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Magic Mediterranean - Vermentino

The Italian varietal Vermentino is winning fans for its wonderfully refreshing characters and textural mouthfeel making it the drink for this summer.

You heard it here first – Vermentino is the new white! There are fewer wines around that are as sexy to say, taste as good, and are perfect paired with a spread of fresh seafood on a summer’s afternoon. In fact, drinking a glass of Vermentino is like going on a Mediterranean holiday.

Indeed, Vermentino hails from the type of places where warm sun and cool sea breezes, cellar doors and summer afternoons are in abundance. Just off the coasts of Italy and France are the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, which lie (almost) in the middle of the Mediterranean, split between the Balearic and Tyrrhenian Seas. Here you’ll find a melting pot of different soils (limestone, granite, sandstone and clay) and climates (maritime and continental) mixed together to provide the perfect growing conditions for this unique grape variety.

Aussie Vermentino

Just like its home in the Med, here in Australia, Vermentino seems especially at home near the coast, in regions like McLaren Vale, Margaret River, even the Hunter Valley. Yet, this grape variety is also finding favour, and flavour, in other places a little further from the shore, such as King Valley, the Barossa, and the Riverland wine region around Mildura.

Inland wine growers, Chalmers, have been pioneering alternative varietals for over 15 years. The family first planted Vermentino back in 2000, and were one of the first wineries in Australia to make wine from the variety. 

“Vermentino was one of our first flagship wines,” says Kim Chalmers. “It’s a variety that loves warm summers and sunshine, which is perfect for our Australian conditions. Its big bunches and juicy berries make it quite resistant to long heat waves. We’ve had a lot of success growing Vermentino at our vineyards in both Heathcote and Mildura.”

- Kim Chalmers, Chalmers Wines, Riverland

That is the great thing we’ve discovered about this (and other) Italian varietals recently trialled across the many wine regions of Australia - their adaptability. If you speak to a European producer of Vermentino, they’ll probably tell you that the grapes must be grown in close proximity to the sea, so that they can possess and express their inherently unique and refreshing sea-spray aroma and flavour.

“Our experience growing Vermentino would suggest otherwise,” counters Kim. “We’ve only ever grown the variety very inland, and yet we still get that delicious sea-salt, briny character in all of our wines made from the variety. I think the closeness to the ocean rumour might be an old wives tale.”

Key characters

The unique textural and sensual characteristics of Vermentino are what make this variety such a delicious alternative to your typical tipple of, say, Sauvignon Blanc, or Pinot Gris.

The dominant aromas and flavours expressed by the grape include juicy lemons and limes, fleshy grapefruit, crunchy green apples and crushed almonds. Sometimes, you may notice the briny scent of ocean-spray drifting over fresh jasmine. At other times, you might smell a hint of beeswax and musk, or taste fresh tropical fruits, crispy pear, with a touch of salt.

This all depends, of course, on where the grapes are grown, when they’re picked, and what the winemaker’s intent is when making Vermentino into wine. If the grapes are picked early you will, typically, note freshness and citrus, with bright, crunchy acids. If the grapes are allowed to ripen and are picked a bit later, you get a fleshier, juicier, more tropical style of wine.

“The thing about Vermentino is it’s a very late picked varietal, for example, in the Hunter they pick it after Shiraz,” says winemaker David Hook, who has been specialising in Italian varietals for 30 years. “Some go for that lighter, crunchier style, which is picked earlier and is great for everyday drinking. But in Orange, where I source my Vermentino, I like to wait as long as I can to pick it as it gives a bigger, richer style that really highlights the varietal characters and the texture is ramped up.”

Phil Ryan, co-Chairman of the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel, echoes David’s preference for the fuller, riper style of Vermentino, saying that it offers so much more for the drinker.

“The riper style of Vermentino offers far more complexity and intrigue to the wine,” says Phil. “It also allows those delicious stonefruit characteristics to come to the fore and plays to one of its major appeals, which is its texture.”

Vermentino’s textual qualities (the way the wine feels in the mouth when you drink it) also boosts its food matching ability and is one of the reasons why this varietal stands out from the rest of the wine crowd.

