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If you think Australia is only about Chardonnay, Cabernet and Shiraz, then think again. From Assyrtiko to Zweigelt, Australia is bursting with new arrivals and lesser known grape varieties, which are grabbing the attention of critics, sommeliers and wine drinkers around the world.

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Alternative Australia

The rise of alternative grape varieties hasn’t happened overnight. Nostalgic for a taste of home, the Italian settlers in Victoria’s King Valley planted Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Arneis in the 1950s. Today, Italian varieties lead the charge thanks to Bruce and Jenni Chalmers – co-founders of the Australian Alternative Variety Wine Show – who had planted over 70 different Italian varieties by the year 2000.

The last two decades have seen a surge in interest and in plantings of new and emerging varieties. Alternative varieties currently account for around 3% of Australia’s vineyard area – a small but exciting percentage. There is no doubt promise of more to come as these wines are starting to infiltrate restaurant wine lists and pop up on independent retailers’ shelves.

Without laws restricting what can be planted and where, Australia has become a hotbed of innovation and experimentation. Aussie winemakers are curious and willing to challenge convention, keen to try new things and discover how different varieties express themselves in Australia’s distinct terroir.

Grapes from Italy, Iberia, Georgia, Greece, Germany, Austria and France make up the majority of the 100+ alternative varieties now planted in Australia. The list is still growing; Australia’s first Assyrtiko was recently planted in the Clare Valley, as well as Picpoul in the McLaren Vale. Other new kids on the block to watch out for include Georgia’s Saperavi, which is making its home in the high altitude cool vineyards of the Granite Belt and King Valley, and Spain’s Mencia, which is being trialled in the McLaren Vale.

Sourcing grapes so widely makes perfect sense when Australian wine regions’ climatic diversity spans northern France to north Africa. Less thirsty, drought-resistant alternative grapes that better retain acidity, such as from Southern Italy and Iberia, thrive in warmer, drier regions like McLaren Vale and Riverland. A good example is Sicily’s Nero d’Avola, which needs under half the irrigation water of Chardonnay or Shiraz. In Adelaide Hills’ cooler climes, Hahndorf Hill has pioneered Austria’s aromatic grapes Grüner Veltliner, Blaufrankisch and Zweigelt.

Australia’s emerging varieties express the essence of the grape together with the country’s sunlight intensity, ancient soils and winemaking innovation and flair. Tending towards medium-bodied wines with food-friendly texture, acid and tannin structures, these varietal newcomers look set to leave their mark on Australia’s viticultural landscape and bring something very desirable to the world stage.

Alterantive australian grapes

McLaren Vale


10 top alternative Australian grapes

White grapes 

Arneis – from Piedmont, north Italy; a continental/cool climate is key to subtlety and freshness; performs well in King Valley, Adelaide Hills and Tasmania. Crisp, dry, unoaked whites with a riff of fennel, crunchy naschi pear and firm, citrine/mineral, acidity. N

Fiano – born of a Mediterranean climate, this Campanian white flourishes in Australia’s warm, dry regions, particularly the McLaren Vale.  Sweet citrus (mandarin, candied lemon) and fleshier fruit with harmonious but persistent acidity. Lees ageing and sensitive oak produces texture and layer.

Grüner Veltliner – in Canberra District,  the Adelaide Hills and Tasmania, the star of Austria’s Wachau region finds the cooler conditions which drive its complex aromatics and structured palate. Expect white pepper-laced pear, grapefruit and lightly vegetal aromas and flavours, well supported by firm, mineral acidity.

Vermentino – thrives in Sardinia, southern France and those Australian regions with a dry, warm Mediterranean climate. Unoaked dry whites range from simple, crisp styles (green apple, citrus) to nuanced, textural, saline wines with spicy (citrus) pith. Bottle age brings subtle nuttiness.

Red grapes

Aglianico – the ‘Barolo of the south’ thrives at altitude in Southern Italy’s elevated Basilicata and Campania regions and Fighting Gully Road’s Alpine Valley vineyard (560m); it is also well adapted to warmer, drier Australian regions. Barrel-aged reds showcase Australia’s fruit intensity without sacrificing Aglianico’s renowned tannin and acid structure or savouriness (black olive/ leather) and perfume (floral/incense spice/orange peel).

Nebbiolo – Barolo’s iconic grape is much fussier about soil and climate than Aglianico. Pockets of the King Valley, Adelaide Hills, Yarra Valley, Heathcote and Beechworth make it sing. Its signature tune? Dried roses and tar, with a firm underpinning of acidity and, in Australia, slow burn broad or lacy tannins, often with a spicy accent (liquorice, incense spice). Fresh acidity places wines at the drier end of the spectrum. Aglianico seems opulent in comparison.

Nero d’Avola – this camel of grapes – Sicily’s most planted red – is popular throughout Australia’s warm, dry regions. Medium-bodied reds with joyous jube and floral lift. Predominantly fruit-driven with sweet blueberry and raspberry, rhubarb and lick of dried herbs. Brighter than many Italian examples.

Sangiovese – widely planted in Italy, Tuscany’s most famous grape is pickier in Australia. Vine age and superior clonal material distinguish top examples from diverse regions, including McLaren Vale, King Valley, Heathcote and Canberra District. Australian examples capture the medium-bodied savoury palate of classic Italian wines, with fresh acidity, firm but fine tea leaf tannins, sour red cherry and plum.

Tempranillo – Spain’s most planted red grape has been embraced across Australia too (but especially McLaren Vale, Wrattonbully and Geographe), resulting in a similar stylistic range. ‘Joven’ fresh and fruity styles feature smooth tannins with bright, fleshy plum and berry fruit. Structured wines from continental or cooler regions (e.g. Pyrenees, Beechworth, Canberra District) are perfumed with polished tannins, supple berry and cherry fruit and a hint of sarsaparilla.

Touriga Nacional – like Portugal, found in Australia’s warmer, drier regions, notably McLaren Vale, Barossa and Rutherglen. Even a dash in a blend reveals its tell-tale violet, rose and bergamot scent; powerful, supple fruit (red and black), with chocolatey tannins.


Wine Australia is running an Alternative Varieties Trade Tasting on Wednesday 28 June at Australia House in London. The tasting will feature over 120 wines from 50 producers including Alpha Box & Dice, Chalmers, d’Arenberg, Dal Zotto, Larry Cherubino and Lethbridge. Guests can explore Mediterranean varieties such as Arneis, Friulano, Dolcetto and Tempranillo as well as more unusual varieties like Assyrtiko, Sagrantino, Taminga and Teroldego. The line-up will also include Saperavi, a rare Georgian variety made by less than 20 Australian producers.

Please note this tasting is only for the drinks trade and media. Registration is here: www.bit.ly/AVT2017