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Making sense of the myriad new grape varieties

Wine

They’re certainly creating plenty of buzz in bars and beyond, but Whitey ponders how curious winefolk can face the mess of new varieties that end in O, among others.

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South Australia has about 9000ha of Chardonnay. Next come Riesling and Sauvignon blanc, at about 2500ha each.

These figures are from Wine Australia’s 2016 Winegrape Crush Survey.

Shiraz leads the reds at 26,500ha, followed by Cabernet sauvignon at 17,000ha and Merlot at 4000ha.

Grenache, the current hotgoss sizzler, is fourth, at a meagre 1700 ha.

I’m being parochial here, keeping this discussion local. Even this a bit too general.

And what’s the point?

It’s a matter of proportion. Those are all big numbers. But increasingly, the amount of digital, verbal and paper buzz about the list of grape varieties grown here is concentrated on stuff few punters know anything about.

Like the varieties that end in O. Vermentino? We have 50ha. Fiano? 40ha. The others? Not grown in enough numbers to make the list. Roussanne? 23ha.

The new young Old World reds on the South Aussie block fall like this: Tempranillo, 330ha; Sangiovese, 200ha; Montepulciano, 44ha; Nebbiolo, 37ha; Barbera, 32ha; Sagratino, 12ha, and so on down to somebody’s pet vine.

Vittorino Novello, Professor in the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Science at the University of Turin, has just visited vignerons in the El Dorado and Amador Counties of the Sierra Nevada foothills in California. They’d invited the viticulture guru to advise them of the varieties they should find most likely to succeed in their tricky high, dry and warming country.

Novello has a reputation for his skill in what he calls Wine Growing on the Edge. Spiritually, it’s a sort of vinous equivalent of slow food in tricky places.

His suggested reds? Barbera, Albarossa, Montepulciano, Negroamaro, and Nero d’Avola were his hot tips.

To summarise this week’s Wine & Vines report, Novello recommended these for their capacity to make fine wine in warm, dry places if not overcropped. He liked their natural acidity, colour and lower tannins.

The only one of those five grapes I’ve never encountered here is the Albarossa, a cross of the Ardeche rarity, Chatus, with Barbera. The others are the buzz in the bars, sharp restaurants, and the better shops. Winemakers and viticulturers chatter about them; marketers boast of them. Wine writers like to discover and report new ones.

And let’s face it, they’re all fairly new for us.

Which brings to mind a conversation I had in 2010 with Natasha Mooney, now of the emergent La Bise Wines, a winemaker of international experience and a skilled and respected pioneer of some of these new flavours in the Adelaide Hills.

“It’s a hard sell, so far, with these alternatives,” she said.

“It’s difficult to tell how much the market can absorb. It’s a big learning curve for the drinker, as much as the retailer … We’ll make more serious wines from these new varieties as I learn more about them … In the meantime, profit is still Shiraz-driven.”

Without even mentioning the whites, the learning curve includes growers and winemakers, and all this comes back to the confounding timeframes involved in changing our grape variety regime.

When it was trendy to plant yourself a vineyard 15 or so years back, my advice to the prospective hobbyist was first, think of the flavour you want. Second, find the variety or varieties most likely to produce it. Then research where those types grow best on Earth and study the clones, climate, altitude and geology of that place. Consider the rootstocks you may need if grafting is necessary. Find the land here to match that source terroir, procure it, arrange water, get your cuttings and proceed.

That means a year of research, a year of ground preparation and planting, three years to get a crop, another few to get a reliable one, another couple of vintages to get your wine style settled, two more years’ maturation and you’re beginning to have a product ready to go.

I’m not even thinking about building or finding a winery.

If you’re introducing varieties not yet available in Australia, you can add five more years to get your imports through our very sensible quarantine protocols.

Meaning those who did all that way back then have had five years, at a stretch, to get their consumers educated and the brand settled with whatever variety it is.

Where are they? Who drinks them? Does anybody know?

As those figures of plantings above show, it’s a tiny part of the whole business, but this adventurous new tributary to South Australia’s wine river is the most chaotic part of the market. I’m sure it’s never been so stormy.

It sure is a place rich with the thrill of risk.

Not only does the exploring punter have to find a satisfactory path through all the new varieties, but I’m suspicious that these new names and words are being confused with the new wave of natural/orange/brown wines regardless of their quality and the entire marketing mess will deteriorate.

As a drinker, you’ll have to tread carefully. Explore the market, find your strand of Shakespeare in the oceans of bacteria …

In a sense, given the dross monoculture that had become of most of Australia’s wine, this fractal reactionary upheaval should have been predicted. Right now there’s obviously an urge to break down the tired old ramparts. One can only wonder how this movement’s momentum will last.

Will it follow the parallel explosion of craft beer? Gin? How similar are the markets?

I asked Tash Mooney how she sees it all these six years later.

“I think the consumer has tried these alternates and they are confused, so some are going back to what is secure with more standard varieties,” she said.

“Why? I reckon its because a lot of alternates, besides a harder-to-pronounce name, don’t have a point of difference. They can and often do look like a Shiraz or a Cabernet.

“For me, the alternates that have succeeded are wines that are made with minimal intervention and that have a real point of difference: Arneis, Nero d’avola and Fiano. These varieties are true to themselves and look different in the glass. The punter can see that and then have an opinion.”

So it’s back to the growers and winemakers before it even reaches the marketers and retailers. As a drinker, you’ll have to tread carefully. Explore the market, find your strand of Shakespeare in the oceans of bacteria and stick with that winemaker while you test others.

We’re in this together.

In the meantime, you can be assured that all the new varieties in that South Australian summary quoted at the top are right now being planted in the higher, drier parts of California. Not to mention their home vignobles in Europe, which have a tendency to follow the varieties the New World chooses to promote from that Old World’s often tangled tapestry of types.

If you need any convincing of their array in Italy alone, check the confounding Italian Vitis Database found here.

One can only marvel at the untested flavours available. Have we chosen the best? How long will it take to find out?

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