Beyond the big five
Check SAWIS’s statistics for plantings of wine grapes across the Cape winelands and you’ll find chenin blanc, cabernet sauvignon, colombard, shiraz, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay form the major varieties, covering just on 62% of area under vine. Of the others listed, no one variety stands out. We might make a fuss about grenache blanc and noir, mourvèdre, petit verdot or touriga nacional, but they and the few others are hardly a blip on the board.
As for fiano, savagnin, verduzzo, aglianico or negroamaro, well, I can’t put it better than Christian Eedes, who wrote here after a tasting of Australian wines featuring these varieties, ‘I was operating in pretty much unchartered (sic) territory’. While I have tried them all from the areas or country most associated with the classic examples (various parts of Italy, apart from the savagnin which is from the Jura), my guess is Christian will reflect the experience of most South Africans. Yet in Australia, these and other what are known as alternative varieties, are making inroads on, if not yet taking over from the big five. There are sufficient of them, both in the number of different varieties and the number produced within each group to warrant their own show and classes within that show. See the website and click on show results 2012 for the various classes.
I guess the number of Italian immigrants, especially gathered in the King Valley, Victoria has something to do with this trend. They wanted to make wine from the varieties they know in their home country. From there, the wineloving public started to buy and enjoy them and so more producers planted those and other varieties ... and so the whole trend has grown right across the country. With a more ingrained wine culture and adventurous spirit among Australian wine drinkers, this trend has been driven by both producers and winelovers.
Unfortunately, I don’t see sufficient interest from either producers or winelovers here for a similar move and there is a not insubstantial cost to importing vine material. I write this as someone who would love to see some of the southern Italian grape varieties planted here; we might not have volcanic soils, but I see no reason why aglianico, the classic red variety of Campania and just over the border in Basilicata, shouldn’t do well here. ‘Late ripening’, ‘it thrives in cool but dry and sunny mountainous conditions between 200 and 600 metres above sea level.’ As Jancis Robinson’s new Wine Grapes advises, describing the wines as dark, concentrated and tannic .. that improve with age. The long ripening season is essential to tame these tannins.’ Not so unlike mourvèdre, a variety that is beginning to prove its metal here.
A very kind wineloving friend who lives in Melbourne sent me a selection of ten Australian alternative varieties. I shared these over a recent afternoon with friends. Our general feeling was that the whites were better than the reds, though we each had personal favourites among the latter.
My notes on the varieties and wines are as follows:
Coriole Lalla Rookh Fiano 2011 Adelaide Hills 13% alc
Fiano is a well known white variety in the southern Italian province of Campania. According to Wine Grapes, it’s ‘wines are strongly flavoured and full bodied .. they have an attractively waxy texture.’
The Coriole is an expressive wine with a fresh floral, herby fragrance, more intense flavours, zesty finish. Attractive and individual, I really liked it.
Pizzini Verduzzo 2010 King Valley 13.2% alc
From the south to the north of Italy and the province of Friuli, the main source of verduzzo. ‘Varietal wines are generally quite powerful .. They often have slightly astringent tannins and a lightly herbal or cedary aroma which works in harmony with the honeyed flavours that increase with age.’ Wine Grapes.
Hint of bottle age but fairly neutral. Nice mouthfilling, ripe concentration with balanced acid and hint of spice, astringency in the tail. Typical Italian style made to accompany food. Different, pleasant.
Soumah Savarro 2011 Yarra Valley 12% alc
This is in fact savagnin, the variety the Aussies planted under the impression it was albarino. A serendipitous mistake in this case as the wine was the general favourite white among tasters.
Savagnin is associated with the Jura in north-east France, specifically Vin Jaune.
Our savagnin mixes herbs, spice and fresh earth with a not unpleasant bitter hint; moderate alcohol and freshness add to overall appeal. The Soumah team made up the Savarro name, as they felt savagnin would be confused with sauvignon blanc.
