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La Dolce Vitis – Italian Grape Varieties in Australia

Something you can safely say about Australians is that we admit when we’ve made a mistake, although sometimes it takes us a while to get around to it. So after about 200 years of viticulture we now recognise that we brought the wrong grape varieties when we settled here. That’s not to suggest we haven’t made the most of the opportunities this has provided as we have put our own stamp on varieties like shiraz (syrah), chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and riesling. Nor does it suggest that there aren’t some exceptional regions for the classic (mostly French) varieties. But the widespread planting of certain grapes across the country isn’t ideal, nor is it a phenomenon exclusive to us. Essentially the wines that Australia put itself on the world wine map with are not suited to the majority of our climate and geography. Thankfully however, we are working hard every day to discover if there are grapes that are more suited, and ones originating from Italy are at the forefront.

Vines were brought to Australia with the First Fleet that landed at Botany Bay in what is now Sydney, way back in 1788. Interestingly those cuttings were brought from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, where viticulture had already been introduced by European colonists. It’s a good thing too, as there are no vitis species native here. Initially it was tough as the climate and geography was very unfamiliar to the European settlers. In time more areas were discovered and more experience gained, and perseverance paid off with quality improving. By the end of the 19th century Australian wine had received some international recognition, winning a first class gold medal at an 1882 Bordeaux International Exhibition, and another ‘against the world’ in Paris seven years later.

Victoria was a key area for very premium viticulture early on, and shiraz-based wines were noted for their quality. When phylloxera was introduced however it cut a swath through vineyards around Melbourne and they were subsequently ripped up. Viticulture shifted heavily into South Australia, particularly as irrigation and logistics technology improved which allowed areas that were previously considered too dry hot, infertile and isolated. Production almost stopped during the two World Wars and The Great Depression and many areas were converted for other forms of agriculture. What grapes that were grown were used either for table consumption or the production of sweet fortified wines, essentially the only wine that was being consumed.

In the 1970s there was an increase in demand for dry table wines (partly due to immigrants and returned servicemen with experience of European wines) and a subsequent focus on producing quality table wines. The decades that followed saw increases in production, technology, regions and investment leading to Australia becoming the fourth largest exporter in the world by the end of the century. The country had established a world-wide reputation for producing reliable wines made from familiar varieties like cabernet sauvignon and riesling, as well as trendy varieties like shiraz/syrah and chardonnay. With increased demand came more planting and production and Australian wine can now be found everywhere, with bright clean labels and full fruity and friendly flavours. But as I already have mentioned in a previous article, something went wrong.

In that article something I failed to mention was the impact climate change has had in Australia that is in fact being experienced globally. The average temperatures through the summer ripening period have increased in the last 20 years across every wine region, and a ten year drought from 2000 compounded this shift. Commencement of harvest has become earlier and the periods shorter, which has serious implications for quality as generally wine grapes prefer a slow protracted ripening season to develop flavour and structure elegantly. Regions that were previously considered cool-climate (Coonawarra, Margaret River, Yarra Valley) have shifted towards warm-climate. Warm-climate regions (Barossa Valley, Hunter Valley, Rutherglen) have become hot and in some cases considered unsuitable for viticulture.

This does not mean the end of winemaking in Australia as some experts have Nostradamusly prophesized, and there are three major reasons for this. As viticulturalists have become more experienced and intelligent they can influence the grapes through vineyard management and altered harvest dates to avoid over-ripening. Added to this is constantly evolving technology. The second is there are areas, particularly through the Great Dividing Range, that were and still are too cold to grow vines and ripen fruit adequately (Macedon, Tasmania, Tumbarumba), that will continue to come ‘online’. The final reason is that there are new and alternative grape varieties that are more suited to the climate and soil type. Instead of focusing on French and German varieties that are more suited to a very temperate climate, Mediterranean varieties have the potential to adapt to and express our terroir better than ever.

To begin with it is important to establish what ‘alternative’ varieties are exactly. In common parlance they are varieties that do not originate from France and Germany, not only the grapes that were so widely planted in Australia but all over the world. For lack of a better term these could be considered ‘international’ varieties. However even this is problematic as there are thousands of varieties growing in France in outlying regions that are marginalised even there let alone Australia. According to the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show, and alternative variety is any other than cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, chenin blanc, colombard, grenache, merlot, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, semillon, shiraz, riesling and verdelho…and pinot grigio as of 2010. But according to Libby Tassie,

“this definition is a changing one—for example, in the 1970s chardonnay was considered to be an alternative or unusual variety; in the 1990s it was pinot gris; and now vermentino and fiano, among others, are the new alternatives.”

Alternative varieties have been planted in Australia a lot longer than you may think. Originally it was for two specific products. Varieties like ugni blanc, pedro ximenez, palomino, trebbiano, sultana and doradillo were planted for brandy production, particularly after the phylloxera epidemic in Europe and there was less production in that continent. The other product was fortified wines, with growers as early as the 1800s planting varieties from the Douro Valley and Jerez to produce their own examples. Due to the enormous downturn in global demand for these products not much of these vines still exist. Post-World War II immigrants from different parts of Europe (notably Italy) secreted in some cuttings of their own varieties for their gardens that have since been used to establish some commercial vineyards. Most of the material however has been brought in legitimately through quarantine for commercial propagation in the past 20 years, and now alternative varieties are booming.

The most commonly planted alternative varieties in Australia are of Italian origin. Pinot grigio is very popular thanks to the boom in demand, and along with sangiovese represents most of the plantings. At the next level down there are a handful that can be found in many regions, such as arneis, nebbiolo, barbera and dolcetto (interestingly all from Piedmont). Other marginal varieties are more popular in particular areas. In South Australian regions you tend to find more montepulciano, sagrantino, aglianico, primitivo and vermentino. In Victorian regions varieties like prosecco, lagrein, friulano, verdicchio and verduzzo are more common. Although there are plantings in other states these two dominate, mostly because of their scale of production but also because of the Italian influence I talked about in my last article.

Interest from consumers in wines made from Italian varieties has continued to increase recently, and thus so has investment in them. This has been seen in the form of increased plantings, more wineries producing from them, and a focus on improving quality whilst attempting to capture the Australian style. I can guarantee that Australian sangiovese and nebbiolo doesn’t taste like Barolo, but nor should it. Even the largest and most traditional wine companies have released Italian varietal wines, a strong indication of how important they are and will continue to be in the market. It’s also not uncommon to see Italian varieties blended with other varieties, not unlike in Italy itself. In fact Julian Castagna in Beechworth believes that the future great Australian blend will cease to be shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, and will become sangiovese and shiraz.

Stay tuned for part II where I talk about many of the renowned Australian wineries that focus on Italian varietals.

Photo by James Scarcebrook

This post was written by:

- who has written 4 posts on Enobytes Wine Online.

James has worked in the wine industry in Australia since 2004 gaining experience in various commercial elements including retail, hospitality, tourism, marketing and sales. Four years were spent with the Australian arm of Domaine Chandon in the Yarra Valley, and during his tenure he began a Masters of Wine Business with the University of Adelaide. In 2010, he became the wine buyer for an important wine store in Melbourne and also completed his first international wine tour to France. He decided to embark on a 16-month wine odyssey around the world once he completed his Masters degree mid-2011. Visiting wine-producing countries across three continents, he returned with a new perspective on wine and an appreciation for the wines of Australia and New Zealand. He continues to write on his own blog where he chronicled his wine adventure, and would like to write a number of books in the future when he gets around to it. Visit his blog at http://intrepidwino.com/

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