Great Australian Wine – is there any Alternative?

I was lucky enough to speak at the Australian National University’s 7th University House Wine Symposium recently and I was asked to talk about ‘alternative varieties’. It was an inspiring day – the other speakers included Andy Pitmann, Leanne Webb, Brian Croser, Dan Buckle, Brian Walsh and Libbie Tassie, with James Halliday on the dinner speech.

I was introduced to the symposium as a voice of insight and diplomacy and someone who speaks their mind. They were very kind words. I have since been reminded that, in spite of this introduction, I made some provocative remarks, and they seem to have reverberated with some attendees. I even got a “please explain” from Max Allen via Twitter. I must have struck a chord.

Paul Starr wrote a piece about my presentation in his blog Bianco – Rosso and I like his observations on expertise (fish, ponds, size) – so much so I started to reflect on some key messages of my presentation.

My umbrella point to the ANU conference around the issue of alternative varieties (for those that didn’t attend) was that the Canberra District wine region has such a lucky opportunity it cannot afford to squander and that it has some important choices to make. Success is at stake.

Canberra has established riesling and shiraz with impressive speed and conviction – it’s almost a dream come true and not just for the region’s stakeholders. It’s something to be celebrated. It has the attention of all enthusiasts, amateurs, dabblers, dilettantes, practitioners, experts and observers (and anyone else who happens to be in ear shot) and now it must to galvanise this attention.

My message for Canberra producers was to focus on their core mission first and foremost because timing is imperative to success and the moment is NOW. If they don’t focus enough or well enough, the moment will pass. It will be harder to re-create the opportunity down the track.

Many (probably most) wine regions in Australia are struggling to identify, agree and focus collectively on their signature wines, as well as make them in sufficient enough numbers to be utterly convincing to the rest of the world.

Canberra has, through the work of the Edgar Rieke/John Kirk generation and subsequently the Tim Kirk/Ken Helm/Alex McKay/Nick O’Leary/Brian Martin etc generation, elaborated a compelling terroir. They’ve identified a clear opportunity to realise signature styles that are undoubtedly great wines in a world sense. They’re interesting, distinctive and can be made consistently.

This presents a significant opportunity. Throwing the seemingly boundless “excitement” of alternative varieties into the mix may be a liability for the region at this moment in their brief and to-date successful history and so mine was a cautionary tale.

More than that though, I also made the point that the act of sourcing, growing, making and bottling a wine is something anyone can do – but success dictates that the mission for Canberra’s winemakers is to make great and distinctive wine. We actually don’t have any need for anything else. We have enough wine in the world already, in fact, we have way too much.

We have too much bulk wine in tanks, we have too much average wine, we have too much of the wrong type of wine, the wrong style, labeled, in cleanskin, we have too much OK wine, we even have too much pretty darn decent wine. But we have a shortage of GREAT wine.

And to merely exist, is not to be great.

So-called ‘alternative’ varieties are too often celebrated in what I find to be a pointless manner. Celebrated very often by small producers and way too often by some members of the media and frequently by some members of the trade for no other reason than they’re different. Tastings reveal many are certainly not celebrated on the basis of quality.

And no Max Allen I am NOT talking about you – you are leading by example here and you are, through the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show and all your various outlets, providing important critical benchmarking for varietal exploration. We thank you.

But what we see very often is that the lesser producers in a region (and I’m talking Australia here) fail to make wine of sufficient quality in that region’s most established/famous/successful/important/celebrated styles and so take refuge in obscurity as a means of staying out of a competition they cannot win. It’s a game of attracting attention by alternate means and you can’t really blame them.

I also see the same thing happen with wine writers – many a story has been written (and published) on the basis that something is different/new and therefore exciting/newsworthy. And I think it’s a waste of precious publishing space when so much of what’s really important is ignored in the name of an easy story that takes little time/effort/intellect to write. Editors often have blood-stained hands too.

Imagine if investment writers wrote about companies simply on the basis that they were new and unproven in the market and they recommended it would be fun to try them – would you be sinking your precious dollars in? Or if restaurant critics wrote up the new local restaurant because it’s, well, new? Would you not want to know if the food is any good, the service and (more importantly perhaps) the wine list?

We all like to hear what’s new, but I don’t think that’s enough when wine is at hand. Very few people have enough money to spend on wine to chance buying bad bottles simply on the basis that it’s hardly been heard of, let alone perfected.

Wine critics are supposed to know enough to put all these millions of bottles into a useful context and to share their insight, their knowledge and experience. Ideally it’s done with some wisdom, wit and generous spirit. Ditto sommeliers and wine merchants.

