempranillo as a potentially great success in Australia. It grows well and makes juicy lovable dry reds.

While some larger companies see great potential for the white vermentino (it apparently grows well here), we know little yet about how Australian drinkers like it. And a white that many makers see with the potential is another Spanish variety, albarino. It’s much loved in Spain and successfully exported.

Though our early efforts with it have been marred by the discovery that our albarino was, in fact, the almost identical variety savagnin, it remains on vignerons’ radar. But it’ll be some time before we have volumes of the real thing.

It’ll take a few years for the bargains and carnage being wrought by the current oversupply to settle. But we’re already enjoying, and will see increasingly, a parade of exotic varieties among all the familiar ones.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010