Results & reflections: The Australian Alternative Variety Wine Show 2016

Alex Sherrah, Senior Winemaker, Coriole, collects The Dr. Rod Bonfiglioli Best Wine of Show for Coriole 2016 Nero d’Avola from show co-founder Bruce Chalmers

I spent the first half of this month thoroughly ensconced in Australia, engaging with a couple of cutting edge developments.  The rise and rise of Australian Alternative Variety Wines and the ongoing evolution of its coolest climate state, Tasmania.  Topics which collided in my last Australian post, Alternatively Tasmania.

Today, I look back on my experience at The Australian Alternative Variety Wine Show 2016.  It was an honour to be this year’s international judge.  And to visit Mildura in the Murray Darling region for the first time.  Thanks to the Chalmers family (background here), it has been the seed bed or, I should say, scion of so many Australian alternative varieties.

How many Australian alternative varieties? This many. Chief of Judges Jane Faulkner

Describing the show as “the greatest on earth,” our irrepressible Chief of Judges Jane Faulkner – a.k.a. La Forza – might be accused of hyperbole, but the ringmaster has a point.  Perforce it must be Australia’s most colourful wine show – a right royal variety performance with no less than 102 varieties strutting their stuff this year.

It certainly generated a palpable sense of excitement among the judges.  Quite right because The Australian Alternative Variety Wine Show is not only helping improve the breed, but also [re-]shaping Australia’s viti/vini-cultural landscape.

Pinot Gris/Grigio, now Australia’s 7th most planted variety, has already graduated from the show.  So which of the show’s rare breeds look set to become part of the Australian varietal pantheon?

Sicily’s Nero d’Avola took top wine of show but, for my money, Campanian or, as I’m dubbing them, Neo-politan varieties Fiano and Aglianico led the way.  Australia ain’t so vanilla after all.   It seems to me that there is scope a New World Order which subverts the Old World dichotomy, putting southern grapes at the top of the leader board, notably my Neo-politans!  With a strong Australian thumbprint of quality and flair, I reckon Australia could put these varieties on the global map.

In the spot light – Neo-politan grape, Fiano

What’s more, based on what I’ve seen, these less thirsty varieties surely present a golden opportunity for Australia’s irrigated inland regions – the Riverland, Murray Darling, Riverina – to turn around their work horse image.  Given the right site, matched to the right grape, here’s a top down opportunity with dividends for sustainability – economic and environmental.  Bring on the Murray mutiny!

The Murray – poised for a glittering, alternative future?

Speaking of sustainability, I gather that this greatest show on earth is something of a tightrope act to fund.  Show Fellow James Scarcebrook –  a.k.a. Intrepid Wino’s – video gives an idea of what’s involved behind the scenes (& that’s just in judging week).  With a record number of entries this year, more judges/judging days are in the offing.  A thrilling prospect, but an expensive one.  Roll up, roll up sponsors please!

Some thoughts

Below you’ll find the list of trophy winners.  First, here are some thoughts on those alternative varietal wines which I tasted at the show.  Given class size and my still limited experience of tasting many of these work-in-progress varieties, they are necessarily tentative impressions. But one thing I know for sure.  I am keen to continue on this alternative varietal Australian adventure and follow up on progress whenever I can.

I’ve mentioned this before in a Decanter piece and my 21st Century Vino post of last year, but it’s worth reiterating.  The best entries did not set out to follow high extract, super ripe, oaky recipes of old.  Rather they let the variety speak for itself and/or embraced much more nuanced wine making techniques – natural yeast, lees/batonnage, deftly controlled oxidation, fruit tannins and phenolics.

Now in its 16th year, it was good to see varietal categories being sub-divided to reflect the range of expressions/styles. Vermentino in a crisp, fresh, dry style and in and fuller-bodied, textural, luscious styles (the latter much more exciting).  Similarly Fiano in a young, fresh, aromatic style and fuller-bodied, textural, luscious (both categories performed well for this variety which surely has a great future down under).  For reds, both Sangiovese and Tempranillo had youthful, fresh, juicy and more structured classes (which, of course, reflects how these varieties are vinified in their countries of birth).

