The grape alternative

Jo Marsh of Billy Button Wines (Photo: Women in Wine Awards website)

Alternative varieties are great fun to taste. There are more and more of them, and they’re increasingly interesting. Here’s the roll-call of my latest tasting:

Sixteen pinot grigios followed by 27 pinot gris, three vermentinos, four grüner veltliners, two arneis, one fiano, one greco, one albarino, one grecanico, two pinot blancs, a verduzzo, a malvasia, an assyrtiko, a picpoul, a friulano, six verdelhos, three chenin blancs, three gewürztraminers, five viogniers, two marsannes and seven Rhône blends – various mixtures of marsanne, roussanne, viognier and occasional other varieties.

Were they good? Were they what!

I’m covering the top viogniers and a superb Italian grigio elsewhere in this week’s newsletter, but there were many other highlights. Twenty-two wines scored 92 or more points.

Verdelho is a popular wine with the masses but often scorned by the cognoscenti. My top verdelho was a Hunter Valley wine – no real surprise – but the maker is not famous and deserves to be much better known. Vinden Estate is a family operation with the second generation, young Angus Vinden, now in charge of winemaking, with consultant Daniel Binet helping out. The wine, 2017 Vinden Estate Verdelho (AUD $30; 95 points) turns out to have been the trophy-winner for the best verdelho at the 2017 Hunter Valley Wine Show. The judges certainly got that right.

What makes a great verdelho? Read the review! It’s not obviously sweet, or too herbaceous or overly ripe and tropical – but has tension, minerality and appetizing qualities. It has intense fruit without being too overt, but has precision, vitality and length.

Warramunda’s 2016 viognier is part of this week’s Three of a Kind, but another Warramunda wine also shone: the 2016 Marsanne (AUD $35 and 93 points). A feature of both is their moderate alcohols, not that common with white Rhône varieties. The marsanne is 12.7%.

Domenica of Beechworth, produced by winemaker Peter Graham, is another small producer doing wonderful things, especially with Rhône and Mediterranean varieties. Domenica’s 2015 Roussanne Marsanne (AUD $45, 93 points) is a very serious wine: complex as well as fine.

In a similar vein, and also from Beechworth, is Fighting Gully Road Aquila 2015 (AUD $27, 95 points), a blend of chardonnay, viognier and petit manseng. It’s wonderfully rich and layered, with white Burgundy-like complexities and spicy, honeyed characters. The owner is this year’s Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine viticulturist of the year, Mark Walpole; winemaker is the accomplished Adrian Rodda.

I can’t finish without mentioning Billy Button, a rising star in the Ovens Valley whose owner and winemaker is Jo Marsh. She fields an impressive array of varietal wines, many of them qualifying as ‘alternative’. The verduzzo and malvasia in this tasting were hers, as were a pinot blanc and a grüner veltliner. My favourite was the malvasia (AUD $25, 93 points), grown on the Mulcahy vineyard at Porepunkah. It’s a tremendously complex, rich, yet not overblown dry white, fashioned from a grape that I’ve never before had cause to regard as anything special. This is a fascinating wine. All ‘alternative’ varieties should be distinctive, and this one certainly is.

One thought on “The grape alternative”

  1. Bruce says:

    Please keep pushing these wines!! As a former sommelier in Far North & Central Queensland (industry has done for me physically at 60) I discovered Verdelho & Chenin Blanc (1970s) as a youngster then came aged Viognier (1980s NOMNOM!!) Marsanne (90s) Pinot Griggio & Gris & Malvasia (early 2000s) and in the last 10 years Bianco D’Alessano Arneis Fiano Pinot Blanc & assyrtiko (my go to seafood wine!). That is just the whites!! I pushed these varieties at the table over the bar & to my friends in the industry to the stage where you could find Arneis in several bottle shops in Yeppoon hahaha. I got onto Nero D’Avola several years ago & would love to get my paws on some more aged Pinot Meunier (I hear Best’s is scrummo!) if I could only afford it. With our food & climate these Mediterranean gems will not only drink better but also grow better!

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