I don’t want to just know that a wine is new or alternative, I want to know if it’s any good. I also want to know why it’s of interest, why it should be grown in one place and not another, why it is/will be great, how it delivers a profound result etc etc.

Every year I taste so many wines being made in Australia that are failed missions off along the tangent of new, alternative and different. Many are around for a few vintages only to gather dust in drab cellar door bargain bins and be offered by online auction and discount wine specialists. What is the point? It’s a waste of glass for starters.

If critics don’t elucidate the good from the bad, if sommeliers and wine merchants don’t make informed choices on the basis of an astute palate and wines are recommended and sold simply because they’re weird/new/unheard of, we’re proliferating a burgeoning lake of bad wine and – even worse than that – average wine.

It’s a bit like those slightly corked bottles; most people can’t identify the actual problem, they spend precious money, have a bad/unsatisfactory experience and go elsewhere. That’s not going to end well for Australian wine.

Many ‘alternative variety’ wines simply shouldn’t be bottled, let alone written about, listed and foisted upon unsuspecting consumers in the name of “difference”, and this brings me to Paul Starr’s final sentence – “My knowledge is less than ‘expert’ in wine or in Italian wine, and suspect it will always be the case that there is more left to learn than I will ever know. And I think I’d rather share my learning than my expertise, whatever size this pond is.”

Bravo – the great and frustrating allure of wine is that it is so diverse, so vast, newly minted every year and then changing constantly once bottled. It excites the hell out of me that great wines are being made all over the world as I write and as you read. There’s so much to learn and so much learning to share.

But good winemakers, the ones that are successful, the ones we need, the ones that contribute to the culture of their region and the ones that are shaping the dynamic and exciting frontier that is Australian wine currently, are recognised because they make, bottle and release GREAT wine.

Sharing your learning is one thing – bottling it in liquid form and asking people to part with their money to experience it is another game all together. You’ll survive for a while making average wine in Australia (probably on the WET tax methadone program), but not for long.

Australia is at one very important cross-roads as a wine producing nation and we need everyone making the very best wine they can. One important piece of that puzzle is making educated, smart and sometimes tough decisions about what grape variety(ies) to work with.

It’s time to step up with courage and make distinctive wine, not just ANY wine. We need to be focused. And frankly, we also need collective strategy to really succeed. And we need regions as well-placed as the Canberra District to really nail it to the wall.

Great winemakers are those that don’t bottle and release anything less than their very best. They don’t put their name to anything that’s average and they certainly don’t do things on the basis of vive la difference first – quality second.

They showcase the results of detailed, thoughtful and astute experiments, the bounty of their hard work, their dedication, their clever intuition and, perhaps most importantly, their honest and self-effacing reflection. They proudly bottle concisely resolved results, not the experiment itself. Imagine the same with food. We wouldn’t waste time eating the stuff.

And as I said the other day in Canberra, just because you can, certainly doesn’t mean you should. When I celebrate something – I like to celebrate with a glass of something great, not just something weird and wet.

Canberra’s best alternatives:

Ravensworth Sangiovese

Lark Hill Grüner Veltliner

Clonakilla Viognier

Mount Majura Tempranillo

Capital Wines The Ambassadoor Tempranillo


About postferment

Australian wine critic, author, presenter, broadcaster and winemaker, Nick Stock.
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14 Responses to Great Australian Wine – is there any Alternative?

  1. mikerism101 says:

    Yes. Yes and yes. ‘…just because you can, certainly doesn’t mean you should.’

  2. Dan Sims says:

    Bravo Stocky and great piece … Or should I say blog post.

    As Mike Bennie says; yes, yes and yes

    Just because you can doesn’t mean you should … Right on

  3. JetRobins says:

    Interesting piece.

    But “Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly”

    I’m sure a similar commentator/ scribe/ wise head looked at the Carpenter’s at Lark Hill when they were first planting Gruner and said something along the lines of: “Greener what?”

    You need somebody to stick their parts on the line and dare to try make something great. I think the issue may not lie in variety, diversity or being innovative enough to do something different – for homogenity is just dull – but in quantity and yes, as you point out quality.

  4. “If critics don’t elucidate the good from the bad, if sommeliers and wine merchants don’t make informed choices on the basis of an astute palate and wines are recommended and sold simply because they’re weird/new/unheard of, we’re proliferating a burgeoning lake of bad wine and – even worse than that – average wine.”

    It could also be a matter of needing to expose oneself to even more alternative grape varieties to really establish benchmarks of quality. We’re not out there to emulate one another…that would be a tad boring. For younger wine regions, all we can do is make somewhat educated experiments and if those few barrels of ‘Alternative wine A’ don’t look so good on their own, well yeah, maybe you shouldn’t.

    Can’t blame them for trying!

