The future of the Australian wine industry will be shaped by a group of innovative grapegrowers and winemakers who are busily experimenting with new varieties in new regions.
The phenomenal success of the industry in producing quality wine at competitive prices does not need recounting here. But this success has led some critics to brand Australian wine as boring. Nothing could be further from the truth.
A pioneering spirit has been sweeping the industry and this has resulted in a much wider range of winegrape varieties being used.
There are over a hundred winegrape varieties grown in Australia. In a recent book Varietal Wines, leading Australian wine writer James Halliday uses a classification of varieties into classic, second tier and Lesser varietals for both red and white. He identifies four classic whites (chardonnay, semillon, riesling and sauvignon blanc) and five classic reds (cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, merlot, shiraz and grenache).
The Australian wine industry is heavily dependent on these classic varieties. They are all French by the way; although there is merit in the argument that grenache can be regarded as a Spanish variety.
A supporting role is played by a cast thirteen white varieties and seventeen red varieties, second tier varietals in Halliday’s language.
For the rest there are about seventy varieties that are used by ten or less producers. Let’s call them the under-tens. They look like the also rans.
But this is the exciting part of the industry. These varieties are being used by people are the pioneers who are intent on leading the industry into new territory.
Some of the under-tens are survivors of an earlier age. Chasselas for example is now much less common than it was previously. Others have been introduced into Australia more recently from diverse European sources. Australians will soon be able to sample wine from such exotic varieties as Graciano (Spain), petit manseng France, lagrein (Italy) and Saperavi (Russia).
Yet another group of under-tens are of Australian origin. The Australian research body CSIRO has bred a few varieties to suit particular Australian viticultural niches. Cienna and tyrian are two such varieties
Two varieties, malian and shalistin have also emerged from a vignerons identifying and breeding from sports (mutations) of existing varieties.
Purists recoil in horror at this kaleidoscope of varietal diversity. But a closer analysis reveals that this diversity is a sign of a healthy dynamic industry. It is quite possible that the next success story in Australian wine will emerge from this group of under-tens.
If this seems a bit far-fetched, then look at what has happened to Viognier. In the late sixties the variety was virtually extinct, with just a few hectares in the Northern Rhone Valley. It is now seemingly ubiquitous, with plantings in other regions of France, California as well as in Australia. There are more a hundred winemakers using it Australia.
In November each year the diversity lovers have their day in the sun, both literally and figuratively. While Melbourne is preoccupied with horseracing the Australian Alternative Wine Varieties Show is held in Mildura, on the banks of the Murray River.
Growers and winemakers from throughout Australia and New Zealand will be showing of their products, sharing knowledge and experience as they plan to stretch the boundaries of Australian wine even further.
The end result will be an ever-widening choice for discerning winelovers.
Darby Higgs is the founder of Vinodiversity an information resource about wines made from alternative grape varieites in Australia.