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Australian Varietals - Some of the lesser-known grapes

Grape Varieties

A few years ago, surveying the popular end of the wine market, you might have been forgiven for thinking that Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were the only two grape varieties in the world. Certainly I was beginning to believe that whatever about anywhere else, Australia appeared to be concentrating its efforts solely on those two varieties. Huge, heavily oaked Chardonnays and jammy Cabernets exploded onto the market and were such an instant success that everyone leapt onto the band-wagon, not only in Australia, but in just about the whole of the wine-producing world.

A few years ago, surveying the popular end of the wine market, you might have been forgiven for thinking that Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were the only two grape varieties in the world. Certainly I was beginning to believe that whatever about anywhere else, Australia appeared to be concentrating its efforts solely on those two varieties. Huge, heavily oaked Chardonnays and jammy Cabernets exploded onto the market and were such an instant success that everyone leapt onto the band-wagon, not only in Australia, but in just about the whole of the wine-producing world.

It's certainly true that there was a huge movement away from the traditional varieties in Australia. Shiraz and Riesling, once the mainstay of Australian production, were overtaken by the two French upstarts. Fickle lot that we consumers are, after a decade of in-your-face fruit, we've begun to turn to other varieties and other styles. Never ones to let a market trend go unnoticed or unresponded to, Australian growers are turning once again to old favourites, as well as to some relatively new varieties.

Italian grapes, such as Nebbiolo, San Giovese, Barbera and Dolcetto may make up only a tiny percentage of vineyards, but they're part of a growing trend towards planting new varieties in search of new flavours and styles. It's not surprising that hot-climate grapes take well to the Australian climate, and there's a tiny movement towards the Spanish Tempranillo as well, the grape responsible for many of Spain's great wines.

In whites the trend is much the same; Verdelho is selling well in cellars from the Hunter Valley to Western Australia and Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio to Italians) is becoming something of a cult in the cooler climates of Tasmania and southern Victoria. Some of the lesser-known European varieties have always been grown; the Marsanne and the Roussanne have a history of more than 200 years in Australia. Both of these originated in the Rhone Valley, as does the Viognier.

The Viognier makes one of the Rhone's finest whites, Condrieu, and has long been recognised as a great grape. I'd suggest that it's one of those grapes best-suited to a warm climate like Australia's. The long hot summers allow it ripen well and then it produces that big, fat, luscious, almost oily wine. In most wineries it's treated in much the same way as a Chardonnay and is barrel aged and fermented, rather than the stainless steel fermentation more common for the Rieslings. In this case the oak helps to bring out the exotic flavours of the grape and tends to compliment them well.

Suggested Wine

Viognier 2001, Yalumba.

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