Truffle ahead for Australia’s wine industry

We may never hear an Australian prime minister saying ‘fair sniff of the truffle mate’. But in the Canberra region truffles are already a highly visible seasonal luxury, with more action to come when recent local plantings bear fruit.

At a grower seminar during the recent truffle festival, local producer Wayne Haslam said that 30 growers between the southern highlands and the snow country now tend 16 thousand trees. This suggests an annual crop of about 1,500 kg, worth around $2 million to the growers and about $3.75 million retail.

We could easily see that as a drop in the vast food retail market. But with truffles retailing at around $125 for 50gms during the June–July season, it’s clearly a highly specialised niche – and a brand new one at that, having started locally only this decade.

Truffle’s mystique lies in its unique, sensuous, penetrating aroma rather than its high price (a function of scarcity) and its ability to boost the flavour of foods, especially fatty products.

Once you’ve gone nose to nose with a good fresh truffle, you’ll always want to try it one more time. And in Canberra probably some of the keenest converts are also our keenest wine drinkers – to the extent that there will inevitably be links between our winemakers and truffle growers.

Several local winemakers have organised truffle dinners in the last two seasons – exploring the truffle’s possibilities with food as well as potential wine pairings.

It’s only a matter of time, I reckon, before we see Canberra vignerons planting truffle-infected trees – typically English oak and hazelnut – for either personal or commercial reasons.

I know of one Murrumbateman winemaker with a personal truffiere already marked out. And Frank van der Loo, of Mount Majura vineyard, tells me the investors behind the vineyard considered truffles some years back, but shied away from the risk at the time.

The next-door neighbour subsequently planted a truffiere and harvested the first crop just three years later. Frank sees potential to bring wine and truffles together, perhaps at cellar door – and who knows, maybe a Mount Majura Vineyard plantation?

There’s a precedent in The Wine & Truffle Company, Western Australia. At the Canberra forum a two weeks ago, Alf Salter, a director, said that the cellar door, located at Manjimup, to the south east of Margaret River, attracted five thousand visitors a year – an impressive feat for such an isolated location.

Alf reckons that the venture will harvest about a tonne to 1.2 tonnes this year, after yields of 600 kg in 2008 and 300 kg in 2007 – the rapid increase reflecting more trees coming into production.

But he cautions against truffle growing without deep pockets and careful planning. There’s a considerable upfront investment (about $30 thousand to the hectare), considerable maintenance of the truffiere, a long wait until full production and, as well, growers face all the risks of any agricultural venture.

He said that planting vines as well as truffles had meant an earlier cash flow for the new business – as vines yielded saleable fruit after four years, but truffles didn’t produce income until eight years after planting. Ultimately, though, the combination is what attracts so many visitors to the cellar door.

Another note of caution for would-be truffle growers, Alf said, was the potential risk of flooding the Australian market and reducing returns to growers.  Australian truffle growers produced 800 kg in 2007 and one point four tonnes in 2008. And they are projected to produce two tonnes this year and five tonnes by 2015.

From a consumer perspective, we can only welcome a little over production if it makes truffles more affordable. What’s to stop the price of high-quality truffles declining if growers can learn to produce them efficiently?

My limited experience with truffles is that we need a decent slab if we’re to share the pleasure over a meal with friends – be it simple, but gloriously scented truffled eggs for brekky, served with a delicate Buddha’s Tears tea, or a multi-course truffle menu accompanied by a sequence of great wines.

The exciting thing though is that they’re now on Canberra’s menu and likely to be available in greater quantities in the years ahead. You can buy them direct from producers at the EPIC markets on Saturday mornings (be very early). And the more adventurous local restaurateurs are offering truffle menus.

If you’re buying, my advice from limited experience, is that all truffles are not created equal and that freshness (measured in days from harvest, not weeks, is essential). Simply trust your nose – pick the little bugger up and sniff it. If it’s on the money, you’ll know, believe me. And you’ll never forget that first moment.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009