Consider the alternatives

New varieties in focus, this week and beyond

One of the forums at this week’s Romeo Bragato Conference in Auckland explores new white varieties and wine styles within the New Zealand context. With Dr John Forrest (Forrest Estate), Simon Nunns (Coopers Creek), and Warren Gibson (Trinity Hill) lined up as panelists, the session promises an interesting glimpse of experiments already under way with the likes of Grüner Veltliner, Arneis, and Albariño. As an added bonus, forum sponsor Riversun Nursery has an array of alternative aromatics available for tasting at its exhibitor’s stand.

Wine made from alternative varieties presents some unique marketing challenges – and opportunities. Remember “Just Say VEE-ON-YAY!”? Yalumba’s labour of love with the (then) little-known variety Viognier required its own marketing campaign just to teach Aussie wine consumers how to pronounce it. The end result? Well, Virgilius now belongs in the great-wine pantheon for this variety. As the Yalumba blog notes, “Not bad after only 30 years!”

Mtsvane anyone? Believe it or not, the variety is here in New Zealand.

For nearly the same length of time, Trinity Hill’s John Hancock has led experimentation with new-to-New Zealand grape varieties, including Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, Montepulciano, Viognier, Arneis, and (most recently) Albariño. Trinity’s success with Tempranillo has convinced other producers to take a punt on a variety that seems well suited to New Zealand growing conditions. (The wine has certainly become a favourite in this house.)

The timelines just mentioned are worth bearing in mind: new varieties can take decades before they establish themselves in the consumer’s consciousness. Sometimes, however, the initial education and marketing push is undertaken in another wine-producing country, and the Kiwi winemaker can simply hitch a ride.

Grüvee new wines

Grüner Veltliner is a case in point. By far the most widely grown white variety in its native Austria, Grüner rapidly gained a following among sommeliers and restaurateurs after Austrian winemakers began lifting the quality bar for what had previously been a commercial workhorse. By the time the variety landed on these shores, the hard work was mostly done: the variety was already a “must have” on many international wine lists when New Zealand’s first commercial Grüners were released in 2010 (to great enthusiasm, I might add).

John Forrest, one of the producers, describes his process of experimentation with new varieties in the current issue of New Zealand Winegrower magazine. Initially planting a trial block (usually, half a hectare), he devotes his first crop to making about 300 cases of wine that are then used to test the variety’s potential.

Forrest explains that his process has had unforeseen benefits: “I can sell all these experimental varieties at an average of $25 a bottle. They have helped to grow the image of our company and differentiate us in the marketplace. In a nutshell, I am opening doors in restaurants, new retail, and even overseas markets because I have something a bit different.”

What’s happening “across the ditch”?

While the Bragato forum provides a tantalising peek, the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show is truly the Mecca for those of us with a love of the new. Held each year in Mildura, Victoria, the AAVWS showcases new varieties that might play a role in the future of antipodean viticulture, particularly with regard to issues such as environmental sustainability, regional diversity, and small “niche” wine production.

Now in its twelfth season, the AAVWS comprises a series of events that include the “Chalmers Dinner” (cooked by celebrity chef Stefano de Pieri and showcasing exciting new offerings from Chalmers Wines), an informative  “taste and talk” afternoon forum, a public tasting, and an awards presentation in conjunction with Stefano’s Long Italian Lunch at the Grand Hotel.

Max Allen (centre) and the AAVWS judges toast Mildura with Chalmers' Vermentino.

The entire programme is a true celebration of and for handcrafted wine. Beloved by passionate young winemakers and wine writers, the show also attracts serious interest and respect from industry organisations – after all, this year’s alternative offering might one day be the “next big thing.”

I’d like to encourage all New Zealand wineries experimenting with alternative varieties to:

  • Enter your wines in the show (it’s open to Kiwis), and
  • Attend the event.

The AAVWS provides a welcome antidote to the increasing commodification of wine (and food) – with judges delighting in and rewarding artisanal efforts like Beach Road Wines’ Greco di Tufo (155 cases),  and Michelini Wines’ Teroldego (100 cases). Since a number of the judges, including chief of judges Max Allen, are also prominent wine writers, winners are often profiled and/or reviewed in major newspapers following the event.

Best in show

Of course, the AAVWS is dear to my heart for another reason. My late husband, Dr Rod Bonfiglioli, was one of the founders of the show – along with Stefano and Bruce Chalmers. In fact, without Rod’s persistence and persuasive charm, the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show might well not have happened at all: as Bruce and Stefano can attest, Rod was something of an alternative variety himself.

