Current Issue #488

Exploring the alternative alternatives of grape varieties

When talk turns to Australia’s so-called alternative grape varieties, the identity parade is almost invariably Italian, with a couple of Spaniards lurking in the wings. But in the rash of vine experimentation over the past 20 years, grapes from other countries have also slipped quietly into the mix.

A Greek white grape, assyrtiko, made headlines when it debuted in the Clare Valley in 2014, and the Adelaide Hills are increasingly alive with the Austrian import, grüner veltliner. Also lurking in our vineyards are other lesser known interlopers – grapes from France and Georgia with names seldom uttered in bottle shops.

Mark Lloyd of Coriole Vineyards has form as an impresario of alternative grapes – 34 years ago, he was the first Australian vigneron to plant sangiovese.More recently, he has introduced a white grape from southern France to the Coriole line-up. Meet picpoul.

Lloyd says most visitors to his McLaren Vale cellar door look blank or baffled when they spot the name on the tasting list. Unless, that is, they come from the UK, where in recent years picpoul has been plucked from comparative obscurity to become one of the country’s best-known value-formoney wines.

Lloyd first met picpoul in the glass more than a decade ago on its home ground. Tagging along on a winery tour of the Languedoc region with Coriole’s Irish distributor and a party of sommeliers, an unidentifi ed glass of white was put in his hand. “It was a ‘wow’ moment,” he says.

Picpoul is not a glamour grape, and part of Lloyd’s fondness stems from its underdog status. “It was dirt cheap, and probably sneered at a bit by traditional French wine-buyers,” he says. But in its traditional role as an accompaniment to fresh local oysters, he says the pairing is truly memorable – “It has this great affinity with shellfish and with oysters because of its high acid and its delicacy.”

Enthused by its prospects, he imported cuttings from an English vine nursery and after statutory quarantine (and DNA testing to make sure he had the right grape), planted it in McLaren Vale in 2011, with a first vintage in 2014. After a slowish start, it now occupies two hectares of vineyard. A high yielding, late-ripening grape, picpoul copes well with hot summers.

“It does well in our climate, and we keep it simple, delicate and low in alcohol,” Lloyd says. “It’s really about the acidity, and it doesn’t have to make a grand statement: it’s all about being with the food.”

South from Coriole, down on the flat, Hugh Hamilton grows a vastly different if similarly obscure variety: the Georgian grape saperavi. Starting with three rows, Hamilton first planted the grape at the urging of visiting Georgian winemaker Lado Uzunashvili in the 1990s, and has gradually worked his holding up to about three hectares. Despite the disparity in terroir – saperavi is grown on high, cool plateaus in its country of origin; Hamilton’s vines are at sea level in a Mediterranean climate – the vines have flourished, although the grapescan be fickle in hot conditions. “It can yield extremely well in one year, and the next year there can be virtual crop wipe-out,” Hamilton says.

Saperavi has one particularly unusual feature: it belongs to a small class of grapes known as teinturiers, meaning that their flesh is coloured. Whereas most red grapes have innards that are whitish or neutral, saperavi is a luscious purple on the inside, and produces a highly dramatic sight at vintage.

“Some years when you’re crushing it,the juice is as black as midnight; it’s so black it’s blue,” Hamilton says.

Hamilton uses the grape to make a full-bodied, full-flavoured wine, in a style he admits is considerably more robust than its Georgian antecedents, although he does point out that, historically, Georgian saperavi was often made as a sweet table winefor its largely Russian market. The influence of Western European palate preferences in the post-communist market have since seen the wine godry.

“The tannins aren’t too rustic or raspy, they are quite velvety,” Hamilton says. “We make it as an upmarket varietal, and we also use it in blends – it combines really well with shiraz.”

Hamilton makes two saperavis, the Black Ops ($32) and the Oddball ($70), and the wine has gained a strong following. Saperavi’s most famous fan, however, does not feature in the marketing – the wine was reportedly the favourite tipple of one Josef Stalin.

Charles Gent

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