Sangiovese and Tempranillo are relatively long in the tooth alternative varieties, especially the former.  Though well represented, I didn’t feel they showed the consistency or balance of my top three grapes, Fiano, Nero d’Avola and Aglianico.  It suggests these varieties are pickier about site (there were some great examples from Taylors/Wakefield and Mayford) and/or might perform better in blends (see my comment below about Graciano)?

Varieties like Petit Verdot, Graciano and Saperavi, to a lesser extent, Malbec also had balance issues; tannic and tart (as is its wont), the Saperavis had excessive residual sugar.  It seems to me it’s not without good reason that the first two are frequently described as the salt and pepper of (Bordeaux & Rioja) blends, while Saperavi is best experienced with bottle age or blended.  I’d love to see more producers playing around with blends as opposed to sticking with the single varietal recipe (although to be fair, I can understand the desire to get to grips with a variety solo first).  Swartland in South Africa has shown blends can be super-sexy.  I reckon Australia can be really innovative to great effect here too – check out my next point.

In search of flor – Apera queen Jen Pfeiffer, Pfeiffer Wines

During her time at the helm, Faulkner has introduced fortified wines into the fold.  Great move.  They are most definitely a rare breed, as are the varieties from which they are made.  Nice to see some innovative blending here too – where else but in Australia would you find a Nero d’Avola, Durif, Tempranillo, Shiraz blend.  I really enjoyed the freshness and fruit of Eldorado Road Four Nations 2015 – an unoaked Ruby-like fortified. And rather more conventionally, Pfeiffer Wines Seriously Fine Apera NV – a Palomino – was one of my wines of the show. It had a terrific nutty spine and frisky green apple bite.

No Nebbiolo Trophy was awarded this year; fellow judge First Drop’s Matt Gant speculated about it reflecting the Piedmont grape’s struggle in warmer years.  I wonder if this affected the northern Italian region’s white grape, Arneis too – examples seemed a little deflated.

On the other hand, warmer conditions appeared to be a breeze for Aglianico – a grape which I reckon has appeal for lovers of Baga, Nebbiolo and Xinamavro.  Like them, it has a complexity of aroma/flavour ((floral yet savoury) and structure (textural tannins) – lovely detail.  But in Australia, with no loss of said detail, Aglianico appears to express itself in a relatively approachable style (with bright fruit, balanced acidity and amenable tannins).

Having anointed it a former Wine of the Month,  I am evidently already nostalgic about Fighting Gully Agliancio – my Wine of Show; pictured with owner/vigneron Mark Walpole

Is it a better and better value bet for the mainstream?  For sure the class showed great consistency of varietal character, yet within that different expressions (note the impact of clones in this post).   As you’ll see from the International Judge’s Trophy, I very much liked the more structured, very spicy Fighting Gully Road Aglianico 2014 from a relatively marginal, 500m vineyard (I’m pretty consistent myself – the previous vintage was a Wine of the Month), but also L’Enologa Aglianico 2015 from Chalmers Merbein Mildura vineyard –  it had beautiful red fruits and pithy tannins.

Shavaughn Wells of Saltram – Fiano-tastic – Best Fiano, Best Italian White, Best White of Show

As for my other leading Neo-politan, Fiano, it impressed with its consistent varietal character across a range of styles.  Textural, luscious examples retained detail – a quality which was brilliantly teased out at the Riedel talk and taste session. And in the Trophy Wine – Saltram Wine Estate Winemakers Selection Fiano 2016.  Funnily enough, I’d tasted the second, 2012 release during a visit with Saltram in 2014 and much liked it then.