Dr Rod Bonfiglioli at the Grand Hotel, back in the day.

More important, however, is what Rod achieved on behalf of (first) Chalmers Nurseries in Australia and (second) Riversun Nursery here in New Zealand. For it was through Rod’s international contacts and travels that most of those alternative varieties were sourced and imported to each country. Without Rod’s commitment, neither Australia nor New Zealand would have such a cornucopia of alternative varieties to play with.

In 2009, the year of Rod’s death and the tenth anniversary of the AAVWS, the top trophy was renamed “The Dr Rod Bonfiglioli Best Wine of the Show” to honour Rod’s singular contribution to winemaking Down Under. I would be tickled pink if a Kiwi winemaker were to one day bring home that trophy.

NOTE: Entries to the AAVWS close on 23 September 2011 (details are the website.)


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  1. John
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    A remarkably composed and restrained photo of Rod there Ruby . . .obviously he did not know the photo was being taken ;-)
    Thanks to Rod that NZ has the first (prob Southern Hemisphere!) Albarino

  2. Hugh Ammundsen
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    As an avowed believer in diversification (via experiment, not just luck) I wonder if I might add an observation and a resulting theory.
    In wine industry terms it is not that long ago that Matua Valley, followed by Montana/Brancott in Marlborough experimented with sauvignon blanc. As they say “the rest is history”, but of course it might not have been. What if the wines of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume were supremely fashionable and quality driven at the time (which I do not believe was the case). NZ sauvignon blanc might not have challenged for global benchmark status in the way that occurred, although I do believe it would still have garnered many enthusiastic drinkers around the world.
    There are many other instances where a country has made its repuation on grape varieties either forgotten or neglected in their lands of origin.
    The theory. New Zealand, as a consequence of its range of climates and conditions, can succeed in growing a wide range of varieties. It may even manage to do grow a number of them very well indeed, including some that the likes of Forrest, Cooper’s Creek and Trinity Hill are forging ahead with. However, for NZ to take a variety to the sauvignon blanc level, which I consider a longer-term economic imperative, some other factors may be important. Just one of those could well be the neglect factor – the variety that is produced either lazily (overcropped) or neglectfully in the winery “back home”.
    Even in the 21st century I believe there are plenty of such instances and we could do a lot worse than to stalk them, hunt them down, and set about beating them (and getting noticed in the market place for doing so).

  3. Posted August 22, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely, John, it was indeed thanks to Rod’s efforts that New Zealand accessed true-to-type Albarino – and wouldn’t it be great if Kiwi winemakers could resurrect that category at the AAVWS?

  4. Posted August 22, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Hugh, I think the AAVWS is helping to point the way with alternative varieties suffering from “neglect” in their countries of origin. Vermentino, for one, is undergoing something of a renaissance thanks in part to experimentation in Australia.

  5. Hugh Ammundsen
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    Knowing the standard of winemaking in areas such as Sardinia this is potentially a good example. Moreover, the Italians and French do tend to pick the grapes before they are fully mature in order to retain acidity. I am curious regarding Australia in part for the same reason, and in part because almost all their Vermentino is grown inland in more continental climate zones whereas almost all Mediterranean Vermentino is grown on islands or very near the coast.
    Disclosure of interest: I am growing (or should I be more honest and say trying to grow) Vermentino in the Far North at Doubtless Bay where we have an extremely maritime climate – windy, never too hot or cold – and where we have a very long growing season. Watch this space!

  6. Holly Czinke
    Posted December 5, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    My comment is not about Rod’s work. My comment is simply one of great gratitude for the impact he had on my life as a young girl…. Rod added a dimension to my life that perhaps I would never have been lucky enough to experience had he not been around in some of my most formative years… At the time I lacked gratitude for what his presence, nature and soul brought to my life. As I grew up I realized what a profound and positive impact he had on who I became and my approach to life, particularly a strong work ethic and to seek passion in work and life in general… I’ll never forget the essay I wrote, where my teacher assumed I had not written the paper myself due to the use of language exceeding my age group… We laughed about that later… And I thank you for so many things you imparted on me and how your presence had a grand impact on my family as a whole… May you be in a garden in the sky, glass in hand and quietly chuffed with how you Roderick Bonfiglioli had a positive if not profound impact on those who knew you… God blessxx

  7. Toby
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 1:35 am | Permalink

    A farewell to a good and entertaining man. I attended university and shared digs with Rod in Darwin, NT long before he became Dr Rod. I always knew he was destined for good things and find it fitting he ended up in the wine industry. Vale Rod Bonfiglioni. A good man…