Albarino update

In 1989 the CSIRO bought a woolly pup from Galacia, Spain. But it learned this only twenty years later. What the CSIRO believed to be the white variety, albarino, turned out to be savagnin. By then Australian vignerons had about 150-hectares of ‘albarino’ in the ground, all of it sourced ultimately from the original CSIRO holdings, and some of it well on the way to commercial success.

The news broke around vintage time, posing the dilemma of what to call the coming crop. Out came the viticulture books and makers listed the many synonyms – savagnin blanc, uvernat blanc, bon blanc, forment, formentin blanc, fraentsch, fromenteau, gentil blanc, gringet, gruenedel, grumin, princ bily, heida, païen, printsch grau, ryvola bila, schleitheimer, servoyen blanc, traminer, traminer d’Ore, traminer weiss – as obscure and motley a crew as you’d ever assemble on a tasting bench.

There was some talk of coining a name – an idea that’s stirred repeatedly in varying contexts during our three-decade withdrawal from European wine names. Remember all those misguided shots at a single name for Australia’s hundreds of sparkling wines? Who can remember of any them now? The reasoning went along the lines, we can’t call it champagne any more, so let’s come up with something new.

While the blinkered few chalked up their bright ideas, makers of premium bubblies pushed on with sensible varietal labels, sometimes regionally badged, sometimes coupled with registered proprietary names like Salinger, Croser and Pirie; and purveyors of mass bubblies like Minchinbury and Great Western simply dropped the word ‘champagne’ – the packaging and established branding said all that needed to be said.

More recently we saw an industry committee inflict ‘topaque’ and ‘apera’ on our tokay and sherry makers after the Europeans reclaimed those names. I’m told Spike Milligan sat on the committee posthumously. While some makers adopted topaque and apera, how the names cut with wine drinkers has yet to be gauged. But it could be some time before the laughter subsides.

At least the venerable old Rutherglen winery, Chambers, for one, saw it as a crock, crossed out ‘tokay’ and replaced it with ‘muscadelle’ – a sensible, serious and easily explained name for a wine made in Rutherglen from the muscadelle grape. Perhaps more will follow suit.

If our diverse albarino-turned-savagnin makers (I found 35 growers in the Australian Wine Industry Directory, but the number of labels would be greater) wanted a single alternative name they could’ve followed Kraft and appealed to the public. But then we’d have iDrink2.0, eHAAA! and any number of alternatives floating around on Facebook.

As I write, we albarino drinkers watch anxiously for the 2009s and wonder what they’ll be called. We don’t care all that much, as long as it’s not silly, because we’ve developed a tasted for these aromatic but deliciously savoury dry whites. What we can predict with some certainty, though, is a pragmatic approach from most makers.

So far I’ve tasted but one, Chapel Hill’s excellent il Vescovo 2009, from the company’s vineyard at Kangarilla, a sub-region of McLaren. Winemaker Michael Fragos says it’s one of the few whites that really thrives in this warm dry region, producing terrific aroma and savoury fruit flavour at a comparatively low alcohol level – a refreshing 12.5 per cent for the new release. Replacing ‘albarino’ with ‘savagnin’ was the only change Michael made to the label. At $20 a bottle it offers intriguing new flavours. See www.chapelhillwine.com.au

And I’m looking forward to trying Crittenden’s 2009 Mornington Peninsula version. Until 2009 it sold under the “Los Hermanos” label, especially created for the company’s Spanish varieties.

I predicted that founder Garry Crittenden’s children, Zoe Rollo might keep it under the Los Hermanos name giving continuity to the wine’s identity, if not its varietal name.
But, no, they’ve just released it as a savagnin called “Tributo A Galacia”. Now, albarino is the signature white variety of Galacia, Spain. But savagnin is not. So the name’s possibly ironic, given the origin of Australian savagnin, though it possibly translates as “up yours”.

While that’s two out of two makers, so far, opting for ‘savagnin’ it’ll be interesting to see if any makers adopt other synonyms. Of these ‘traminer’ is widely known but almost certainly too tainted with a fruity, sweet image.

Interestingly, traminer and gewürztraminer share identical DNA. The difference is that the gewürztraminer clone, an old Australian workhorse, displays characteristics of the ancient muscat grape. It’s intensely aromatic, grapey and once tasted never forgotten. Traminer, the ‘non-musque’ clone, shows none of this muscat character and, though aromatic in a vinous sort of way, is more savoury.

Before we identified our albarino as savagnin earlier this year, visiting Spanish albarino makers had considered our vines and wines to be albarino in appearance and taste.
What we have, according to Chris Bourke of Sons & Brothers Vineyard, Orange, is the first plantings of non-musque traminer since James Busby’s importation in 1832. Bourke and others see this clone as a valuable addition to Australia’s vine stock.

Whatever you call it, the vine suits our warm dry climate and produces wine distinct different from chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, semillon or riesling.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009

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