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Wine

For the love of Riesling

Why don’t people go crazy for Riesling? I mean, every new vintage wine critics across the country bombard us with rave reviews for Aussie Riesling with the underlying message that this once mighty varietal is making a comeback – if only the drinking public would embrace it. But that is where it seems to fall down.

Fifty years ago Riesling was the dominant white wine in this country, but it lost its lustre in the 1970s when Chardonnay started to boom. In more recent decades, Riesling has remained stagnant at about 2.2 per cent of total grape production in Australia while being surpassed in popularity by Sauvignon Blanc, Semillion and even Pinot Gris/Grigio.

Our wine scribes aren’t alone in their infatuation with Riesling. Ask a winemaker and they will get slightly frothy at the mouth as they rabidly equate the art of making Riesling as akin to a religious experience. This is mainly due to the fact that, of all the white grape varietals, it is the one that truly reflects the place it was grown, while at the same time maintaining its varietal characteristics. It is the purist expression of grape in the bottle. What’s more, winemakers and critics sing in unison that we have never been better at making it than today.

So what gives here? Why isn’t Riesling more popular?

My theory is three-fold – marketing, a fashion crisis and multiple personality syndrome. Let me explain.

Marketing

Most companies these days have a marketing department and like many of us, I don’t know exactly what they do. So I looked it up. It seems the definition of marketing is not just about advertising and promoting the business; it is about identifying and understanding your customer and giving them what they want. But if the statistics in wine trends are to be believed, Riesling is not what the public wants, so why would marketers waste their time and effort coming up with campaigns to sell it?

One solid fact of marketing is that it works best on the younger end of the scale – the ‘Gen Y’ drinkers of the wine industry. Marketers are too busy trying to get that newly lean ol’ cougar Chardonnay back up on her pedestal and aggressively pitching ideas to swank up their Sav Blanc. Or they’re creating a buzz around Pinot Grigio with a viral campaign where antipasto platters served by suave Mediterranean men are bid upon by nubile young women using wine as currency. Could you imagine dear old nanna Riesling being part of promotion like this? And that leads into the next problem...Riesling is not sexy. And as any marketer worth her witty campaign briefs will tell you – sex sells.

Fashion

What is your perception of Riesling? Truly? I just described her as a nanna and I will confess that before this tasting that is what I thought of her. Sweet, juicy, occasionally bitter with an overbearing aromatic floral perfume – just like my dear old nan Ruby (except for the bitter part, she was always laughing despite constantly losing her false teeth, God rest her soul). In my marketing plan, every bottle of Riesling could have been sold with a handkerchief embroidered with edelweiss or maybe a set of matching doilies. It would have been the perfect wine to sip while listening to the Sound of Music soundtrack. Those of us in the Gen X generation, or old enough to remember the lunar landing, would have also had their Riesling memories tainted by the cask wine revolution, when copious amounts of Riesling were pumped into a silver bladder stuffed inside a cardboard box.

Maybe I am taking things a bit too far, but add to the equation the fact that Riesling has its own bottle shape. What is that about? Sure, other varietals have their own look. Champagne is the most obvious, but it works perfectly for sparkling – slot your thumb up that punt, pop that cork and the party starts. But most people could not distinguish a Chardonnay from a Sav Blanc from a Semillon in a silhouette-only line-up. However, that tall thin bottle of Riesling stands out like the dog’s proverbials. And, just like those canine gonads, I reckon that distinctive bottle shape deters the occasional drinker. So in the end they won’t bother to pick it up to read the tasting notes or buy it because of a pretty label or accidentally purchase it thinking it was another style of wine. It’s bottle racism, excuse the pun... it’s a glass war.

Multiple Personality Syndrome

Let’s just say you are above the marketing tactics, that you were old enough and wise enough to avoid wine casks, and/or that you had enough education in the viticultural realm to accept that those sleek green glass tombs harbour a wonderful vineous offering.

If so, you’d be well aware that the style of Australian Riesling these days is not sweet and florally, but is instead dry and citrussy.

