Far from home: Less common European varieties in the Antipodes

Brendan Jansen MW

13th September 2019

France has long been regarded, and regarded itself, as the centre of the wine universe. This is understandable, given the offerings of classic wine production areas such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, the Loire and Rhone Valleys, and Alsace, to name but a few.

French varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah (Shiraz), Grenache and Sauvignon Blanc, dominate the international wine landscape, and in the New World in particular; so much so that these varieties are often called the “International” varieties.

The situation is understandable, and is reflected in the winemaking histories of many a colonial nation. Some of these varieties have thrived in their new destinations, offering impressive manifestations of the grape, sometimes without attempts at mimicry of the varieties’ ancestral homes. (Think Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand compared to Sancerre and Pouilly Fume in the Loire, Argentinian Malbec compared to Cahors, Uruguayan Tannat to Madiran, and American Zinfandel to Siciliy’s Primitivo… all very different incarnations of the same variety!)

Recently, lesser known (in Australia) varieties have been making an appearance on our shelves. Wines based on Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Touriga, Sagrantino, Saperavi, Fiano, and even Assyrtiko have emerged in the lexicon of both Australian and other New World producers’ wines. These varieties are of course well known and loved in their home. But there are many reasons for us in Australia to embrace them.

Firstly, our market has matured, so that we seek novelty in greater measure. We as consumers are now prepared to stray from Shiraz and Chardonnay, even if it be only fleetingly. Secondly, these varieties are often more suited to Australian climates. Many Italian varieties, for example, have the ability to maintain high levels of natural acidity, even when at phenolic ripeness. Many southern Mediterranean varieties are slow ripening, and so suit the warmer climes of parts of our great southern land. It is no surprise that one such variety has Spanish, Portuguese and French names, as it is grown in warmer regions of all three countries – I am thinking of Monastrell /Mataro/ Mouvedre. Grenache is the name of another variety – grown in the Rhone valley, but called Garnacha in Spain, and Cannonau in Italy (Sardinia).

In truth, some of these varieties have been grown in Australia for a very long time. Australia’s strong historical reputation for fortified wines is one reason, where both International and other (e.g. Touriga Nacional) varieties made up Australian port-style wines. Also, we owe a debt to generations of our immigrant Australians, who, in the King and Barossa Valleys, for example, brought little pieces of Germany and Italy respectively to Australia, including vines, to cite but two examples.

Below is a selection of wines that stood out for me at a recent tasting of, shall we say, non-standard varieties:

Juniper Estate Small Batch Margaret River Fiano 2018

  • Most appealing was the persistence of complex flavours on the palate and a luscious mouthfeel, possibly betraying time spent on lees.

Heirloom McLaren Vale Touriga 2017

  • The fruit, the whole fruit and nothing but the fruit! Full and round and balanced, with no hint of heaviness.

Juniper Estate Small Batch Tempranillo 2017

  • Mark Messenger has captured the essence of the variety, with savoury tannins and sarsaparilla flavours, framed gently in oak.

Denton Yarra Valley Nebbiolo 2015

  • Luke Lambert’s love affair with this variety is reflected in the varietal purity of this wine – beautiful tannins and scents of violets. His history of making excellent Pinot Noir also comes through in the aromatic perfume.