The emerging advantage of Spanish grapevines
Viticulture has been a part of Spain for millenia. Evidence shows that vines were growing in the Iberian Peninsula as far back as the Tertiary period (65 million to 2.6 million years ago!), but the real wine history and culture began after the Romans made the Peninsula part of the Roman Empire. Spain has over 400 indigenous grape varieties, though 80 percent of the country’s wine production is from only 20 grapes – including the reds Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), Graciano and Mataro (Mourvedre); the whites Albariño, Palomino, Airen, Verdejo and Macabeo; and the three cava grapes Parellada, Xarel·lo, and Cariñena. Not all are cultivated in Australia.
While it is far from the whole story, it certainly begins with Tempranillo – Spain’s great red grape. Renowned for the fine red wines of the high-altitude region of Rioja and even higher Ribera del Duero, it is actually widely planted throughout Spain. Nowhere else, though, does it reach such stellar quality levels.
It has been said that if James Busby, the so-called ‘father’ of the Australian wine industry, had introduced Tempranillo to Australian viticulture in the 1820s instead of Shiraz, it might have all been so different, that Australians would be drinking Tempranillo in its place. This is unlikely. It is true that Shiraz makes up about 25% of the Australian national vineyard, but being a mid-season ripener with moderate acidity, it is climatically accommodating. Tempranillo is a low acid grape and an early ripener: in fact the name is the diminutive of the Spanish temprano
(meaning ‘early’), a reference to the fact it ripens several weeks earlier than most Spanish red grapes. And where the acidity is too low a wine will taste unbalanced and flabby. In other words, Shiraz is able to produce wines of genuine fineness and distinction in a wider range of climatic conditions than can Tempranillo (think very cool climate Glaetzer-Dixon Mon Pere Shiraz from Tasmania, through cool Mount Langi Ghiran from Grampians to warm climate Torbreck The Laird from Barossa).
So while Tempranillo may not be quite as versatile as Shiraz, this is not to suggest it can’t express a range of variations. At its best Tempranillo exhibits attractive blueberry and strawberry notes in youth and then ranges across spice, tobacco and leather characters. In many respects the Gran Riserva level of Spain’s Rioja can have much in common with Pinot Noir, both being wines of real finesse. In Rioja the Tempranillo is traditionally blended with Garnacha (Grenache) for body and perhaps Mazuela (Carignan) for acidity as well as Graciano for colour and aroma. The higher altitude of Ribera del Duero allows it to retain higher acidity from cold nights during the growing season which is why it is seen there as a single varietal.
Australian winegrowers are working hard to get a handle on Tempranillo. At last count there were 341 Australian winegrowers sufficiently convinced it has a valuable place here to give it a try. Convincing cool climate expressions are being made by Peter Leske at La Linea (Adelaide Hills), Mount Majura (Canberra District) and most especially Mayford (Alpine Valleys in Victoria). It is also found at Gemtree and d’Arenberg in McLaren Vale, Tar & Roses in Heathcote/Alpine Valleys and Topper’s Mountain in New England.
Garnacha (Grenache), a common Tempranillo blending partner in Rioja, is very widely cultivated in Australia. Because it ripens late in the season it needs fairly warm climates to best express its characteristic ripe, sweet, red fruit notes. It accumulates a high level of sugar in the berries which results in high alcohol wines. In France it is widely cultivated in the warm southern Rhône Valley and forms the substantial, and sometimes only, component of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It is used similarly in Australia where it is often blended with Shiraz and Mataro (Monastrell/Mourvèdre) to produce GSM blends. Notable single varietal expressions include Jasper Hill and Heathcote Estate (Heathcote); Torbreck, Turkey Flat and Yalumba in the Barossa; and d’Arenberg in McLaren Vale. Notable GSM blends are produced by Rockford (Moppa Springs), Charlie Melton (‘Nine Popes’), Teusner, Spinifex, Glaetzer, S.C. Pannell and Henschke. Mataro figures in some of these wines because it provides useful structural elements: deeper colour, lifted aroma, more tannins and higher acidity. And single varietal bottlings of Mataro by Caillard, Tim Smith and Hewitson, all from the Barossa, can also be found and are worth seeking out.
Some Graciano is cultivated in Australia and it is mainly employed as a blending partner. One producer successfully bottling it as a single varietal is Xanadu in Margaret River. Where Graciano can appear hard and acidic on its own, here the tannins are softened and the wine is smooth and balanced. Mencía is another indigenous red Spanish variety of growing importance but currently just a footnote in the Australian viticultural context. Responsible for the rediscovered ‘mountain wines’ of northwest Spain (Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra), the resulting wines are frequently excellent: dense, concentrated and complex with fine tannic structure. The first vineyard in Australia was established by Peter Leske (La Linea) in the Adelaide Hills and it will coming online within the next year or so. Until the vines are mature the fruit will be used for Rosé.
There has been less success in Australia with Spanish white varieties. Palomino is the Sherry variety, of which there is some at Seppeltsfield (Barossa) for use in their fortified wines. What was thought to have been the fashionable Albariño from Spain’s Galicia turns out to have been Savagnin from France’s Jura region. Some Verdejo has been established by Trentham Estate (Murray Darling) and the results are creditable. From Spain’s Rueda – and not to be confused with Verdelho – Verdejo is an aromatic but savoury variety. Trentham Estate’s bottling is soft, round and well worth seeking out as an alternative to the ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc.
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