The fact that it is so versatile and can be made in these different styles is one of Riesling’s great assets, however, at the same time, one of its great frailties. Without going into too many winemaker technicalities, a number of factors including canopy management, timing of picking, contact with skins, time on lees, etc., can determine the style of Riesling, be it sweet, dry or everything in between. To help educate (and market Riesling better), Riesling comes with its own scale on its label – the International Riesling Foundation Sugar Guidelines. This scale takes into account the sugar and acid levels in Riesling to give a rating of either; Dry (sugar to acid ratio less than 1), Medium Dry (ratio between 1 and 2), Medium Sweet (ratio between 2 and 4) and Sweet (ratio above 4). Are you still with me? It is a lot to take in and let’s not get started on late-picked Riesling, which produces a dessert-style wine, as that is a whole other kettle of fish.

I will, however, inform you of another reason why Riesling has laboured under a cloud of confusion. Because Riesling was established in Australia very early, newer plantings of grapes have often been labelled as Riesling, when in fact they weren’t. Most famously, Hunter Valley Semillon was known as Hunter Riesling for many years. This oversight, and many more like it, was only corrected in the 1970s. Needless to say, if you’ve had a bottle of Riesling in the last 50 years, you may have had one that was not to your liking and it could have turned you into an anti-Rieslingist for no good reason.

An Australian icon

In my view, Australian Riesling deserves better, after all, it owns a truly unique place in our wine industry. Firstly, Riesling is believed to be one of the first, if not the first, varietal planted when Australia was colonised. In 1791, Governor Arthur Phillip had a vineyard established in what is now the Sydney CBD, as well as three acres of vineyard on a property at Parramatta. It is thought Riesling was among these vines. John Macarthur established a vineyard with these cuttings on his ‘Elizabeth Farm’ at Camden in 1794. When these varietals were officially identified in the 1840s they included Riesling. Whatever the exact timing of Riesling coming to Australia, there is little doubt it one of our oldest varietals.

Secondly, it stands out from the majority of our traditional grape varieties due to the fact that it is a German varietal, from the Rhineland to be exact, while most of our other major grape varietals, e.g., Shiraz, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. are of French descent. Then there is the sense of serendipity around where Riesling excels in this country – the Clare and Eden Valleys of South Australia. These are the same regions where the displaced Lutherans of German descent came to settle, live and eventually make wine in the late 19th century. Sure, there might have been some inherited knowledge on how to grow Riesling by these new Australians, but in all honesty, the reason for Riesling’s success in these regions is due to terroir – the soils, the terrain, the prevailing weather conditions – the land itself. Now I don’t know if you are a big believer in fate, but I find this fact truly remarkable and proof that Riesling was destined to thrive here in Australia.

Finally, Riesling was the varietal that led our screwcap revolution. You see, another remarkable quality of Riesling is that it is practically the only white varietal that ages gracefully. Zesty and citrussy young, it can develop in the bottle to show gorgeous honey, toast characters after a number of years (which is probably why Hunter Semillon was confused with it). As was discovered in these instances, cork is an inferior closure to the Stelvin cap and so, in 2001, the Riesling growers in the Clare Valley united as one and bottled the entire Riesling vintage under screwcap.

The take home message is this - good Riesling is all about purity. It is really about preserving the pristine purity of the grape. At the same time, there are different styles. You just have to do some detective work. Get to know the style you like, get to those producers who make that style and follow them – you will be rewarded. And, after all, Riesling deserves some love, don’t you think?

Click here to shop our great range of Riesling.