  5. Paul Starr says:

    So many possible things to say. Thanks Nick for the post. I’ll start with a bit of clarification: the sentence you quote from me about preferring sharing learning rather than expertise refers to my wine writing and blogging. I have higher and different standards for wine I make or have made. If I’m not happy the wine would impress me as a drinker, in and of itself, and with a story wrapped around it, it’s not fit for release. I dumped my whole make of 2007 sagrantino, from Chalmers fruit, as it didn’t come up to spec. As for pricing, my own philosophy (with a nod to Stephen George at Ashton Hills and Drew Noon) is a price for that wine I’d be happy to pay as a punter, and no more.

    Preamble aside, here are my first responses:
    1. Great wines are not the only wines people want (and are able to) make and drink. There are many times where what I want from sangiovese in the glass is Chianti and not Brunello, even when I can afford the latter. Sometimes ‘great wines’, in the sense of wines that challenge, fascinate, capture and command attention, simply demand too much, or are wrong for the food or mood of the table. Tuscany without Chianti would, I suggest, be unable to do Brunello. Great wines may actually lean on their ‘lesser’ bretheren for support and cash-flow.
    2. Great wines take committed experimentation and time. Even in ‘new’ regions like Priorat, Hawkes Bay or Canberra, it takes a progression of vintages and wines to learn, improve and sometimes know what to give up on. The commitment (or at least interest) of producers, trade, writers and consumers along that time of learning is what is needed to produce great wines. Yes, some of that commitment and interest may be driven by novelty, but that does not preclude a simultaneous commitment to excellence. You can be trying to produce great wine and doing something new at the same time. Likely to be harder than other options, riskier as well, but possibly more fun and maybe even a better fit to site and district than doing something more mainstream.
    3. Is the 40 year modern history of the Canberra District long enough an experience, across enough sites/terroir, grapes, techniques, vintages and people to support an injunction to stick to our shiraz and riesling knitting? Perhaps it is. But I’m unconvinced enough testing of those possible combinations, over enough time, has taken place. Successful shiraz in Canberra, with ‘great wine’ in its sights, is something I’d say there is 10-15 years of evidence for. Is this categorical proof that, for instance, tempranillo may not be the best red grape for the District?
    4. If Canberra did stick to its knitting of riesling and shiraz, even forgetting about climate change, what happens when Australian shiraz moves further from fashion in domestic and international markets? You could have a tiny district, with a small crush, producing a heap of great wine, which can’t sell. And I would not be expecting this swing in fashion to coincide with a riesling revival. Wouldn’t it make sense, even for small producers hell-bent on making great wine, to have some diversity in their vineyards, cellars and price lists? Perhaps along the lines of a Clonakilla red rhone blend, for example? Or the Mt Majura blend of tempranillo, shiraz and graciano. Or Alex McKay’s rhone white and ‘serious’ sangiovese?
    5. There are at least some producers who go into alternative varieties, techniques or blends with good heads on their shoulders, packed full of homework. Did Mt Majura rush into tempranillo without a long run-up of thinking and learning? No. As well as time spent knowing that site, Peter Read’s knowledge of tempranillo helped inform the decision to plant and where on that site. The result being a good wine, aiming to be great, since the 2003 vintage. People like the Grilli’s at Primo Estate, Mark Walpole and Louisa Rose don’t devote time, passion and energy to alternatives on shallow whims or as low stakes bets. These stories need telling to balance your critique, I suggest.

    Yes, there will be lazy dabbling, producing wines of similar quality, in Australian ‘alternatives’, but is that really any more prevalent than the lazy, poor, heartless and dishonest wines being made in Australia from chardonnay, shiraz and cabernet? If you wanted to see more great and less average or poor Australian wine, perhaps the mainstream is closer to the heart of the problem?

    • postferment says:

      All very good points Paul and I agree with you. The more air time that the great examples in emerging styles (be they blends or mono-varietals) get, the more interest, inspiration and encouragement for others to make great examples too. I hope we can collectively be more discerning.

      We need more like Frank, Tim, Louisa and Mark.

      By great wines, I don’t simply mean expensive or famous. Greatness exists as much in Chianti as it does in Brunello – in fact, I’d actually argue a hell of a lot more in Chianti than Brunello, but let’s save that story for another time.

      And yes, the mainstream is home to an ocean of ordinary monotonous wines, but the articulation of the best examples of shiraz, chardonnay and cabernet is much clearer than that of new and emerging styles – as you’d expect. I believe the media and the trade need to work harder at identifying the best new and emerging styles and championing the best examples. I hope we can bring this into balance in the next couple of years. I’ll certainly be doing my level best.

