Alternative varieties

There are no hard and fast rules about what constitutes an ‘alternative variety’ – instead, it’s a very relative concept. Alternative varieties can be defined simply as any type of wine that falls outside the mass-consumed mainstream.

Here in Australia, the leading white grape is chardonnay, and the four leading reds are shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir, so anything beyond those five could be deemed an alternative variety.

Not surprisingly, what is considered alternative changes over time and varies by location too. For instance, wines branded as alternative in the US are different to what we’d call alternative here which are the varieties native to Europe or South Africa.

In 1970s Australia, wine was seen as something women drank while the men got stuck into the beer. In the context of the dominant paradigm of beer-drinking-at-the-pub, drinking wine was considered elitist, European, and decidedly feminine. This stereotype was deeply reinforced by the advertising of the era which marketed wine almost exclusively towards women.

Admittedly, the wines that were available here at the time weren’t of a particularly high quality. They tended to be sweet (remember moselle?) or fortified wines colloquially known as ‘plonk’. Riesling was the order of the day.

The 1980s ushered in significant social, political and cultural change in Australia. As international travel became more affordable and multiculturalism influenced the willingness to try ‘new’ cuisines while the local restaurant scene exploded, wine consumption became less of a gendered experience.

Since then, Australians have come to drink more bottled wine than regular strength beer. We’ve also become the world’s sixth largest wine producer, home to more than 65 wine growing regions. Our ‘alternate varieties’ have moved from pinot gris and pinot grigio to include the rise in popularity of varieties such as tempranillo, sangiovese and grenache over the last decade.

When it comes to Beechworth, chardonnay is usually the first wine variety people associate with our region, followed by shiraz then pinot noir, but there are many other varieties grown here too including nebbiolo, sangiovese, fiano and barbera.

While Beechworth’s total vineyard area is small, the hills are rich with minerals and the variation in altitudes, ranging from 250 to 800 metres above sea level provides diverse growing options (Weathercraft sits at around 330-metres). Some varieties flourish at the higher local altitudes while the more continental climate in the foothills lends itself to others.

These varied conditions, and a willingness among local growers to try something new, make Beechworth one of the best wine-growing regions in Australia for high-quality, alternate varieties and lesser-known wines.

Today, as winemakers across the globe grapple with the impacts of a warming climate, the business of selecting the right variety to grow in a particular region has become an even trickier proposition.

Choosing the right variety that will have the best expression for the soil and not only current, but future climate is a challenge. Later ripening varieties can withstand the withering heat of high summer but as the number of days with extreme temperatures increases, so too do the odds of bushfire followed by spring frosts when we experience drier winters.

I’m determined to make Weathercraft a sustainable vineyard and winery. I want to see my daughter inherit a thriving business in 20 years’ time. For us to be able to do that, we have to be smart about what we plant today.

It’s also important to me that our focus at Weathercraft honours my personal heritage. With my maternal roots from northern Spain and my paternal heritage from the south, varied wine styles (and gastronomy) were a constant presence on our table whenever we had family and friends over.

We also had many European friends who’d be sure to bring a bottle of wine back from their travels for us to enjoy over a meal together. Sharing food and wine with family and friends was an integral part of my upbringing, and definitely played a role in my learning of Spanish wine regions in particular.

Weathercraft’s smooth tempranillo, aromatic albariño, spicy garnacha and full-bodied monastrell are all Spanish varieties that are well-suited to our local growing conditions, and I’m thrilled to be able to produce them successfully here in regional Victoria.

My not-so-secret ambition is to put Beechworth further on the map for these varieties and one day see them make the leap from being known as ‘alternative varieties’ to becoming some of Australia’s most popular and sought after wines.

Article written by Raquel Jones, Winemaker for Weathercraft Wine

Why not try my younger, more approachable style of tempranillo -my Tempranillo Jis an interesting alternative to pinot noir and a climate-change champion!