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Wine
Be cool. Cool climate Shiraz
Words by Mark Hughes on 12 Aug 2015
My father-in-law, Neville, is your typical knock-about Aussie bloke. A former brickie, he used to drive his Holden Kingswood ute to work and cruise the weekends in his white Torana LJ Sedan. He loves fishing, hunting and knocking back a couple of Tooheys New while charring some animal flesh on the barbecue. But since his retirement a few years ago things have changed. He mostly spends his time drawing the jack rather than mixing the mortar, he has a flashy new Korean-built SUV to tow his caravan and he’s pretty much swapped the beers for red wine. When he started drinking vino his preferred drop was the big fruit-driven reds from South Australia: juicy, plummy, peppery and pretty big on the alcohol – perfect for his medium rare steak and snags. Recently though, his palate seems to have matured and he asked me for a red with more elegance. I gave him a gorgeous Yarra Valley Pinot , but it wasn’t for him. “Tastes a bit posh,” he said. “A bit too watery.” Maybe I had aimed a bit high. What really caught his attention was a medium-bodied Shiraz from the Canberra Distric t. “Now this is pretty good,” he said, while putting on his glasses to read the label – always a positive sign. I didn’t get to have any more of that wine after he had poured another one for himself and his wife, and my wife, and one more for himself. Now, I’ve never really thought of Nev as a trend-setter. He’s happiest in t-shirt, shorts and those sandals with Velcro tabs, but apparently when it comes to Shiraz, he’s in fashion! Neville is part of a shift in the drinking public that is looking for more restraint and elegance in Australia’s most iconic red wine. If the drinking public was thinking it, the critics confirmed it when in 2009, the judges at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show awarded the Jimmy Watson Trophy for the best young red wine in the country to a wine from the Canberra District: the Eden Road Wines ‘Long Road’ Hilltops Shiraz 2008. It made the wine world sit up and take notice. Just to confirm this trend, this year’s Jimmy Watson winner was the Glaetzer-Dixon Mon Pere Shiraz 2010 from Tasmania. A Shiraz from Tasmania? It was unfathomable. The Jimmy Watson is an award that has almost exclusively gone to the Barossa or McLaren Vale or maybe the Hunter, but not the Canberra District and certainly not Tasmania! Apparently it is not just a trend that is happening here in Australia. At the 2011 International Wine Challenge in London, Adelaide Hills winery Bird in Hand was awarded the trophy for the Best Australian Red Wine and the Best Australian Shiraz. What is cool? The common thread between all these award-winning wines is that they come from cool climate regions. There was something here that definitely needed investigating, so we thought we should do a State of Play tasting on cool climate Shiraz. First of all we had to define what a cool climate is as it is a phrase that is bandied about with almost gay abandon with little regard for the official meaning. Perhaps the strongest definition comes from the International Cool Climate Wine Show. This annual event began in the Mornington Peninsula and has been running since the year 2000, so it has some pedigree. It defines cool climate wines as: Wines made from grapes grown either: south of latitude 37.5 degrees south, or north of latitude 37.5 degrees north or from a property in the Southern or Northern hemisphere which has an average January/July (whichever is applicable) temperature below 19ºCelsius, as confirmed by the nearest Bureau of Meterology site, or vineyard site above 800m in altitude. Therefore Australian wine regions that automatically qualify as cool climate are: Tasmania, the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, and Western Australia’s Great Southern region. Then there are a few grey areas. According to these criteria, the Adelaide Hills does not qualify as cool climate. Its elevation and latitude are well off and its average temperature in January is 19.1. However, most would agree that it is cool climate, and for the sake of point one of a degree, one must admit that this really does qualify as cool climate. Likewise the Canberra region and Orange in New South Wales should also be considered cool climate. There are some vineyards in these regions above 800 metres, but their average January temperature is around the 20 degree mark. But I challenge anyone to stand out in a vineyard on the slopes of Mount Canobolas in the middle of winter and dispute whether it is a cool climate. Therefore some of the parameters, especially in Australia, still need to be defined. A recent cool climate wine show in Tasmania had the elevations at 500 metres, which seems more logical and perhaps we need to look at a combination of average temperatures across the whole year. However the upshot is: regions where Australian Shiraz has an outstanding