From Arneis to Zibibbo: Climate Change and the Rise of Mediterranean Grape Varieties
Enjoying good wine has become an everyday luxury for lucky Australians. Whether it’s a Friday knock-off, discovering something new at your local wine bar, or a bottle shared with friends over a meal, wine is a pleasurable part of our lives. But by the time it’s in the glass, it can be easy to forget that wine is an agricultural product – like any other seasonal crop, grapes are subject to the whims of weather, climate and geography. And as our climate changes, so do the conditions required for fruit to thrive in Australian vineyards.
At Hey Tomorrow, understanding this relationship between varieties, vineyards and their growing conditions plays an important role in selecting the winemakers and wines we work with. This is especially relevant as the Australian wine industry predicts and prepares for the effects of climate change. It is unlikely that the climate will get cooler in our lifetimes, so prioritising sustainable winegrowing practices is essential. A key strategy is making sure the right grapes are planted in the right place.
As many of Australia’s wine regions become warmer and drier, and as growing seasons become shorter and more intense, quality-conscious winemakers are re-evaluating the varieties they work with – swapping out the classics we’ve come to know and love for alternative grapes better suited to the changing environment. Add to this the trend for more sustainable viticulture and the demand for vines that need less water, and you have compelling arguments for change.
In Australia, just three grape varieties account for two thirds of all plantings: shiraz, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. In their home country of France, these are not considered warm-climate varieties – in fact, syrah growers in the Northern Rhône would consider themselves a cool climate compared with their grenache-growing southern cousins. Yet the majority of Australia’s grape growing regions could now be considered warm to hot.
Why is this a problem? To survive the hotter growing seasons, these varieties require more water, an increasingly precious resource. When varieties are grown in a climate that is too hot, they struggle to produce fruit with a balance of acidity, sugar and flavour suitable to winemaking. Heat causes grapes to lose their natural acidity as sugar levels increase, so to regain the balance, winemakers have to add acid in the winemaking process, which can impact flavour and texture.
Rather than seeking out varieties that flourish in certain conditions, Australian winemakers have traditionally viewed viticulture as something that can be manipulated to suit their needs. Fortunately, with the recent rise in popularity of more climate-appropriate Mediterranean varieties, such as montepulciano, nero d’Avola, fiano and vermentino, this is starting to change.
Originally from parts of Europe that share Australia’s hot, dry conditions, these varieties are heat resistant, drought tolerant, require less water and, crucially, hold onto their natural acidity, so when the fruit comes into the winery, adjustments aren’t required. Their climatic heritage also makes these varieties much more environmentally friendly.
We’re proud to be supporting this shift to climate-conscious varieties with our 2021 Nero d’Avola by Lethbridge winery. Native to Sicily, nero d’Avola is perfectly at home in hot, dry growing conditions. As a wine, it’s characterised by bright red fruits and floral elements, as well as savoury notes – dried herbs, spice and earthy tones. The palate is medium-bodied and beautifully balanced. And thanks to the variety’s naturally high acidity, generous tannins and savoury edge, it’s incredibly food-friendly too. This vibrant and refreshing Australian take on this classic Italian variety shows that when winemakers work with varieties that are suited to their environment, they can make environmentally friendly and naturally balanced wines.
The rise of these alternative varieties is part of a positive and exciting change for Australian wine drinkers. Not only will they help off-set the effects of climate change, varieties like nero d’Avola also encourage a more sustainable and vibrant industry with a greater variety and quality of wines to enjoy, now and into the future.