Last fling for pedro ximenez — a curio worth tasting

Pedro ximenez probably isn’t on the radar of most wine drinkers. And where we see the name, it’s probably on the label of a dark, sweet, sherry. But it exists as a delicate, long-lived dry white wine as well. And there’s a dwindling but significant treasure trove of it at Campbells of Rutherglen.

It seems hard to believe now, but this Spanish white grape once starred in Australia’s wine industry. Brought to Sydney by James Busby in 1832, pedro ximenez spread to our hot, dry growing regions, including Rutherglen, Victoria. A century later it underpinned production of Australian “sherry”, much of it destined for the UK.

Rutherglen became an important production centre, with two of Australia’s largest producers and exporters located there. Winemaker Colin Campbell recalls Seppelt, at Rutherglen, and Lindemans, at nearby Corowa, New South Wales, being “based on sherry soleras”.

But by 1968, when Campbell returned to the family business from winemaking studies at Roseworthy College, fortified wine, including sherry, had begun its long decline, and table consumption was on the rise.

To meet growing demand for dry white wine, Campbell turned to the only two white varieties in the family vineyard – pedro ximenez and trebbiano. Both had been planted for sherry production and their fruit sold to Lindemans.

He says the pedro vines had probably been planted between 1900 and 1908, by his grandfather, David Campbell, son of the property’s founder, John Campbell.

Like other Victorian grape growers, the Campbells lost their original vines to phylloxera – the small but deadly American vine pest that also devastated European vineyards in the late nineteenth century.

To relieve distress among grape growers, says Campbell, the Victorian government despatched Francois de Castella to Europe. There he sourced vines, including pedro, grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock. David Campbell’s new plantings came from de Castella’s material.

Campbell installed refrigeration at the winery and set about making a dry white pedro ximenez. Picked early, with comparatively low sugar and high acidity, the wine began life austere and dry, but developed greater richness and character with bottle age.

However, a run of wine show successes failed to spark interest in the variety. Incredulous winemakers, including Leo Buring’s John Vickery, laughed in wonder but stuck with established table wine varieties.

Vickery, the father of modern Australian riesling – an experienced sherry maker, too, using pedro ximenez in Buring’s popular Florita Flor sherry) – rightly dismissed pedro as a curio.

Campbell says bottled aged pedros invariably spark a similar reaction from drinkers ¬– scepticism before tasting, followed by an incredulous smile. I’ve been there twice. The first time, about eight years ago, on a retail buying trip, we tasted 20 or so vintages. The earlier wines carried “Chablis” labels, in line with generic naming of a past era; but from the late eighties carried the varietal name, pedro ximenez. What surprisingly delicious and delicate old wine they were. More recently, a lovely, fresh, delicate, slightly honeyed 1999 vintage, served at a dinner party, prompted a call to the winery, and this article.

Curio or not, pedro succeeded for Campbell’s from the late sixties until production ceased after the 2007 vintage. Colin Campbell says, “We stopped then because it was a curio and because we only made a small volume, it was difficult to handle”.

He says pedro shoots early, making it prone to damage from spring frosts. And the big berries tend to swell and burst in rain, or rot and fall off. However, pedro vines remain in the vineyard and now contribute to cheaper sweet fortified wines. Campbell says these vines are descendents of those established by his grandfather a century ago – the vineyard having been replanted in the mid 1990s.

While the winery discontinued production after 2007, Campbell expects stock to be available at the cellar door for some years as they’ve always released it as an aged wine. Because it’s so acidic and austere as a young wine, explains Campbell, “it needs at least five to six years to develop bottle age character. And it also needs cork character to age properly”.

But using cork exposes the wine to two risks – cork taint and random oxidation. And oxidation, laments Campbell, takes a massive toll, rendering up to 60 per cent of older pedros unsaleable. He says they destroy bottles that fail pre-release assessment.

Campbell’s dry, white pedro ximenez remains a curio – but a loveable, mellow and drinkable one, at a refreshingly low 11.5 per cent alcohol. Unfortunately, it’s destined for extinction.

But there’s still time to enjoy it. Campbells currently offer at cellar door the 1997 vintage for $35 and the 2004 vintage for $25.90. And all of the vintages from 1998 to 2007 remain in the cellar for future release. It’s history in a bottle.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011
First published 6 April 2011 in The Canberra Times
Published in The Melbourne Age Epicure 26 July 2011