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Albarino – potentially Australia’s great white hope
Name: Richard Smart
By Richard Smart
Climate and varieties
I want to introduce a few points of philosophy in this first column. As students of viticulture and wine, we are familiar with the strong temperature by variety interaction which dominates the global wine industry. My first task when looking at a new variety is to understand the climates, in particular the temperature conditions, from where it comes, and to look for similar places around the globe.
This can be a useful technique but it is not foolproof.
This is because for many of the varieties we will discuss in this column, there has been limited planting outside the region of origin. Albarino is one such example, since we are provided with a few clues from some adventurous vignerons.
We need to recognise that there can be a fundamental difference between grapevine varieties in their ability to adapt to different temperature conditions.
When discussing this, I always think of the two French varieties which are neighbours by geographical origin.
On one hand we have the Pinot Noir of Burgundy. This is a variety which seems to be extremely fastidious, and will only make commercially acceptable wine in a limited number of locations around the world. I am not even sure of a common characteristic of those locations. Having studied the temperature regimes of well-known Pinot Noir-producing regions around the globe, the only point I find is a similarity of the temperature during the late ripening period. I am not sure if this is coincidence or important, but it seems to be the factor that most of these regions have in common.
Contrast Pinot Noir with Chardonnay from the nearby region of Chablis in France. While Pinot Noir is fastidious, Chardonnay is not. It may make the best wine in Chablis, in cooler climates, but it is certainly capable of producing commercially acceptable wines over a wide range of climates. Chardonnay is adaptable, whereas Pinot Noir is not.
To return to homoclime searching we can remember the lessons of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It can be useful to study the climate of regions where varieties do well, but it is not guaranteed to give a unique answer. As I will discuss, Albarino seems to be one such variety that can perhaps be successfully grown in a range of climates, from cool to hot.
Albarino is a white variety from Northern Spain (Galicia) and Portugal. The
Portuguese name is Alvarinho, as grown in the Vinho Verde region, which I formally prefer, and the Spanish Albarino. In this article I will use the Spanish
name, as this is the wine name used in the Australian wine trade.
This part of Iberia is wet and cool, and the variety has a well known tolerance for wet weather near harvest. Albarino makes a delicate but scented wine, similar to Riesling, but with a richer aroma and fuller palate. I recall being told that Albarino may be related to Germany's Riesling from an introduction long ago.
I am told by some Spanish friends that Albarino is Spain's best white variety. It is certainly witnessing a resurgence of popularity there, and the wines are highly admired. Interestingly, news of Albarino has made it to the UK wine market, and there is a cult following for the variety.
The New World has been very slow to catch onto this variety, and I know of only a few producers in Australia and now California. Tamar Ridge Estate in Tasmania is my principal client, and at my prompting it produced its first Albarino this year. The wine is stunning.
Originating from the cool north of Spain, I imagined that this variety would be best suited to cooler regions elsewhere. Based on our Tasmanian experience, that is likely true. I imagined that Albarino would be another variety which might not do well in hot climates.
Recent evidence causes me to rethink this hypothesis. I have a client west of Barcelona in a hot region, so hot that they have the earliest harvest of Chardonnay in all of Europe; and they produce a nice Albarino.
So I was not totally surprised when I came across another good quality Albarino also grown in a hot climate, this time from Renmark in Australia's Riverland, a climate as hot as the mid-Central Valley of California.
This excites me, as Albarino appears to be a variety capable of maintaining its varietal characteristics over a broad climate range. Further, the name is easy to say, and quite easy to spell, so that it could become the darling of wine writers. So we may have here another variety which could really catch on around the world.
My tip for one of the most promising white varieties of the next two decades is Albarino. I know from my climate studies that of all the wine countries in the world, Australia has most in common with the temperature conditions of Spain and Portugal. In a way, it is probably a shame that we have had the previous emphasis on French varieties. I am sure a writer in a column to follow will talk about other important Spanish varieties, in particular Tempranillo.
I suggest readers source a bottle of Albarino and try it, and see if it might be useful complement to the Australasian white wines. I think it could be.
The next time I contribute to this column I will tell you the story of the Hungarian white grape variety with a name that is every marketer's dream.
This article can be found in the September/October 2007 Wine Industry Journal. To subscribe visit winetitles.com.au/wij/subscribe.asp
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