pedigree, i.e., Barossa, McLaren Vale and the Hunter Valley, are not cool climate regions. All that jazz It is perhaps the amazing success of Shiraz from these warmer regions that has hampered the progress of cool climate Shiraz. Winemakers in cool climates convinced themselves it would be pointless to pursue Shiraz as the Barossa, McLaren Vale and Hunter were already delivering outstanding wines custom-made for the tastes of the drinking public. Scott McCarthy, winemaker at Helen’s Hill in the Yarra Valley, echoed these sentiments when he joined our Tasting Panel for this tasting, but added that things have changed. “In the past, for us, the focus has been on Pinot and Chardonnay and looking for the best places to plant those,” he said. “Shiraz has always been there as a good workhorse to produce good wines, but no-one has really given it the same attention as they have some of the other varieties. “But now we are looking at clones and root stocks and looking at actually planting it in the best part of the vineyard, not just the part that is left over from Pinot and Chardonnay.” Scott is well credentialed to be the spokesperson for cool climate winemakers. He grew up in a vineyard and spent his first 10 years as a winemaker in the Barossa before experiencing vintages in the Napa and France (Loire Valley and Languedoc). During a four-vintage stint in Marlborough, New Zealand, Scott fell in love with cool climate winemaking and he continued that affair by settling back in Australia in the Yarra, where he makes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Shiraz. While winemakers like Scott are convinced of the future of cool climate Shiraz, critics have traditionally been sceptical. The purveying perception of Shiraz from these regions was of a wine that was green, stalky and under-ripe. That may have been somewhat true a decade ago, but as Scott explains, a better understanding of Shiraz in the vineyard, and in the winery, has allowed cool climate Shiraz to be far more expressive. “My experience in the Yarra is that Shiraz is one variety that is made in the vineyard and probably the biggest decision that has to be made that influences the outcome of the wine is the day that you pick it. “I believe there is only a day or two between really getting out of that green phase and when it is starting to get over-ripe. You have to work with the vineyards and taste the fruit over a period of time to know how each block is going to react, how quickly they ripen and when is the best time to pick each block,” Scott says, while also stressing the attention to detail that must be given to micro-climates, even in the same vineyard. “Instead of testing the whole vineyard as one block of Shiraz we have isolated different aspects. We know the cool, low-lying areas are going to ripen a little bit later and we make sure that we test them independently." “You used to go out and pick your whole vineyard. Now it is literally one side of the hill to the other and we are talking a distance of just 50 metres and we will pick a week, two weeks later in some cases, just because the aspects are quite different. “We want to get it through that green spectrum – so we are looking for that tomato leaf character to go out of the juice and to get a ripe spectrum with those nice blueberry characters.” The tasting The Panel sat down to 40-odd wines from across a dozen cool climate regions. The results were outstanding. Nearly all the wines medalled and the overall scoring was very high. Importantly, the tasting confirmed that these wines had busted the perception of having ‘green and stalky characters’. The key descriptors that came forth were of punchy red fruits and blueberry flavours, some spiciness and pepperiness as well as minerality and earthiness. Furthermore there was a noticeable shift to a more graceful style of Shiraz. While most were medium-bodied, some were full-bodied and fruit-driven, but with an elegant core, great balance and an alcohol content of around 14 per cent. “Some of the traditional descriptors you look for in Shiraz – those big ripe plummy characters, strong tannins and big vanillin oak – they were not in the wines we looked at today,” commented Scott. “We were using descriptors like oyster shell, cassis and minerality; descriptors that lend themselves to be able to match to food.” Wine Selectors Tasting Panelist Christian Gaffey was equally impressed with the elegance displayed across these wines in the tasting. “There was one wine today that was described as ‘Burgundy-like’, which for Shiraz is somewhat unheard of,” he said. “Not that Burgundy is the be all and end all, but for it to be compared to a wine of finesse like a Pinot Noir versus your classic 15 per cent Shiraz, means a lot, especially if you want to match it to food.” Regionality and diversity The top 20 scoring wines contained a great spread of wines from different regions. Five were from the Yarra, four from Adelaide Hills, three each from the Canberra District and