Mark Sherrah, Coriole, collects the Best Red of Show Award from show co-founder, Stefano de Pieri

Coriole Nero d’Avola 2016 (McLaren Vale) bagged Best Wine of Show, Best Red Wine, Best Italian Red Wine and Best Nero d’Avola.   The Nero d’Avola class was strong and very consistent.  Wines were predominantly made in a fresh fruity, drink me style with floral/jubey lift.  A style which holds great appeal compared with many of the overripe styles I’ve had from Italy.  The Coriole was a particularly joyous, soft, fruity red.  Like the Picpoul, a bang on trend by the glass/everyday wine.

Since I last looked, Gruner Veltliner is showing the benefits of vine age and experience.  Some lovely textural, aromatic typicity here, especially from Adelaide Hills.  For Jane Faulkner, Greece’s Assyrtiko is another sommelier favourite showing much promise.


Sam Barry collects Chief of Judge’s Wine to Watch Award for Jim Barry Wines Assyrtiko 2016

Hardly cutting edge but most definitely alternative, Durif (a.k.a. Petite Sirah) produced a couple of strong, contrasting Golds – one oaky and traditional, but a great example.  The other, brighter and fresher – really juicy, letting the blackberry fruit shout.

With 102 varieties, there had to be some surprise performers.  My biggest surprise was Coriole Picpoul 2016.  There and again, should I be surprised that this southern French variety – rated for its acidity – evidently thrives in McLaren Vale’s maritime, Mediterranean climate?  I know I’ve only tasted one, but this salty, mineral example suggests to me Australia could replicate Picoul de Pinet’s mainstream success over here. Also from McLaren Vale, the floral, mid-weight and red fruited Oliver’s Taranga Mencia 2016 showed promise for this Galician variety.

Kim Chalmers with Anna Hooper, Cape Jaffa – Sponsor a Variety winner

Looking ahead, the aim is to foster continuing interest in the development of alternative wine grape varieties.  In 2016, the AAVWS in conjunction with Agromillora Australia JV Pty Ltd sponsored the importation of the first new or emerging variety.  Cape Jaffa’s Anna Hooper’s proposal of  Shavkapito – a red Georgian variety – won the day. Described as “[R]ediscovered and promising dark-skinned Georgian Variety” in Wine Grapes, Kim Chalmers said “this brand new variety will be made public to the whole industry.”

The trophy winners

The Dr. Rod Bonfiglioli Best Wine of Show – Coriole Nero d’Avola 2016

Trans Tasman Award for Best New Zealand Wine – Trophy announcement postponed

Best Red Wine –  Coriole Nero d’Avola 2016

Best White Wine – Saltram Wine Estate Saltram Winemakers Selection Fiano 2016

Best Red Italian Variety Wine – Coriole Nero d’Avola 2016

Best White Italian Variety Wine – Saltram Wine Estate Winemakers Selection Fiano 2016

Best Iberian Variety Wine – St Hallett Wines Touriga Nacional 2015

Chief of Judge’s Wine to Watch – Jim Barry Wines  Assyrtiko 2016

International Judge’s Award – Fighting Gully Road Aglianico 2014

Best Blend  – Montevecchio Rosso Mildura 2016

Best Commercial Volume Wine – Tahbilk Pty Ltd Marsanne 2016

Best Fortified – Pfeiffer Wines Seriously Fine NV

Best Nebbiolo – Trophy not awarded

Best Aglianico – Davis Premium Vineyards Rogue Series ‘Moon Child’ Aglianico 2015

Best Rosé – The Yalumba Wine Company Yalumba Y Series Sangiovese Rose 2016

Best Sparkling Wine – Trophy not awarded

Best Murray Darling Region Wine –  joint winner Montevecchio Rosso Mildura 2016 & Trentham Estate Wines La Famiglia Sangiovese Rose 2016

Best Label Artwork – Ten Miles East Savperavi 2015

Best Nero d’Avola – Coriole Nero d’Avola 2016

Stewards Choice Award – Graham Stevens Wines Fleurieu Tempranillo 2015

Tony Mangan Memorial Award for Best Organic Wine – 919 Wines Pale Dry Apera NV

Click here for the full results.

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