Next time Gadget, Next time….
‘Verdelho – Our alternative variety? In every wine region you are bound to find one. Whether it’s in the backyard of an enthusiastic local, or a trial plot in the vineyard of a known name, it’s hard to ignore them. From MargaretRiver to Mudgee, from the Tamar to Mt Tamborine, the movement to varieties beyond Shiraz, Chardonnay and Cabernet et al is gaining pace. Thanks to an increasing awareness of global grape varieties, advances in viticulture and some switched on local grape nurseries, the spread of ‘the alternates’ are offering the wine producer (and drinker) a diversity never experienced before.
But, in all honesty, that’s all old news. The Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show celebrated its eighth year in full existence in 2008. The Chalmers Grape Nursery can now sell you 50+ alternative varieties, spanning everything from Greco di Tufo to Saperavi. In fact, if you aren’t experimenting with some sort of unpronounceable variety in your vineyard, you’re obviously missing out. But in the rush to embrace these alien grape varieties, in a quest for ‘newness’ and in a bid to stay up with the latest Tempranillo trend, are we forgetting our own historically ‘alternative’ varieties? Have we followed the trap that the Italians fell into of adopting the ‘international varieties’- Cabernet, Merlot and the like, at the expense of our own unique wines? Admittedly, we have no interestingly named indigenous varieties like the Sicilians, but what we do have is an impressively long viticultural history and some seriously old vines. Better still, we have more than just the internationals, we’ve got……Verdelho. Yes Verdelho, described by Jancis Robinson MW as ‘a tradesman-like variety, liking warmth, yielding well but not prodigiously, and producing a wine which epitomizes its working-class background.’ and often derided by winemakers as a ‘wine for the punters’. The thing with Verdelho though is that, well, it’s ours. Aside from its importance in the backbone of classic Madeira and a smattering of similarly named European whites that it may or may not be interchangeable with (a peril of the alternative variety – many pseudonyms), Verdelho is uniquely Australian. It’s as Aussie as Russell Crowe, if he’d been born in Portugal (in which case he would be called ‘Crowe de Russell’ according to my online translation). Beyond the derision however, some heavyweight wine heads think that Verdelho might be our greatest grape variety. In 1861, the man credited as the father of McLaren Vale’s wine industry, Dr Alexander Kelly, proclaimed Verdelho as ‘the best white wine grape’ in Australia. Other notable supporters include Karl Stockhausen, Geoff Hardy and even Sir William Macarthur, who described the grape in 1844 as ‘the most valuable grape for wine we have hitherto proved in the colony’ going on to detail the wine as ‘rich and generous, evidently capable of being kept for a great number of years’.
To further reinforce Verdelho’s suitability, we only need to look at its actual viticultural attributes – it loves heat (finding a natural home in the Swan & Hunter Valleys) and will retain its acidity even when fully ripe, is high yielding, resistant to disease (thanks to its thick skins) and, perhaps most importantly, is particularly drought resistant.
As water (and access to water rights) becomes such a prevailing issue in our dry brown land, why then are we not embracing varieties like Verdelho? Finding more drought tolerant grape varieties is an issue that the entire industry is facing at this very moment, with initial successes with some Mediterranean varieties such as Assyrtiko & Fiano, yet simultaneously ignoring old Verdelho. Finally, we can’t ignore the fact that Verdelho can and will produce extremely approachable, drinkable wines. Capable of spanning the whole spectrum from the early picked, more herbaceous & crisp style (perfect competition for Kiwi Savvy) right through to the unctuous, tropical, full flavoured, golden Chardonnay weight style. Thanks to its aforementioned thick skinned personality, Verdelho also has a welcome phenolic grip on the finish that would scare the pants off any chubby Viognier.
So the question is – why aren’t we getting on the bandwagon to celebrate Verdelho? We love our working class heroes to conquer the world and the humble Verdelho might be just the pick – if the blandness of Pinot Grigio can become such a worldwide fad, then why can’t Verdelho?
The problem perhaps is that few wine producers have given more than a cursory glance to the V man. With a popularity that peaked in the mid 90’s and a reputation for solid performance, but few glimpses of glory, the quest to make super premium Verdelho has never eventuated.
For inspiration however, Verdelho producers need only look at Domaines Ott. Domaines Ott is a Provence producer that has reinvented the Rosé, taking an absolute quality approach to a wine style that has been largely associated with sweet pink lolly water. The vintages of Domaines Ott Rosé are serious, well structured wines, yet retain the absolute drinkability that Rosé is renowned for. Admittedly Rosé’s global popularity has never been higher, so the market demand is there, but who’s not to say that a few high quality Verdelho’s can’t follow the lead of say, Albarino or Arneis, and become the next fad variety?
Perhaps the real crux of this issue is that Australian wine seems to be being left behind. Exports are down, our image is taking a hammering on the global stage, our wines are perceived as being industrial. The time for reinvention is here. Much like the Italians reaffirmation of its love affair with indigenous varieties, the time is ripe to focus on varieties that we can call our own. Just like Russell Crowe.’