Mornington Peninsula, two from West Australia’s Great Southern region, one each from Great Western, the Grampians and Tasmania. Within those wines there was an amazing diversity. While wines from certain regions had similar benchmark characters, each wine had its own life and there were amazing differences between wines from the same region, from vineyards within a stone’s throw from each other. “It really is a celebration of the differences you can get with cool climate Shiraz,” remarked Scott. “I think the biggest thing with cool climate Shiraz is the ability to show the terroir – the sense of place with the wines, which you don’t always see in some of the warmer climates.” Combined with a sense of grace and elegance, it is this diversity in the wines that suggests that cool climate Shiraz is a great food-matching wine. The Shiraz from the Yarra versus Mornington and Pyrenees are all very different so they should lend themselves to a greater variety of food than classic Aussie Shiraz matched with steak. Aging potential and the future Perhaps the most surprising result to come out of this tasting was the superb natural acid balance these wines displayed. This acid lends itself to the minerality character displayed in these wines and, more importantly, suggests superb aging potential. This was confirmed by the fact that towards the end of the tasting the Panel was giving very high marks to all the wines that had a bit of age to them. If that is any indication of what is going to happen over time, then in 10 years time we are going to have some sensational back stocks of cool climate Shiraz. Furthermore, the wine that had the most acid was from Tasmania, which suggests the cooler the climate, the better. “Tassie is going to be a tough place to grow Shiraz consistently,” remarked Christian. “But we have known through the years that sometimes it is the inconsistent places that produce the best wines in the good years.” Finally, as cool climate Shiraz is a fairly recent endeavour, most of the wines are from vines with an average age of 15 years or younger. We know that generally the older Shiraz vines get, the better the fruit they produce. These vines are still in their teenage years, so as they mature we can expect to see some world-beating examples of cool climate Australian Shiraz. I can hear Neville firing up the barbie now. Check out  Wine Selectors great range of Shiraz today .
Wine
The Gee in Pinot G
Words by Peter Forrestal on 12 Aug 2015
The rise Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio in the Australian marketplace has been nothing short of remarkable, especially as it has occurred at the same time as the country has been drenched by a tsunami of increasingly cheap Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. While there has been a knock-on effect with increased interest in local Sauvignon Blanc , and substantial growth in plantings of Muscat à Petit grains (from a small base) for Moscato, there has been huge consumer interest in Pinot Gris/Grigio. So, what better time for the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel to line up 60 of the country’s finest and put them to the test? The Panel was joined by two learned Pinot Gris/Grigio producers: Mornington Peninsula vigneron Garry Crittenden and King Valley winemaker Sam Miranda, as well as yours truly. A quick history lesson Pinot Gris was planted in Australia much earlier than most would have imagined. Chris Bourke of Sons & Brothers in Orange mentions on his website that when James Busby imported his collection of grape varieties from France and Spain in the 1830s, what he had thought to be Cabernet Sauvignon was, in fact, Pinot Gris. As with much of Busby’s collection, it didn’t survive. Today’s Pinot Gris/Grigio was pioneered on the Mornington Peninsula in the 1980s by Kathleen Quealy and Kevin McCarthy at T’Gallant and, although slowly at first, in the past decade it has taken hold of the public consciousness with increasing speed. Kathleen sees three factors coming together to enable Pinot Gris to succeed on Mornington. It was the right region for the right variety. The clone that was available was ideal as it produced small berries, small bunches and only moderate vigour. There were adequate good sites (north facing slopes), which were as vital to ripening Pinot Gris as they were to ripening Pinot Noir. Consumers were the other key in this equation and she saw them as being interested in new varieties: looking for unwooded whites and wanting premium varieties as expressive as Pinot Noir . In Australia no variety, except Sauvignon Blanc , has grown more impressively than Pinot Gris/Grigio in the last five years when the industry trend has been to stabilise or decrease the supply of grapes. In that time, it has moved ahead of Viognier , Verdelho , Muscat, Colombard and Riesling : more of it is produced than any of the major white varieties except for Chardonnay , Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. There are in