Vermentino always goes down well by the glass, here. We’ll often get people sitting at the bar snacking on a bowl of salty, crispy white bait. Personally, I love it matched to a plate of grilled blue mackerel with fresh tomato, olives and chilli.

- Stuart Knox, , Owner and sommelier of Fix St James, in Sydney.

For renowned Vermentino producer Joe Grilli from Primo Estate in McLaren Vale, the big attraction of Vermentino is the combination of freshness and texture.

“Our Vermentino has aromas of fresh melon fruits, then some intriguing almond notes, followed by the slightest touch of citrus to finish,” says Joe. “What makes Vermentino so delicious is when all these facets are wrapped up in a lighter bodied wine with still enough texture to really satisfy the tastebuds.”

In fashion

There is no doubt Vermentino is one of the hottest whites around. Its increasing popularity in wines bars and restaurants around the country is reflected in its growing success at wine shows, particularly the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show, held each year in Mildura. Organiser, Kim Chalmers says that Vermentino is one of the most popular wines of the show.

“It’s massive,” says Kim. “We’ve had a Vermentino class since 2008 and for a number of years only a handful of wineries entered wines into that class. Within five years, the numbers have boomed. Last year there were 93 entries, and now the class has split into two separate classes: one for the lighter and fresher styles, and one for the more fuller bodied, richer styles.”

There’s even a third style to be found in Australia, these days. It’s said that the name Vermentino derives from the Italian word, ‘fermento’, which relates to the fizzy characters of the young wine and this might have inspired Fowles Wine, from the Strathbogie Ranges, to make a fun, sparkling style of Vermentino.

“I’m a huge fan of the tangy lemon and light florals of Vermentino and thought it might be fun to see those characters sparkle,” says Matt Fowles. “We make our sparkling Vermentino in a Prosecco style, and, I must say, I’ve been surprised just how well it’s been received!”

The tasting

For this tasting, over 50 Vermentinos were submitted to the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel. For a wine considered to still be an ‘emerging’ varietal, the pass rate was impressively high with around 75% scoring a medal. The top 20 wines were hotly contested and, as expected, the spread of regions was vast with multiple entries from the Hunter Valley, McLaren Vale and Barossa, as well as Riverland, which doesn’t often get much kudos in wine shows, but is proving to be a real contender with Italian varietals.

The styles were varied, which is to be expected, given all the variables, but the underlying characters remained true – delicious stonefruit flavours balanced with freshness and texture with subtle sea salt notes and energetic acidity. You just have to find the particular nuances that appeal to you.

Yep, Vermentino is here. Whether enjoying a warm afternoon with a sumptuous spread of seafood or sitting in a cosy bar planning a potential Mediterranean sojourn, pairing your activity with a glass of your favourite Vermentino seems like the perfect thing to do.

