Mike is a freelance wine and drinks writer and journalist, wine judge and presenter based in Sydney. Mike is the Editor-At-Large and contributor for the wine commentary site The WIne Front, wine and drinks of delicious magazine, a columnist/feature writer for Gourmet Traveller Wine and co-director of Australia’s first sustainable and artisan wine and produce fair Rootstock Sydney.
Somebody dropped a ‘fact’ on my desk the other day. Australia grows over 155 unique grape varieties. It took a little time to settle in.
I’d never really considered the number of grape varieties that were planted in our wide brown land. Sure, there’s lots, and if pressed I likely would have assumed over 150, maybe more, and thanks to canny investments in nursery schemes an ever increasing number.
It got me thinking about the term that’s so commonly bandied about for grapes that don’t come from our more mainstream drinking choices - “alternative varieties”.
I dislike this phrase.
I’m turned off by its delineation and suggestion of a caste system in Australian wine.
By virtue of a one-size-fits-all naming, we’ve side-lined aglianico to zinfandel via cinsault, gruner veltliner, mataro, lagrein, marsanne, nebbiolo, prosecco, sangiovese, viognier and all they’re cousins, aunts, uncles and siblings.
“Alternative varieties’ is an us-and-them semantic that puts widely planted, so-called mainstream varieties in an opposite space to the thrilling potential of lesser-known grape varieties. It also hems us into a culture of grape-naming over style explaining, and another potential sphere for alienation for the ‘less-experienced drinker’.
There might be increasing celebration of these ‘alternative’, surrogate, proxy varieties, but in the end, but when it all boils down to it, the message is about ‘other’ when we use the word ‘alternative’. These grapes have a global currency, a homeland, a purpose, but we’re boxing away that message.
Definitions of ‘alternative variety’ are a grey area too. It can be used for new-to-Australia varieties planted in smaller volume, or it can be used for historically planted, older grape varieties that happen to not be widely produced or in a modern context, ‘popular’.
The CSIRO suggests that ‘alternate grape varieties’ are ones that are ‘better suited to Australian growing conditions, with good productivity and desired wine aroma and flavour characteristics’. I love science, but I am waiting to see what yardstick is used for a sample size that spreads across 60-plus growing regions and 150-or-more grape varieties.
So it dawned on me during this month long focus on all things Australian wine, that perhaps it’s time to strip back the naming and just dive straight in. Forget that there’s a sect of wines that are ‘alternative’, that’s a currency of convenience we can move on from.
A month of celebration should also be a month of investigation. These aren’t an alternative, they should be part on the mainline. Sure, there’s comfort in familiarity, but it’s ok to evolve the conversation; let’s think style, context and place as our baselines for conversation.
Via the old anarachists’ adage, it’s time to educate, agitate, organise.