The Rise of the “Alternative Varieties” in McLaren Vale
McLaren Vale’s long and celebrated viticultural history owes its roots to the traditional French-origin varieties of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, and while these varieties are still the widest planted in the region, the influence of a group of visionary winemakers in the mid-1980s was the start of the progression toward the diverse viticultural landscape of the McLaren Vale Wine Region today.
What is an 'Alternative Variety'?
Albeit not definitive, an alternative variety in Australia is generally recognised as a variety that is not part of the mainstream varieties planted across the country. However, as many of these varieties become more popular and well-known to Australian wine consumers, the process to define an alternative variety becomes more complex.
For definition we look to the Australian Alternative Variety Wine Show (AAVWS). Now it its 21st year, the AAVWS has played an important role in recording and benchmarking alternative varieties across Australia. The AAVWS committee undertakes careful analysis of each variety against the following criteria to determine its ‘alternative’ eligibility:
- Hectares under vine
- Wine style maturity
- Retail shelf space and wine list representation
- Consumer awareness.
The McLaren Vale Wine Region is leading Australia’s championing of alternative varieties, particularly those originating from the southern Mediterranean which best suit our warm coastal locale. Notable varieties grown across the region include Barbera, Fiano, Montepulciano, Nero d’Avola, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Touriga and Vermentino. Upcoming alternative varieties include Grillo, Mencia and Picpoul.
Diversification over 15 years
Though some alternative varieties have been planted in Australia since the mid-1900s, the late 1990s saw winemakers’ interest in these varieties take off, and since the turn of the century the viticultural landscape of McLaren Vale has diversified considerably to include a large spectrum of alternative grape varieties.
In the ten-year period from 2012-2022, red grape plantings in the McLaren Vale Wine Region shifted from 11 varieties across 6,196 hectares* to 25 varieties across 6,655 hectares^. While the total hectares under vine increased slightly, the main trend has been diversification, with some mainstream varieties such as Merlot and Pinot Noir reducing in scale to make way for this new tapestry of alternative grape varieties.
In the same period, white grape varieties in the McLaren Vale Wine Region have scaled back from 908 hectares over 10 varieties* to 525 hectares over 13 varieties^ showing a shift toward less volume, higher quality alternative white varieties that are better suited to the growing climate.
This varietal evolution is also evident in the 50-year history of the McLaren Vale Wine Show. For the first thirty-one years, the wines awarded Best Wine of Show were unwaveringly one of three mainstream varieties: Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay.
It only was in 2004 – in the show’s 32nd year – that an alternative variety first won the McLaren Vale Wine Show, when the late Wayne Thomas was crowned Bushing King (winner of the Best Wine of Show) for his 2003 Wayne Thomas Petit Verdot. At the time, this variety equated to only 70 hectares^^ of plantings in McLaren Vale.
2011 marked a notable turning point, when alternative variety champion Stephen Pannell took out the top award for his blend of two alternative varieties in the 2010 S.C. Pannell Tempranillo Touriga. Pannell then followed these wins in both 2015 and 2016, being awarded Best Wine of Show for blends of Touriga and mainstream varieties.
More recently Hither & Yon’s two Best Wine of Show wins have both been attributed to single varietal expressions of alternative grape varieties, first in 2019 with their 2018 Nero d’Avola and most recently in 2022 for their 2021 Aglianico.
As the mission of the McLaren Vale Wine Show is to ‘highlight excellence in varietal expression, viticulture, production, provenance and sub-regionality’, it could be said that alternative varieties have found their Australian home in McLaren Vale.
Why the shift toward alternative varieties?
Diversification not only highlights the desire of McLaren Vale's winemakers to seek new challenges and to innovate, but also the region’s distinct consideration for the natural environment and ongoing question to ingrain sustainability in all that we do. Indeed it's not only winemakers that have driven the diversification, certain growers across the region have spent the last decade seeking out and tirelessly tending to these 'new' varieties – who today are in high demand for their tightly held parcels of these prized alternative varieties.
For both our growers and winemakers, the deliberate planting of varieties that originate from relatively dry, warm climates similar to our own means that these varieties naturally require less irrigation, better suit a warming world, and ensure our industry is in harmony with the climate and lifestyle of the region.
Gone are the days of producing wine from grape varieties that simply do not suit the region. It is firmly the era of exciting modern wines that truly express a sense of place and give us a glimpse into the future of the McLaren Vale Wine Region.
*Source: VineHealth Australia Winegrape Crush Survey 2013. Note: total varieties and hectares excludes ‘other red’ and ‘other white’ categories.
^Source: VineHealth Australia Winegrape Crush Survey 2023. Note: total varieties and hectares excludes ‘other red’ and ‘other white’ categories.
^^Source: McLaren Vale Regional Report 2005.