Jacobs Creek Limited Release Negro Amaro 2010 Murray Darling 13.7% alc
Another southern Italian variety, most important in Puglia. ‘The deeply coloured wines tend to taste sweet and velvety but can age quite rapidly.’ .. ‘In Australia .. this variety, .. seems to retain its acidity well even in the heat ..’ Wine Grapes. So also suitable for South Africa?
Jacobs Creek is very dark, good clarity with intense ripe sour plum aromas. Ripe, fruity flavours with telltale bitter nip. Has character if not subtlety.
Jacobs Creek Limited Release Mataro 2010 Barossa 13.5% alc.
What we usually call mourvèdre, its French synonym, but listed under its Spanish name, monastrell (mataro is another Spanish name) in Wine Grapes.
This Aussie version is less successful in terms of individuality, as mint is the dominant feature within a rustic frame.
Hahndorf Hill Winery Blueblook Blaufrankisch 2010 Adelaide Hills 14% alc
An Austro-Hungarian variety, probably its best known synonyms are Kekfrankos in Hungary and Limberger in Germany. Wine Grapes claims .. ‘the variety is capable of a wide range of styles that express their very specific origins, from light, fresh and fruity to deeply flavoured, dark-fruited, peppery and firmly structured ..’ It describes this lone Australian example as ‘successful’. Not for me or most of us. Overwhelming mint, just a hint of liquorice, extremely ripe, sweetish finish.
Jacobs Creek Limited Release Tannat 2009 Langhorne Creek 13.2% alc.
Associated with the Madiran region of south-west France, also signature red grape of Uruguay, tannat, is as the name suggests .. ‘tannic, with marked acidity, often powerful and ageworthy, ..’ Wine Grapes. A little is grown in South Africa but, apart from one varietal wine listed in Platter, is used in blends.
The Australian wine is again heavy on mint and though moderate in alcohol, seems riper on taste with plentiful dry, perhaps drying tannins.
Forester Alicanté 2009 Margaret River 15% alc
More fully, alicanté bouschet, a southern French cross from the mid-19th century and a teinturier, or red grape with red juice. According to Wine Grapes, ‘Wines are deeply coloured and, if the yields are controlled, it can produce soft, fruity wines ..’ though more often it’s used in blends for colour. If plantings are decreasing in France, they’re increasing in Spain and Portugal.
There’s no shortage of colour in the Forester; the mint in this is more blue gum (Karri?) and pine needles; it’s dense, very ripe but nicely firm. Not to my taste but it was liked by several tasters.
Calabria Aglianico 2009 Riverina 14% alc. www.westendestate.com
Back to Campania, southern Italy, where Wine Grapes headlines the variety as ‘High-quality; late-ripening, tannic and ageworthy southern Italian red.’ It’s also dubbed the Barolo of the south, a useful description. A downside seems to be susceptibility to botrytis bunch rot, also a feature of zinfandel.
The Calabria family of Westend Estate have been very successful with the variety, this wine was one of two awarded a gold medal on the 2011 AAVWS. Dark, though brilliantly clear, the aromas speak of tart dark fruits, dark earth and a hint of tar. Well structured with good core freshness, intense flavours and dense, finely grained tannins, it should age well. I admit a bias towards aglianico but this captures authentic varietal character; my favourite red.
Chalmers Lagrein 2006 Murray Darling 14% alc www.chalmerswine.com.au
Finally back to Italy again, this time the far north, where lagrein is grown mainly in Alto Adige and Trentino. Wine Grapes describes the wine as ‘.. deeply coloured .. intense berry-fruit flavours and, although the tannin levels are not necessarily high, they can be slightly rustic.’ ‘They quite often seem to have slight taste of iodine.’ I mention the iodine, as I found a sea salty character in the Chalmers, but whether that’s a varietal or regional character, I’m not sure.
Showing its age both in the garnet hue and slight oxidation, it’s nonetheless pleasantly unshowy with savoury, earthy, bloody flavours.
You won’t find these Australian wines in South Africa, though www.vino.co.za and www.carolineswines.com usually have some of the Italian originals. I don’t know of any importer of the French varieties (Bandol is the home of varietal mourvèdre) nor the Blaufrankisch.