The journey of Tempranillo to Australia

Name: Mark Walpole

By Mark Walpole

It may be surprising to many wine connoisseurs that it has taken so long for Tempranillo to become established in Australia as a real alternative to red wines based on the 'classic' varieties including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. Jancis Robinson in her book Vines, Grapes and Wines slots Tempranillo into the 'major varieties' category alongside Sangiovese, Carignan, Cinsaut and Cabernet Franc, as opposed to 'classic' - perhaps indicating that it is deserving of more attention than it gets.

Tempranillo hit the international spotlight in the 1990s when Alejandro Fernandez, a producer from Ribera del Duero, was awarded 100 points from Robert Parker. Prior to this, wines from nearby Vega Sicilia were already selling for stratospheric prices. These wines were not only unique for their prices but their longevity. Vega Sicilia's icon wine, Tempranillo-based 'Unico', is only released when it is ready - which can be as much as 25 years after vintage.

The variety has been in Australia for a long time. There are records of it being in the Rutherglen collection, brought to Australia by François De Castella in 1908; and may well have been among the mix brought here by James Busby in 1831 under a synonym that was lost when phylloxera decimated the European vineyards between the 1860s and 1880s. It seems that it was not widely planted and little survived the Depression and the contraction of the Australian tablewine industry between the early 1900s and the 1950s.

In the modern era, it is difficult to determine when the first plantings took place, but it is likely that they were undertaken in the Hunter Valley after the introduction of new selections from Davis University in the late 1960s. Alan Antcliff in the CSIRO publication Some Wine Grapes Varieties for Australia (1973) describes the variety; and suggests in the following publication Minor Wine Grape Varieties of Australia (1983) that there were 57t of Tempranillo crushed in Australia in the vintage of 1981.

My personal interest in the variety came about in the late 1980s while working for Brown Brothers at Milawa, in northeast Victoria. Brown Brothers had been growing Graciano, another variety indigenous to northern Spain, since the early 1920s which was also introduced by François De Castella. It seemed logical to me that we should make a blended wine with Graciano as the minor partner, as in Rioja Alta.

Sourcing of planting material at that time was difficult. The 1987 Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Directory only listed Denman Estate in the Hunter Valley as having the variety. My enquiry could not have come at a better time, as the variety was being top-worked due to its poor performance in the region. A limited amount of vines were propagated in 1988 and planted in the field in 1989.

The first small crop was harvested in 1991, but unfortunately the variety was spotted by the Brown Brothers fortified winemaker at the time (as its Portuguese synonym, Tinta Roriz, is one of the five preferred Portuguese 'port sorts') and it was duly fortified until the 1996 vintage.

As a 'new' variety, it was made as a limited release wine sold only at cellar door. Its immediate acceptance prompted our family to increase plantings, while Brown Brothers developed a large planting at its newly established vineyard in the Heathcote region of central Victoria.

The full article, along with the Tempranillo Varietal Report, can be found in the September/October 2008 issue of Australian Viticulture. To obtain your copy of this issue or to subscribe to the magazine contact Winetitles on +61 8 8292 0888 or email [email protected]

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