excess of a hundred different labels of Pinot Gris/Grigio on the market in Australia at present. What’s in a name? A major marketing and consumer issue in Australia is that the same grape variety is produced and sold as both Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio and, for many, this can seem pretty confusing. This difference has its roots in the vineyards of Europe. Pinot Grigio is most successfully grown in the regions of Fruili, the Veneto and Alto Adige in North-Eastern Italy where it is picked early and produces a fresh, zesty, racy style with clean savoury characters. In France, it is known as Pinot Gris and is popular in Alsace where it is picked riper and therefore has a richer, fuller, plumper profile and is higher in alcohol. The variety produces bluey grey grapes (deep purple with green flesh when fully ripe) that make white or lightly pink wines and are thought to be related to (or a mutant of) Pinot Noir. Throughout this tasting the issue of colour was rigorously discussed. Garry Crittenden said he liked his wine to be clear, while others on the Panel thought the wine should have a pinkish tinge to it. Whatever the preference, it is important that the consumer knows most Gris/Grigio will have a ‘pink-grey’ tinge to it, and that is completely normal. Another key issue for Gris/Grigio has been the importance of identifying the places where it can be grown most successfully. Kathleen believes that far too much Gris/Grigio has been planted in warm Australian regions for which it is patently unsuitable. For Garry Crittenden, Pinot Gris/Grigio, like Pinot Noir, has become genetically adapted over the centuries to showing its full phenolic character in cool climates where the grapes ripen slowly over a long period of time. Low vigour is also vital to producing Pinot Gris/Grigio grapes that show concentration and character. The results reveal Firstly, the results supported Kathleen Quealy’s theory that Pinot Gris/Grigio does best in cool climate regions. The majority of wines in the tasting were cool climate and all of the top 20 wines were sourced from cool climate areas. More than half of those wines were sourced from Victorian vineyards, with the King Valley accounting for six of the top 20, while the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula claimed three each and Geelong , one. The Adelaide Hills , Eden Valley and Tasmania also registered as strong regions for Gris/Grigio, while Orange and Tumbarumba were the only regions of note north of the border. Seven of the top 10 scoring wines were Pinot Gris. This result was explained by the fact that this varietal style is generally more malleable to winemaker manipulation. The Grigio style should be lighter, drier and more minerally, so will generally be picked quite early, cool-fermented in tank, then bottled, whereas the Gris style would be picked later and therefore riper, which means it can handle some winemaking artefact, such as lees stirring and barrel fermentation or maturation. Pinot G? The results also showed the Gris tasted were significantly removed from the wines of Alsace, while the Grigios were substantially different from their Mediterranean counterparts, and there were some wines that sat in between. Panellist Trent Mannell posed this revolutionary hypothesis: had Australia developed its own style of Pinot Gris/Grigio, a style that is neither Gris nor Grigio but sits somewhere in between, a style we could simply label as Pinot G? For instance, the Thorn Clarke Sandpiper Pinot Gris showed floral aromas but had some minerality on the nose with zippy acidity, while the The Pawn ‘Caissa’ Pinot Grigio was described as having a delicate acid balance and vibrance while at the same time was lauded for its muscaty aromatics and thick viscous texture. So you can see in these two examples there is some overlap in styles. If the results of the tasting were seriously scrutinised, then the outcome would suggest that we do indeed have three styles of this versatile varietal in Australia: Gris, Grigio and G. The element of food One of the other main issues that the Panel discussed during the tasting was the importance of drinking Pinot G in the company of food. These are textural wines, much more savoury and less fruity than most Aussie whites. They are transformed by being paired with appropriate foods. One of the magic moments during the tasting came when Chairman Karl Stockhausen condemned a Pinot Gris as being lean, tight and watery. “I want some flavour,” he growled. Sam came to the Eden Valley wine’s defence, agreeing that it was neutral but insisting that placing it alongside food would bring the wine alive. Then he asserted, “I could drink it all day!” With Pinot Grigio, you could try oysters, clams, prawns, grilled whiting, lightly battered barramundi fillets, mildly spiced stir fries, and with Pinot Gris, go for onion tart, lobster, barbecued or roast pork, or roast chicken. It’s a question of finding dishes that you think will work with