  6. Phew from me too I guess…
    Have very little disagreement with what you said/write, but nevertheless think a little more bravery is needed. If the goal is to make great wine, then we don’t follow Dr Pangloss. Yes, Shiraz and Riesling do well here in Canberra District, and trust me, we’re very focussed on making these even better, but that’s not to say they’re the best varieties for our terroirs, just the first ones we’ve stumbled on that work well.
    I wouldn’t be working with alternatives if I thought it was diluting my effort and focus, but growing different varieties is like looking at the same site through different lenses. Where the focus would be lost is wasting time making a variety that has already proven itself a dud.
    Another thing: something ‘weird and wet’ can actually be a great component in a blend and perhaps a few years down the track we’ll look back at this discussion and question why the monovarietial preoccupation was so strong.

    • postferment says:

      I agree on the bravery – discipline is also essential. I’ve written many times that blending is a great way to introduce new varieties into a repertoire and I also like the way that blending often subverts the dominance of any one variety’s character and allows a sense of site/place to prevail.

      The work you are doing with tempranillo and the blended TSG are exemplary wines and serve as a benchmark for others in the region.

      Keep it up!

  7. Campbell Mattinson says:

    Yes, no, no, yes, maybe.

  8. Gary Walsh says:

    Surprised by your omission of ‘Shalistin’ there. I know it’s one of your 90+ point favourites.

  9. Juel Mahoney says:

    Nick, good post – or should I say “manifesto”? At least, an impassioned plea for quality. This is something I have been thinking about quite a lot since attending the Victorian Allsorts Tasting at the London International Wine Fair in May, so I would like to add a few points. Especially as the wines tasted at LIWF were not wines normally seen outside Australia and perhaps not yet in the stage of having commercial quantities.
    What is a great wine?
    This seems to be what your argument hinges on. I would like to use the Bannockburn Serre Pinot Noir 2008, Geelong as an example. I know it is not an “alternative variety”, but this wine really divided the room because it seemed to fit outside what was (a) expected of an Australian wine (b) the “controversial” winemaking methods – people seemed to have a difficult time understanding my carbonic maceration was needed to produce a Pinot Noir when it wasn’t “done like this in Burgundy.”
    How was the wine? It was not a usual Pinot Noir by any standards and I wouldn’t put it up there with Kooyong Estate’s fine and unique examples, but then again I appreciate that this is forging something new in uncharted territory. I would put it against some Cote de Beaune, especially 2007, and say – not bad in the least. It was fairly low in colour and on the tarty acidic side. I would have liked to have tried it with food as I hear it is a wine quite popular with sommeliers in Melbourne (?). I imagine with the Australian dollar this would have very little chance of succeeding outside of Australia.
    What is so great about Australia, and people in Europe are envious of, is the freedom to experiment. This is early days yet, but experimentation is key to our future health and vitality. As David Malouf said in his ABC Boyer Lecture in 1998, “A Spirit of Play: The Making of Australian Consciousness”- play is an important part of our identity as well. This could be “alternative” varieties or other experimentations with winemaking. That was what was so exciting about the Victorian Allsorts Tasting, the real vitality and intelligence in the winemaking. Australia excels in its scientific knowledge and so it was good to see some creative excellence born from this, even if it is in early stages.
    About Alternative Varieties: In the tasting, I asked Steve Webber has there been much thought about the use of drought-resistance varieties such as thicker-skinned Montepulciano, especially in the Riverina. He smacked his hand against his forehead and said, I wish we had done that now looking back. Perhaps now in this time of environmental re-evaluation in this lands of droughts and flooding plains we can look sensibly at varieties that are suitable to Australian landscape rather than just what Bulletin Club boys generation wanted as an acceptable alternative to expensive import-duty White Burgundy. It wasn’t the time or the people to look at Italian varieties in the 1970s, for Australia or Italy for that matter, but perhaps this is a moment to pause and consider.
    I don’t mean suddenly completely replacing the Riverina with Grillo, either. Just time to take a breath and craft according to the moment in front of them. There are going to be “mistakes” – but most greats move from one masterpiece to the next. Italy is full of mavericks. And what could be more Australian than to be maverick? The time will come, again, wine is also about patience. Not everything is done in a generation.

    Thanks for the opportunity to take this on an interesting diversion of thoughts I’ve been thinking about for a while. And thanks once again for the post.

    My post on the Victorian Allsorts tasting is here:


  10. matt paul says:

    Great opening article and congratulations on the blog. Picking up your point on “just because you can doesnt mean you should” – what about just because you have doesnt mean you should….charge so much. $60+ for Jasper Nebbiolo, $90+ for Giaconda’s, $75 for Castagna Sangiovese – WTF? All outstanding wineries, but not (yet) with these ‘alternative’ varieties. Just my two euro cents.

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