From aglianico to zibibbo: Australia's 'ugly duckling' wine grapes set to become swans

Award-winning vigneron Ashley Ratcliff grows the likes of negroamaro, nero d'avola, tempranillo, lagrein, aglianico, durif and fiano in South Australia's Riverland region – not to mention his plantings of greco, vermentino, monvedro, arinto, tinta barroca and zibibbo.

The former Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show chair is devoted to the production of these grapes and isn't afraid to push boundaries. The annual show takes place in Mildura in November and offers a glimpse into an alternate, climate-appropriate future for wine grapes in Australia.

Ratcliff and his wife Holly champion Mediterranean varieties suited to warm, dry climates. For their efforts, they won the Innovative Vineyard of the Year gong at the 2021 Young Gun of Wine awards. Of the 35-plus varieties Ratcliff grows, it's zibibbo especially that's having its heyday.

"It was an ugly duckling that was generally used by big companies for blending," says Ratcliff. "Now it's having a Cinderella moment."

That's largely thanks to experimental, small-batch producers such as Brash Higgins, the McLaren Vale winery run by Brad Hickey and business partner Nicole Mayer-Thorpe. Hickey, former New York sommelier, first toyed with zibibbo in 2013 after taking fruit from the Ratcliffs' Ricca Terra vineyards.

The juicy zibibbo grape, as it's called in Sicily, is also known as Muscat of Alexandria. It has historically been used for inexpensive, sweet sparkling wines and even goon bags. Hickey was one of the first winemakers to discover that zibibbo grapes could develop amazing length and complexity through longer skin contact during fermentation.

Hickey's Brash Higgins ZBO is wild fermented in clay amphorae (terracotta vessels) on skins for 150 days and the fruity, spicy, bone-dry wine leaps from the glass. The 2021 release is set to hit bottle shops in September. It also makes bold appearances at hatted restaurants across the nation.

"It really holds its own with spicy food and complex flavours so chefs and sommeliers love it," says Hickey.

Article by Katie Spain

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