the crisp zestiness of Pinot Grigio or the richer, fuller, weightier, more viscous character of Pinot Gris. Overall, Sam believed that the tasting showed how far Pinot Gris/Grigio has come in Australia in the past decade. He said that if we’d held a similar tasting in the 1990s, far too many of the wines would have been bland or faulty. Most importantly, he was impressed at how well producers achieved the style that the label told us they were aiming for. For you, though, the message is both clear and welcoming. Pinot Gris/Grigio, or for that matter, Pinot G, is doing very well in Australia. So when you are sitting down al fresco-style to a shared mezze plate or some antipasti this summer, crack open a bottle of Australian Pinot G and discover what all the fuss is about.
Wine
Italian Stallions
Words by Max Allen on 12 Aug 2015
Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, Italy’s best-known red grape varieties, are relative newcomers on the Australian wine scene. Tiny patches of Italian varieties have been grown here since the very early years of viticultural settlement. The Dolcetto vines at Best’s Great Western date back to the 19th century, for example, and Sydney surgeon/winegrower Thomas Fiaschi planted the rare Aleatico grape in Mudgee in the 1920s. But Tuscany’s Sangiovese and Piedmont’s Nebbiolo didn’tarrive here until late in the 20th century. Its pioneers were Carlo Corino at Montrose in Mudgee, Mark Lloyd at Coriole in McLaren Vale, and the Brown Brothers in Victoria’s King Valley. I have been monitoring the progress of these Italian varieties in Australia for over 20 years. I first tasted Australia’s fledgling Sangioveses and Nebbiolos in 1993. We managed to find around a dozen examples of Australian-grown Italian varieties for a tasting – including the first Pinot Grigios from T’Gallant on the Mornington Peninsula and a Dolcetto under Garry Crittenden’s (also now-defunct) Schinus label. I remember being particularly impressed by Coriole’s Sangiovese. That tasting made me wonder why more Italian varieties weren’t grown in Australia – why local vignerons were so wedded to the so-called ‘classic’ French varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. After all, Italy’s warmer Mediterranean climate is far more similar to many Australian grape-growing districts than chilly northern French regions such as Burgundy. By the end of the 1990s, I wasn’t the only one asking this question: Italian varieties were becoming trendy among grape growers and winemakers, and Sangiovese was leading the charge. So in 1999 another tasting was organised – this time by vine nurseryman Bruce Chalmers, vine specialist Dr Rod Bonfiglioli, and chef Stefano di Pieri, along with various interested parties (including your correspondent) – to assess the potential of the grape in Australia. The ‘Sangiovese Challenge’ was a tasting of two-dozen Australian-grown examples of the grape followed by an Italian-themed long lunch (cooked by Stefano) at the Grand Hotel in Mildura. This event morphed into the Italian Varieties Wine Show the following year, and the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show the year after. I have been chief judge of this show, the AAVWS, since 2005. Sangiovese has been the most popular red grape among growers and winemakers since the boom in Italian varieties began in the 1990s. The 2010 Australian Wine Industry Directory lists 260 producers of the variety, with more than 500 hectares planted across the country. This is understandable: it’s the grape responsible for Italy’s most famous red wine, Chianti; it is meant to be relatively easy to grow; and while the wine it produces can be quite savoury and tannic, it is also generally medium-bodied and has plenty of attractive red fruit flavour. This means that Australian Sangiovese is likely to appeal to a wide range of wine drinkers, and its fame and heritage make it an easy wine for marketing and cellar door people to talk about. Nebbiolo, on the other hand, has remained a niche player: the 2010 Directory lists 90 producers and just 100 hectares of vines. This is also no surprise: Nebbiolo is notoriously difficult to grow well, being quite fussy about where it grows (generally preferring cooler, more marginal spots). It is responsible in Italy for wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco - not as widely-known as Chianti - and can produce wines that are unfashionably pale, tough, low in fruit volume and very high in astringent tannin. Looking at some stats from the Alternative Varieties Show gives you a very good idea of how both these grapes are travelling in Australia at the moment. At the 2010 AAVWS, there were 60 Sangiovese entries (including Sangiovese blends) and 24 Nebbiolos. Only a third of the Sangioveses were awarded medals, with just three silvers and 17 bronzes. By contrast, more than half of the 24 Nebbiolos were medal winners, with seven bronzes, five silvers and two golds. It has been a similar story in almost all