Why Australian grape growers are ditching shiraz and cab sav for ‘trendier’ varieties

Why Australian grape growers are ditching shiraz and cab sav for ‘trendier’ varieties

A global oversupply of red wine is seeing grape growers switch varietals, moving away from shiraz and cabernet sauvignon.

Key points:

  • SA wine grape growers are switching varietals to help keep vines under contract
  • Traditional red wine grapes have been in oversupply, partly due to Chinese tariffs
  • Australians are increasingly willing to try newer varieties

The grafting and planting of lighter reds and whites is on the rise, as growers attempt to offer something new to consumers who are looking to explore.

More than 10,000 wine grape varieties are grown in the world today, but in Australia 94 per cent of the grapes crushed come from just 20 varieties. Shiraz and cabernet sauvignon make up more than a third of that figure. 

In South Australia, which produces more than half of the country’s wine, shiraz was the dominant variety in the 323 hectares of new wine grapes planted. 

But things are changing, with lesser known Italian grape fiano the next biggest number of plantings. 

More than a third of the wine produced in Australia is from shiraz and cabernet sauvignon grapes.(Supplied: Wine Australia)

Silver lining

The largest area of new plantings in the state was in the Riverland, where many grape growers have been urged by wineries to mothball vineyards or graft to alternative varietals.

To improve his family’s fortunes, Jim Markeas has grafted more than 20 per cent of his Mallee Estate vineyards from cabernet sauvignon to alternative varieties from Spain, Greece, Italy, and Georgia.

Jim Markeas with young grapes of a newly grafted Greek vartiety at his vineyards.(ABC Rural: Eliza Berlage)

The second-generation grape grower said he was excited to make wines that honoured his Greek heritage and better suited the Mediterranean climate. 

“It’s a small but interesting market,” he said.

“These are summer drinking varieties for that time when everyone loves to eat outside, and have a noisy barbecue.”

Changing trends

The oversupply has also been impacting the south-east of the state, with some shiraz and cabernet sauvignon grapes without contracts this season.

Suzie Harris and her family have been growing grapes on their land in Hynam for decades.

This year they made the decision to diversify their offering to include pinot noir.

Suzie Harris’s vineyards in Hynam are midway through the grafting process.(ABC South East SA: Elsie Adamo)

One-quarter of the cabernet sauvignon grapes on the farm were now in the process of being grafted.

“We just find that consumers are drinking a lot more light reds, and so we wanted to be able to tap into that market,” Ms Harris said.

“I certainly would be reluctant to jump on any grape variety trend that came along, but I do think that pinot noir is a classic variety that’s here to stay.

“We believe that it will be drunk widely into the future.”

Pinot gris and pinot grigio have increased in popularity over the past decade in Australia.(ABC South East SA: Elsie Adamo)

Finding the right market

Grafting established vineyards to different varietals takes place over the course of one season.

It can be quite costly and risky, with no guarantee all the grafts will take.

So is the risk worth it?

Wine and marketing expert, associate professor Steve Goodman from the University of Adelaide thought so.

“Alternative varieties together have become a big segment of the market, which has become attractive,” Dr Goodman said.

“We have started to see consumers wanting to explore.

“If I was planting new vines, they would be alternative varietals.”

Dr Goodman said the catch was that niche varieties could be harder to export, so were better suited to an Australian market.

“Exporting something like shiraz or cabernet … it is an easier path to access,” he said.

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