671224 taste wine gloom Media

BRUCE Bassham is not your usual wine fashionista.
None of that cool, black-skivvy business. Or that fancy sommelier-like language. He doesn’t hang out in Melbourne laneway tapas bars.

And he’s yet to be called up for duty as a young gun calendar pin-up model. Bruce would be the first to admit it’s probably because he’s not that young anyway.

And he’d probably agree that the radar for the latest “it” wine person wouldn’t usually take in the decidedly unfashionable Riverland where he is based.

But Bruce doesn’t worry about all that palaver.

He’s cooler than the lot of them. He plants all those groovy Italian grapes the industry labels as “emerging” or “alternative” varieties.

He’s fully organic. And reels off those tricky foreign names with the same familiarity as his own children’s: vermentino, fiano, graciano, montepulciano.

Not bad for a third generation South Aussie blockie whose grandpa cleared 40 acres of prime Riverland scrub after World War I, planting doradillo grapes for brandy and sultanas for drying, followed by Bruce’s dad, Jim, who loved his Murray River fishing as well.

After turning the family vineyard to wine grapes (including huge amounts of chardonnay and shiraz) more than a decade ago, Bruce saw the world of wine fashion reveal its naked truths as the market for his mainstream varieties out of the Riverland boomed then busted with the major wineries.

By the mid noughties he’d lost contracts and 2009′s vintage was, in his own understated Aussie bush language, “difficult”.

Three weeks away from this year, his grape-growing days looked numbered. “I’d thought I’d blown the business,” Bruce recalls.

But then the world turned. He’d been smart enough to realise he was overexposed to chardonnay especially, and took a punt in the past few years changing over his vines to the Italian upstarts.

The big wine companies weren’t that keen to begin with, but suddenly with his 2011 vintage grapes ripening and nowhere to go, one of the same big corporations came knocking, signing on his new variety harvest for the next couple of years.

The alternatives and the fact he was an accredited organic producer suddenly made third-generation grower Bruce Bassham the hottest ticket in town.

“I can’t get over it,” says Bruce, whose grapes now go into several big producers’ wines such as Orlando, Taylors, as well as local Salena Estates, and this year his own label.

“From gloom and doom to this,” he says.

Bruce’s story is one of the most inspiring in a region that has long had a bad rap from the wine fashion police.

He and members of the Riverland Alternative Wine Group believe their future lies with the new varieties rather than competing in the volume-end of the wine industry, as well as the capacity for the grapes concerned to tolerate the region’s hot and dry climate.

As well, the vermentinos, fianos, petit mansengs, savagnins and montepulcianos were versatile enough to succeed comparatively in this year’s cooler and more humid disease-prone season.

The group includes a number of the Riverland’s more forward-thinking producers, small and large, who see there’s a genuine opportunity for the area to gain a strong reputation as the place for the so-called alternatives to the mainstream varieties such as chardonnay, shiraz and cabernet.


A QUICK guide to the Riverland’s top next-generation grapes.

Fiano; medium-weight white variety that can trek between crisp and crunchy green apples to more savoury, butty and almost white mushroomy notes.

Lagrein: Vibrant and deeply coloured red wine with plenty of oomph in the mouth – fully flavoured and grippy.

Montepulciano: A more medium-powered red with plush crimson-to-purple-fruit feel and relatively soft and friendly in the drinking.

Petit Manseng: A richer white variety able to show plenty of complexity with honeyed lifts, some spice over stone fruits and even stretch to sweet styles.

Petit Verdot: A blender in red Bordeaux wines, alone it can be violet-like fragrant, with spicy deep plum fruits and powerfully grabby.

Savagnin: Originally thought here to be alborino, this lighter white tends to a neutral nose, perhaps a touch of apple and lemon.

Tempranillo: A full-blooded Spanish red that has softer appeal with vanilla cola layers along with its berry fruit elements and even leathery savoury feel.

Vermentino: The “it” white variety of the region, mostly made in a crisper, refreshing style that can develop more stone fruit and savoury garden herb edges as well. Great with yabbies. and stronger ocean fish.

This article appeared in the Adelaide Advertiser 1st June…