the previous shows: in 2007, for example, the 87 Sangioveses entered yielded just one gold, three silvers and 12 bronze medals – but the 25 Nebbiolos entered were awarded two golds, one silver and eight bronze. So while Sangiovese might be the most popular Italian red variety in Australia by volume, it is not only struggling to realise the huge potential everyone thought it had, but its fortunes also appear to be waning (as you can see, entry numbers at the AAVWS dropped by 30 per cent between 2007 and 2010). Nebbiolo, on the other hand, is proving itself to be a very strong and improving performer, albeit in smaller quantities. The question is: why? Why is Australian Sangiovese so frequently disappointing? And why has Nebbiolo excelled? Part of Sangiovese’s problem lies in the clone that was planted in most vineyards throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Originally developed at the University of California at Davis, this clone of Sangiovese was bred to produce heavy crops rather than high quality, and many Australian growers have struggled with its tendency to overcrop (newer, lower-yielding clones, coming into bearing now, are showing much more promise, but have yet to make their presence widely felt). More important, I think, is that Sangiovese is obviously fussier and more difficult to grow and make well than many Australian winemakers thought. It not only needs some time in the ground before the vines come into balance and produce their best quality fruit, but it also takes a few vintages to learn how best to make that fruit into good wine. Far too many Australian Sangioveses still suffer from a lack of fruit concentration and/or heavy-handed oak treatment. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the best producers of Sangiovese are those with both the requisite experience (such as Coriole, with over two decades of vintages under their belt) and the cultural connection (such as that of the King Valley’s Italian growers) to the variety. The underwhelming producers tend to be those who just planted Sangiovese because it was trendy and weren’t prepared to make the effort to reduce yields in the vineyard and treat the wine sensitively in the cellar. Most of Australia’s Nebbiolo vineyards, by contrast, have been planted by complete Nebb-nuts who are besotted with the magical wines of Piedmont. These people will do whatever it takes to make the best wine possible, and are fastidious in both vineyard and winery. This drive, this passion, this attention to detail is a big reason, I believe, why there are (relatively speaking) so many great Nebbiolos (and why they tend to cost a bit more). These are my observations based on years of tasting and judging at the AAVWS. And the results of the Selector State of Play tasting reflected the same thing. Thirty-five Sangioveses were tasted - the ones that scored well fell into two general groups: pretty, up-front, snappy-fruity wines that displayed Sangiovese’s lovely juicy cherry characters, and more ‘serious’ savoury wines that had good balance of more ripe fruit characters and drier, powdery tannins. But – for this taster at least, and for some of the others – very few, if any, of the Sangioveses we tasted were truly outstanding, automatic gold-medal standard wines (unlike the Nebbiolos). Most of the top wines were from places (King Valley, McLaren Vale ) and names (Pizzini, Dal Zotto, Crittenden) where there is a long association with Sangiovese. We tasted fewer Nebbiolos – just 13 – but the overall standard was higher and there were more outstanding wines. There was also much more animated discussion between the tasters: with its sometimes ethereal, elusive perfume, it’s often quite a disarmingly pale orange colour, and with its occasionally mouth-puckering level of bone-dry tannins, Nebbiolo can elicit strong reactions. To the Panellists’ surprise, the Adelaide Hills emerged as a particularly good area for Nebbiolo, with two of the top wines coming from the same vineyard, Frank and Rosemary Baldasso’s Kenton Hill (this vineyard also supplies the fruit for the trophy-winning SC Pannell Nebbiolo and is just over the hill from the Arrivo vineyard, the source of another trophy-winning Neb). Wine Selectors Tasting Panelist Keith Tulloch also touched on a fundamental problem with many new, alternative varietal wines in Australia – a problem that is also cause for hope. “The challenge with a lot of these varieties is the fact they come from young vines,” he said. “It was a similar story in the Hunter in the 1970s when we had thin wines that didn’t have any weight because the vineyards were so new. You need 10 years of age or more before you get reliable quality and the true essence of the grape.” This means, though, that as good as the top wines we tasted today are, the best are yet to come. Check out Wine Selectors great range of Sangiovese & Nebbiolo today.
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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