Verdelho takes a hold in Aussie vineyards

For a wine that’s vibrant, rich, and different try verdelho this summer. It’s not for the faint-hearted with its mouth-flooding flavours and viscous, velvety texture. But it offers variety at a modest price.

There’s not a great deal made in Australia, between 80 thousand and 100 thousand dozen bottles a year by my estimate. Most comes from three locations: the Hunter Valley in New South Wales and the Swan Valley and Darling Ranges foothills in Western Australia, with significant planting also at Cowra and Padthaway.

Cuttings of the verdelho vine found their way separately to the east and west of Australia last century direct from the Island of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean, about 700 kilometres west of Morocco. On Madeira, verdelho is the most widely planted of the four varieties used in making Madeira. By law, it makes up at least 60 per cent of those seductive medium-dry Madeiras labeled as Verdelho.

In 1824, convict-turned-surgeon, Dr William Redfern, Planted verdelho near Campbelltown, N.S.W., and it is probably from here that the Hunter Valley strain has its origins. In the 1890’s Houghtons introduced cuttings into the Swan Valley near Perth.

These proved susceptible to the fungal disease oidium and the vines were grubbed out in the 1930’s. Later, Houghton’s famous winemaker, Jack Mann, discovered one single vine growing. From it, Houghtons re-established the variety in their vineyards in the Swan Valley and at Moondah Brook in the Darling Ranges foothills, 90 kilometres north of Perth.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures show that in 1990 Australia crushed 1366 tonnes of verdelho for winemaking. At the time there were 121 hectares of verdelho vines in bearing and another 53 planted but not productive.

N.S.W. accounted for 326 of the 1366 tonnes. 309 of those 326 tonnes were from the Hunter Valley. Western Australia contributed 571 tonnes. That leaves a puzzling 469 tonnes not accounted for in ABS figures. Presumably other states simply lump their verdelho in the broad category ‘other white varieties’.

Certainly, about 130 tonnes of verdelho comes from Lindemans Padthaway vineyard, 80 kilometres north of Coonawarra in South Eastern South Australia. Philip John, Lindeman’s chief winemaker, tells me he draws a little also from Langhorne Creek. He commented that much of the verdelho coming his way ends up in other blends, never hitting retail shelves under a verdelho label.

If there are not huge numbers of verdelhos on the market, those available reflect the special flavours and texture peculiar to the grape. Within that theme, different makers and regions offer distinctive variations.

From the Hunter Valley, styles range from gentle understatement to overwhelming opulence. The Penfold Wine Group offers two from this area: Lindemans Hunter River Verdelhao Bin 8065 1992 and Tulloch Hunter River Verdelho 1992.

The Tulloch wine, sourced from very low-yielding vines planted by present General Manager Jay Tulloch’s grandfather packs a lot of flavour for a wine of only 11.5 per cent alcohol. Nevertheless, it’s gentle, soft, and finishes bone dry with the velvety thumbprint of verdelho in the background.

Its cellar mate, the Lindemans wine, comes from low-yielding vineyards at Broke. Still only 11.5 per cent alcohol, it’s richer and rounder than the Tulloch wine, some of that fullness coming from residual sugar – a clever winemaking trick used commonly with rhine rieslings.

Wyndham Estate’s 1991 Verdelho shows a little bottle age. The aroma’s strikingly rich, and the palate full and soft with verdelho’s peculiar flavour. It seems to float in the mouth, having a notable viscous, ethereal structure. Though Wyndham is now part of the Orlando Group, this wine was very much the creation of Brian McGuigan before he went his own way.

For the final Hunter wine, Drayton’s Verdelho 1992, winemaker Trevor Drayton has simply let the grape flavours rip. The result’s a tour de force: opulent varietal flavours and an oily structure reminiscent of traminer. It’s a big wine indeed and needs to be drunk with food.

Lindemans Padthaway Verdelho 1992, the first released since 1987, departs from the simple varietal style of old. Taking advantage of all the left-over Aliers and Troncais oak barrels from the famous Padthaway Chardonnay, winemaker Philip John oak fermented about one third of the 1992 Verdelho to produce a magnificent white. The oak adds firmness and fullness without interfering in any way with the underlying natural grape flavours.

The West’s Moondah Brook Estate Verdelho 1992 smells of verdelho, but it’s overlaid with a tangy ‘passionfruit’ character which comes through on the very full, tingly-fresh palate.

They’re all good, sound individual wines. My preferences are for the Tulloch with entrees and Lindemans Padthaway for the main course.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007