Recently, Wine Australia took to the States with a “Far From Ordinary” roadshow. The event, which housed the largest collection of Australian wineries under one roof in the States visited six cities from New York to San Francisco with the goal of showcasing the diversity of regions and varieties across the continent.
IN THIS AUSTRALIAN WINE GUIDE:
Australia is vast. With 65 wine regions and more than 2,500 wineries, it’s a number that doubled from 1995 to 2005 while at the same time the number of vineyard plantings tripled. It’s also important to note that the land Down Under is one of only two countries in the world whose vines were not entirely destroyed by the phylloxera epidemic in the late 1800s. In other words, vines dating back to the 1840s are still in existence. Now that is an “old vine” designation if there ever was one!
For many of us, when it comes to Australian wines, the most well-known varietals include Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, red blends, and Chardonnay. However today, you can also find a wide variety of international and Mediterranean grape varieties. In fact, over 100 varieties can be found from Southern Queensland to Tasmania and from the Margaret River to the Hunter Valley. This growing surge of Mediterranean grape plantings reflects the increased awareness and knowledge of the viticulturists and winemakers who are less interested in trends, but rather what is most well-suited to Australia’s climate and geography.
As for Australia’s distinctive terroir, the climate varies across the continent, but the vast majority of growing regions have warm to hot climates owing to global latitude. That said, the proximity of many of the regions to seas and rivers, or the elevation of the vineyard, allow for a range of temperature and weather conditions. Australia also has some of the most diverse soil types ranging from the rich, terra rossa soil of the Coonawarra to the dolerite and basalt soils of Tasmania. Both types offer stony, shallow, free-draining and warmth suitable for long ripening periods.
Given the unique climates and advantageous growing conditions, Australia’s diversity is poised to grow as viticulturists and winemakers continue to explore new regions, grape varieties and wine styles.
As for some of those new varieties found throughout Australia, I spoke with Mark Davidson, Wine Australia’s Head of Education, both about the grapes found across the country as well as some interesting wine and food comparisons we may not otherwise have considered. Let’s begin with some of the “alternative” grapes taking hold in Australia:
- Tempranillo – Spain’s most famous red wine grape has seen a dramatic increase in plantings in Australia over the past two decades. The top regions for Tempranillo include Riverland, Murray Darling, Barossa Valley, and Riverina.
In addition to the increased plantings, according to Davidson, “Winemakers are now playing with it and coming into their own with beautiful Australian versions of this Spanish mainstay.”
- Vermentino – Most often found in the Italian Riviera, this floral white wine has nearly doubled in plantings in the last five years with vineyards found in Murray Darling, Riverland, Barossa Valley, and Riverina. Davidson also notes plantings of Vermentino in McLaren Vale along with another Southern Italian grape variety, Fiano.
- Nero d’Avola – A red wine grape with origins in Sicily, Nero d’Avola sits at approximately 80 hectares of planting at last count in 2015. A number that had doubled from the data collected in 2012. The majority of Nero d’Avola vineyards can be found in the flatlands of Riverina, the largest wine-producing region in New South Wales.
- Sangiovese – Italy’s most famous grape, has also found a foothold in Australia, specifically in Murray Darling and Riverina, with additional plantings across the continent.
“These new, fun varieties are an exciting piece of the Australian wine puzzle,” said Davidson. “We’re ahead of the curve in many ways, from technology, to vineyard plantings. It’s exciting to see where this will go, but the answer is in viticulture.”
- Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio) – Although technically a clone of Pinot Noir with a color mutation, this grape variety is best known as Pinto Grigio in Northern Italy, or Pinot Gris, a noble grape in Alsace, France. In Australia, most notably Riverina, this grape now accounts for nearly 8% of white wine plantings, which has jumped from 330 hectares in 2004 to more than 3,700 hectares in 2015.
Other Italian varieties now found in Australia include Piedmont’s Nebbiolo, Umbria’s Sagrantino and even Montepulciano, best known from Abruzzi where it is known as Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Davidson notes several Spanish and Portuguese varieties are also being planted including Rioja’s Graciano and Bierzo’s Mencia, as well as Touriga Nacional from Portugal’s Dão region to Verdelho commonly associated with Madeira. Additionally, he says several Greek varieties have also been growing in Australian nurseries, which can be expected to be found in vineyards in the next decade.
As highlighted by the namesake roadshow, Australia is far from ordinary when it comes to all things wine. The diversity of regions and wines, the winemaking technology and the trends in vineyard management are not only rendering high-quality and premium wines, but also demanding a place on the world stage and at the global table for Australian wines.
With the vast array of quality Australian wines on the market, it’s time to begin educating ourselves on the various regions, styles and producers. So instead of reaching for an “Australian Shiraz,” perhaps it’s time to consider a Grenache from Barossa Valley or McLaren Vale, or a Pinot Noir from Mornington Peninsula and to help get started, Davidson provided a few food and wine pairings as a place to begin:
- Peking Duck with a sparkling Shiraz from the Victoria region which produces sparkling wine in the traditional Champagne method.
- Grilled meats – chicken, pork, beef – with a Grenache from the McLaren Vale or Barossa Valley. Many winemakers are producing Grenache using Pinot Noir winemaking techniques — such as whole cluster fermentation. These wines are food friendly and have an umami quality well-suited to grilled meats – or better still, try one with pastrami and rye.
- Lobster, Dungeness crab or other shellfish with a Margaret River Chardonnay. The stone-fruit and lemon flavors, and high acidity complement the sweet, buttery seafood dishes. It’s a classic pairing.
- Thai or Vietnamese cuisine pairs with any number of spicy wines with soft fruit and lower tannins coming from Australia. If desiring a white wine, a Riesling from Eden or Clare Valleys is the obvious choice, but the texture of a McLaren Vale Vermentino or Fiano lends well to the cuisine just as well. As for red wines, consider a McLaren Vale Mencia, a Barossa Valley Grenache, or a Nero d’Avola from Riverland.
The possibilities are endless and as Davidson says, “It’s an exciting time for Australian wines. We still have big, full-body wines, but you’ll also find many wines drinking lighter, with a freshness and vitality uniquely expressive of Australia’s energy. They are wines that work with so many cultural cuisines and it’s always fun experimenting.”
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