Australian wine drinkers have used the COVID-19 lockdowns to experiment with alternative varieties of locally-produced wine.

Key points:

  • Victoria’s Chalmers Wines will harvest about 50 alternative grape varieties over the next two months
  • Alternative wine varieties rely on domestic consumers, so shocks like China’s new tariff do not affect them
  • Varieties such as Nero d’Avola, Montepulciano and Fiano are closing in on popular alternative drops pinot gris and tempranillo

Winemakers in Victoria and in South Australia’s Riverland are reporting a “dramatic increase” in demand for non-mainstream wine, especially from younger consumers.

Increasing in popularity are the Nero d’Avola, Montepulciano, and Fiano alternative varieties.

Ashley Ratcliff first started growing alternative grape varieties at his Ricca Terra Farms property in South Australia’s Riverland region in 2007.

Since then, he has seen a “dramatic increase” in consumer demand.

“A lot of the Italian and Portuguese [grape] varieties make these wines, and consumers are willing to experiment.

“I think there will be a lot of alternative varieties that will graduate into mainstream, and in recent times there are two varieties that have done that — pinot gris, which was once an alternative variety, and tempranillo.”

Ashley Ratcliff grows 42 wine grape varieties at his farms in the Riverland.(ABC Rural: Clint Jasper)

Mr Ratcliff said prices for alternative wine varieties were unaffected by the Chinese tariffs, unlike shiraz and cabernet.

“Most of the winemakers buying alternative varieties focus on the domestic market,” he said.

‘Climate change varieties’

Mr Ratcliff is now growing 42 varieties and supplies boutique winemakers across the country.

He said he cannot keep up with demand.

Younger consumers have been especially experimental in turning to alternative wines.(Unsplash: Kelsey Chance)

Mr Ratcliff turned to alternative varieties because many of them were better suited to a Riverland climate known for its weather extremes and heatwaves.

He said the so-called “climate change varieties” offered growers a lot of benefits.

“Nero D’Avola is very vigorous and you can apply less water, but there are also really good rootstocks that we are using that really suit this region and work well with lower inputs in regards to water and fertiliser,” he said.

Ricca Terra owner Ashley Ratcliff says many alternative wine grape varieties suit the hot climate in South Australia’s Riverland.(Supplied: Ricca Terra)

At Chalmers Wines in north-west Victoria, about 50 alternative varieties of wine grapes will be harvested over the next couple of months.

“We specialise in Italian grapes and my parents imported a lot of new varieties and clones into Australia in the 1990s,” Kim Chalmers, the director of Chalmers Wines, said.

Ms Chalmers agreed with Mr Ratcliff, and said the sustainable benefits of growing alternative varieties of grapes was appealing.

Chalmers Wines grows small runs of grapes for small wineries and restaurants.(ABC Mildura Swan Hill: Alexandra Treloar)

“Finding varieties that work the best in your environment, which reduces the irrigation and chemicals, you can utilise aspects of different varieties to maximise in your own conditions,” she said.

“We are really seeing two, three decades of exploration coming to fruition.

“It is an exciting time for wine consumers in Australia.”

Even so, with the vineyard specialising in hand-picked, small-run varieties of wine grapes, Ms Chalmers said that like most horticulture industries her business had struggled to attract the workforce needed due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

“We’ve had to be more organised and schedule our picking, so we get less tonnes per day,” she said.

Chalmers Wines grows about 50 alternative varieties of grapes for winemakers across Australia.(ABC Mildura Swan Hill: Alexandra Treloar)

Experimenting with boutique wines

Tony Harper, from the Craft Wine Store in Brisbane’s inner-west, makes an effort to source wine, beer and spirits that would not enter mainstream bottle shops and cellar doors.

“In retail I try to stay as far apart from the chain stores as much as possible, and also to keep ourselves removed from the rest of the market,” Mr Harper said.

“Finding producers like Chalmers, to do small batch collabs, gives us wine that no-one else has. So there is no compatible price competition.”

Many boutique winemakers in Australia seek out alternative wine grape varieties.(Supplied: Kym Ellis)

Mr Harper said customers were much more experimental with their wine choices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr Harper said it made more sense for Mediterranean varieties to be the future of Australian-made wines.

“Mediterranean varieties are the future of Australia,” he said.

“We have tried to replicate French varieties for 150 years but most of our growing areas are in Mediterranean areas, so I think the future is with them.”