Simon Thistlewood, Bimbadgen Estate, NSW

Simon Thistlewood, Bimbadgen Estate, NSW

Name: Simon Thistlewood

In the soon-to-be-released September/October issue of The Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Journal , Bimbadgen Estate winemaker Simon Thistlewood discusses Verdelho's curious enigmatic relationship with winemakers. For the full story look out for your copy arriving in the coming fortnight or visit to subscribe.

According to Simon, many winemakers seem to make Verdelho, but few profess to like the variety, let alone even drink the wine they or others have made. The same seems to hold true for many wine journalists who consider the wine pedestrian at best. This is perhaps best espoused by the comment of Jancis Robinson who in her Oxford Companion to Wine states 'in this writer's view it is a tradesman-like variety…a wine which epitomises its working class background'. Perhaps it is a wine for the people, but I think there is much more to Verdelho then meets the eye and this Varietal Report will show that it has a unique place in Australia. I personally love the variety and admire its versatility and appreciate the myriad of wine styles that it can produce.

The characteristics of Verdelho

Verdelho is relatively easy to grow and will yield well, while still maintaining flavour and acid structure in the fruit. It is vigorous, even in poor soils (although this may be a problem in fertile soils) its dense canopy reduces the chance of sunburned fruit. The vine produces relatively open small bunches with thick skins which provide a good barrier against bunch rots. It is both wet weather tolerant and drought tolerant. The berries are not inclined to split during wet weather and its tough root system searches deep into the soil for moisture.
There has been little work done on clonal selection of this variety in Australia. There are currently two clones available for planting (Kosovich and WA4). There is apparently a rare red variety, Verdelho Tinto or Verdelho Feijao, that is grown in Portugal.
Verdelho is an early ripening variety which can be quite green and herbal at the lower picking spectrum, moving through mineral, spice, citrus, talcum powder through to honeysuckle, pineapple and tropical fruits at the very ripe end. The wines tend to have a generous flavour balanced by crisp acidity and often have a whisper of residual sugar. They are invariably made without the influence of wood or yeast lees and are bottled early to maximise freshness. There has been a tendency in the past to over ripen Verdelho in pursuit of richer, more tropical wines. This produced wines that were out of balance, sometimes showing unpleasant oily and phenolic characters. Quite often the high sugar content created fermentation problems, sluggish or stuck fermentations are common in this variety. Picking is a stylistic decision and there is room for different styles of Verdelho, from the lean and racy to the rich and unctuous.
Karl Stockhausen, a legendary Semillon winemaker in the Hunter, is also a great fan of Verdelho, loving its richness and texture. He is an advocate of later picked, more flavoursome Verdelho and also talks about its potential to age when made in the right style. The 1968 Lindeman Verdelho springs to mind as do some wines from the early 1970s, but he notes its variability and also its blending capacity to produce great 'White Burgundy' styles. Verdelho is produced mainly as a straight varietal wine and is blended with other whites, such Semillon, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.
Lastly, let us not forget that, true to its early origins, it makes very good fortified styles. A pretty good reason to fortify a couple of barrels and put them away for a few years!

Bimbadgen Estate Verdelho

At Bimbadgen Estate we make Verdelho as a straight varietal dry white and fortified wine, but we use Verdelho for its propensity for voluptuousness to add extra dimension to other wines. A dash or two in our standard Hunter Valley Semillon creates softness and balance, as well as adding aromatics. We also find that the aromatic nose of Verdelho adds lift to our Rosé. We have experimented with natural ferments, barrel ferments and lees contact to create some interesting wines. In these wines we are looking for texture and richness, along with modification of fruit character.

The future of Verdelho

It is sad to consider that a variety that was present at the creation of the Australian wine industry should be shunned (today) by winemakers and wine writers alike. I think consumers have always appreciated Verdelho more and its natural commercial style did it no harm in capturing a wider audience. It provides a viable alternative to heavy Chardonnay, pungent Sauvignon Blanc and lean Semillon.
I think the time has come where we will see the quality of Verdelho wine change even more dramatically as winemakers explore different viticultural management, new picking regimes, co-fermentation, co-inoculation, new blending options, better fermentation management and a new belief in the variety. The Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Directory lists it as the 10th most used variety with 405 producers using it to make wine. Plantings occur in many of our regions across Australia and we have a great deal of experience with it; perhaps what is old, will one day be new again.

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