The Standout Vermentino from the Tasting

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Hunter Valley Shiraz Member Tasting
Words by Jackie Macdonald on 31 Aug 2016
Hunter Valley  winemakers have embraced their unique style of Shiraz and it’s set to become a timeless classic Fashion is a strange beast. Whether it’s moulding what we wear, what we eat or the car we drive, it’s hard to escape its influence. Even winemaking is at the mercy of fashion with critics often the ones to set the trends. One of recent history’s greatest influencers has been Robert Parker Jr, a US-based doyen of wine who has been described in  The Wall Street Journal   as being “widely regarded as the world’s most powerful wine critic.” Parker has always shown a predilection for  Barossa  Shiraz with its bold, generous, full-bodied characters and during the 1990s he really helped put this South Australian region on the world wine stage. But where did that leave other regions whose Shiraz fell short of Parker’s preference for the voluptuous? According to Hunter Valley winemaker Andrew Thomas,  Shiraz  producers in his region attempted to emulate the Barossa style. “They left the fruit on the vine for longer, added tannins, used too much new oak.” That wasn’t the only challenge affecting Hunter Valley Shiraz at this time. Unfortunately, some of the region’s wineries were affected by a spoilage yeast called Brettanomyces, which led to the development of the ‘sweaty saddle or barnyard character’ you might have heard associated with the style. While it should be savoury, Andrew says, Hunter Shiraz shouldn’t have these characters. An Optimistic Outlook
This all added up to a crying shame because the Hunter has its own unique brand of Shiraz that’s very different to that of the Barossa, but with equal appeal. Thankfully, Andrew goes on to describe, around ten years ago, Hunter winemakers made a unified effort to rid the region of Brettanomyces. They also came to the realisation that they had something special to offer and embraced the Hunter’s distinct style of Shiraz. The key to allowing Hunter Shiraz to show its true beauty is “letting the vineyard do the talking”, says Andrew. Fellow Hunter winemaker and Hunter Valley Living Legend Phil Ryan agrees, calling the vineyard the “principle number one factor” in Shiraz success. Add to that vine age and site selection, where you’ve got red soils over limestone, and you’ve got a winning formula. The result is a style of Shiraz that’s vibrant, fruit driven and, as Phil describes, “more user friendly”. While in the past winemakers had to rely on bottle ageing to soften the wines, Phil says, today “they’re basically made to drink as they’re bottled.” That’s not to say that Hunter Shiraz has lost its capacity to age. “The great vineyards have the potential to mature for decades,” Phil says. So Hunter winemakers are excited about their Shiraz and success is rolling in on the wine show front, but does this equate to consumer appeal? Happily, contemporary Hunter winemakers now have fashion on their side. Having recently returned from a European sojourn, Phil experienced first hand the demand for fresh, flavoursome reds with a lighter tannin structure. “Hunter Shiraz with its medium body and fruit sweetness on the palate can compete with what people see as modern red wines – Sangiovese  ,  Tempranillo  or even  Pinot Noir  from various countries.” The Wines of the Tasting Peter Drayton Wines Premium Release Shiraz 2014 Tulloch Wines Pokolbin Dry Red Shiraz 2014 Allandale Matthew Single Vineyard Shiraz 2014 Brokenwood Wines Shiraz 2014 Pepper Tree Limited Release Shiraz 2014 Margan Shiraz 2014 Hart & Hunter Single Vineyard Series Ablington Shiraz 2014 Mount Eyre Three Ponds Holman Shiraz 2014 De Iuliis Shiraz 2014 Sobels Shiraz 2013 The Little Wine Co Little Gem Shiraz 2013 Andrew Thomas Elenay Barrel Selection Shiraz 2014 First Creek Winemaker’s Reserve Shiraz 2014 Usher Tinkler Wines Reserve Shiraz 2014 Tyrrell’s Wines Vat 9 Shiraz 2013 Mount Pleasant Rosehill Vineyard Shiraz 2013 Leogate Estate Wines The Basin Reserve Shiraz 2013 Petersons Back Block Shiraz 2013 Judge and Jury
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Know Your Variety – Australian Grenache
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Grenache is a red grape variety that relishes heat and can relatively easily produce ripe, full styles of wine. Perhaps Grenache was grown initially on sites that were more akin to producing a generous crop for fortified winemaking. But, now many wineries are searching for more finesse and picking these Grenache blocks earlier and seeking red fruit rather than riper black fruit flavours. The majority of Grenache in the Barossa is not trellised; it is grown as a bush-vine. These bush-vines tend to take care of themselves, allowing more air flow and light penetration. The Barossa and McLaren Vale are considered the two leading regions for Grenache in Australia. And it is always a great debate as to which consistently produces better quality wine.

- Kevin Glastonbury, Winemaker, Yalumba Family Vignerons
Tasting Notes With a similar weight and tannin structure to light to medium bodied Shiraz, Grenache is light on the palate and is all about purity of fruit. With aromas like pomegranate, wild strawberries, violets and red fruits and a palate that’s restrained and fine in texture, it is often blended with Mataro/Mourvedre, which provides a heightened element of spice and tannin. But, with careful oak treatment, Grenache can produce be a splendid single varietal wine.

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- Nathan Hughes, Willunga 100
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Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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