Albarino mix-up spreads to Spain

Until recently Australia’s vignerons had – or thought they had – about 150 hectares of albarino in the ground. But DNA testing initiated by the CSIRO in January found that our albarino was, in fact, savagnin blanc (not related to the popular variety sauvignon blanc, and also known as traminer).

The discovery opens a can of worms for every one in the supply chain from vine nurseries, to growers, makers, distributors, retailers and scientific and regulatory bodies around the world.

In Australia, the first and most immediately affected are successful albarino makers with stock labelled and ready for market or under production from the 2009 vintage. These include the Barossa’s Damien Tscharke (our largest producer, with 4,000 cases of the 2009 vintage in the making), Brown Brothers, Crittenden Wines and Bermagui’s tiny Rusty Fig vineyard, owned by Garry Potts and Frances Perkins.

Following the CSIRO discovery, the Australian Wine and Brand Corporation – the federal body responsible for administering wine law – issued a blunt press release. It told winemakers that it was an offence to sell wine with a false description and that “if you have ‘albarino’ vines that were sourced from the CSIRO collection, then the wine produced from those vines cannot be described using that name”. It also urged growers with vines from other sources to have their material DNA tested.

On the surface that sound fair enough. Indeed, all of the albarino makers I’ve spoken to are preparing for the change. But the black letter of the law doesn’t take into account the peculiar circumstances of this error. It appears to have originated in Spain, affects many wine producing countries (including Spain, Portugal and Australia) and its origins may go as far back as 1100AD.

In a paper to be published in the May edition of Grape Grower & Winemaker, Chris Bourke (owner of Sons & Brother vineyard, Orange) traces the history of savagnin and discusses its confusion with albarino. He told me that savagnin probably found its way from France’s Jura region to Galicia, northwestern Spain, around 1100AD.

There it would have grown side-by-side with albarino, the region’s current signature variety, ever since. He says there is good evidence that modern Spanish and Portuguese ‘albarino’ vineyards contain a mix of three varieties – albarino, savagnin and caino blanco – and, therefore, that much of what Spain sells as ‘albarino’ is probably a blend of the three varieties.

This may explain why experts see so much similarity between Australian ‘albarino’, made from savagnin, and Spanish albarino

Just as a visiting French vine expert precipitated Australia’s recent ‘albarino’ testing, another Frenchman, Paul Truel, questioned the identity of Spain’s albarino as far back as 1983, Chris Bourke claims.

Ultimately the Spanish established that ‘true’ albarino had a distinctive DNA, identified savagnin as a ‘false’ albarino and removed it from the national collection – but not before the damage was done.

The Spanish, says Bourke, claim that a single mis-identified vine is responsible for the false albarino that spread around the world.

For Australia, the problem began unknowingly when the CSIRO sourced ‘albarino’ from Galicia, Spain, in 1989. This is thought to be the ultimate source of all the ‘albarino’ now planted here. In a letter to his albarino customers last week, Mornington Peninsula vigneron Garry Crittenden wrote, “The problem seems to be generic in that the only known source of planting material in the whole of Australia is CSIRO so every producer, Australia wide, is caught up in the issue. Somehow there has been a stuff up along the line”. Indeed.

Garry said that he sources albarino from two blocks on the Mornington Peninsula and Sam Miranda’s vineyard in the King Valley and that he’s tracked all three back to the CSIRO.

So if what we’ve been drinking as albarino is actually savagnin (an unfamiliar variety to most of us) and savagnin is just another name for traminer (a familiar old friend to Australians), why doesn’t it taste musky and grapey like the traminer we’re used to?

This is probably where the whole world is confused – and why experts like the Barossa’s Damien Tscharke and Mornington’s Garry Crittenden find it impossible to distinguish between savagnin and albarino vines or the wines made from them. The same might be said for all those Portuguese and Spanish growers, too.

It highlights the subtleties of the vine, the limitations of DNA testing and also the persistence of muscat, perhaps the oldest of our cultivated varieties. Muscat influences many varieties and accounts for the aroma and flavour difference between savagnin (traminer) and gewürztraminer.

Now, Australians and Germans use traminer, incorrectly, as a synonym for gewürztraminer. The difference between the two is easily discernible in the colour of the berries and the aroma and flavour of wine made from them. But, says Chris Bourke, the two have identical DNA.

He says the difference is probably made by a single enzyme that boosts production in the berries of monoterpenes – the compounds that give gewürztraminer its powerful, distinctive musky aroma, flavour and viscosity – traits absent in mere traminer (savagnin).

While the existence of the two strains (sometime called musque clones and non-musque clones) has long been known, Bourke believes that this is the first appearance in Australia of the non-musque strain since James Busby’s importation of it in 1832. But Bourke sees its presence as a positive.

However, Australian albarino makers now face a challenge in re-branding their product and selling the message to drinkers. But they have much on their side, including knowledgeable drinkers, strong trade support, especially among sommeliers, and a tasty product with a real flavour difference.

Garry Crittenden is hopeful that a coming stakeholder meeting with the AWBC can produce a practical result – perhaps giving producers a phasing-in period to sell existing stock in the domestic market as ‘albarino’.

However, other options could be available. Those with proprietary names, such as Tscharke ‘Girl Talk’ and Crittenden ‘Los Hermanos’ might remove the varietal tag from the front label altogether – and perhaps tell the savagnin story on the back label.

Tscharke, Crittenden, Brown and Potts all say that regardless of the outcome they intend to continue with the variety whatever it’s called. It’ll still taste the same.

With Australian winemakers preparing to rename their albarinos, what should we expect of Spanish producers? If, as seems likely, much of their albarino production is a blend of albarino, savagnin and caino blanco, shouldn’t it, too, be renamed to reflect the reality?

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009