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Change of Tempo with Tempranillo

In 2006 Melbourne academic, Professor Snow Barlow, offered some important advice to the Australian wine industry. As one of the leading agricultural scientists investigating the impact of climate change on viticulture in this country, he was succinct: adapt or else.

Open your eyes, he implored, to the changes that increased levels of greenhouse gases and a warmer, drier climate are having on vines with earlier budburst, shorter winters, compressed vintages and extreme weather events. Learn to adjust.

And then he returned to his vineyard, Baddaginnie Run, in the Strathbogie Ranges in Central Victoria and did just that. Out went his Merlot vines and in came Tempranillo.

Merlot had worked well in the early days, but a combination of hot vintages with runs of 40+C days and drier conditions, were stressing the normally cool-mannered Bordeaux grape. Mediterranean-born Tempranillo was a better fit, he said. It lapped up the heat.

It’s hard to say whether Prof. Barlow’s words and personal actions spurred Aussie wine growers and makers into action, but Tempranillo plantings did indeed take off. Exploded in fact.

From 209 hectares in 2004, plantings ballooned to 712 hectares by 2012. And, perhaps not surprisingly, it was the warmer regions that took to it with the greatest gusto: Barossa Valley (20% of plantings), Murray Darling (19%), Riverina (15%), McLaren Vale (11%) and the Riverland (10%).

The Riverina district was encouraged, no doubt, by Melbourne University projections showing it will be among the wine areas hardest hit by climate change. By 2030, research suggests rising temperatures could reduce grape quality in the region by up to 52 per cent.

Growers in warm areas laud Tempranillo for its tolerance under hot conditions, its generosity of black fruits, its spice, its tannin structure. But, sadly, not its acidity. Professor Barlow had omitted the fact that the grape is naturally shy in acidity, a rather important piece of information to keep in mind when planting in a warm area. “It’s a bit of a sook actually,” says Peter Leske, a fellow scientist-winemaker behind the specialist Tempranillo maker, La Linea, in the Adelaide Hills.

However, Leske maintains the grape’s good points still far outweigh its negatives. “It retains perfume and flavour, flesh and spice, so it makes a wine high in deliciousness despite warm and dry conditions,” he says. Deliciousness, it seems, wins out.

Great in the heat, even better in the cool

Warm climate Tempranillo is one thing. Cool climate Tempranillo is quite another. It is just possible that in the future the most exciting examples will come from winemakers who venture high up into the wilds, to places where Pinot Noir might also be suited, where the heat is less and the rainfall is more.

A little like the 500-metre high nosebleed parts of Spain where it thrives: Rioja, Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. Bright red fruits are to the fore in Tempranillo grown in cooler climes, the spice appears edgier, the structure is definitely firmer and more apparent. As the full impact of climate change is felt, it could be these areas that will ultimately be better suited to Tempranillo. Time will tell.

In the meantime, Australian winemakers consider the newcomer amongst them. “We still have a lot to learn about Tempranillo,” admits Peter Leske. There are things we already know about the grape, like the little matter of pronunciation. If you know Spanish you know, Tempranillo is pronounced with the two lls silent: tem-pra-neee-o. That’s how it should be. It’s not too difficult. Many Aussie enthusiasts have already shortened it to ‘temp’ – clearly a display of endearment.

We know that at first, quite a few Australian winemakers mistook Tempranillo for a grape just like Shiraz and made it like Shiraz, emasculating its vibrant Spanish passion into just another Aussie dry red. No identity. No excitement.

Tempranillo is not Shiraz. It might act like it sometimes, taste like it occasionally, but its DNA – while not completely known – suggests one immediate relative is most likely Albillo Mayor, a grape from Ribera del Duero, in northern Spain. No Shiraz in sight.

The tempraneo gang

Some of the greatest advances in understanding the grape come from a group of six Aussie winemakers who got together in 2010, calling themselves ‘TempraNeo’. Each maker comes from a different region, covering most of the viticultural bases: Mayford in the Alpine Valleys, La Linea in the Adelaide Hills, Mount Majura in Canberra, Tar and Roses in Heathcote, Yalumba’s Running With Bulls in the Barossa and Gemtree in McLaren Vale. A number of winemaking bases, too, are explored. No two producers follow the same methods.

Eleana Anderson at Mayford brings some basic Pinot Noir winemaking techniques to her Tempranillo including whole bunch fermentation with stalks for added tannin (now that’s simply not done in Spain) and extended time on skins to extract colour and flavour. Her take on Tempranillo is definitely fragrant, elegantly poised.

Frank Van De Loo at Mount Majura introduces the notion of savouriness into his Tempranillo. He favours wild ferments, which by definition can be a bit feral and uncontrolled. At La Linea, Peter Leske and David Le Mire, MW, are seeing just what multiple site selections can do for Tempranillo. They source grapes from six vineyards in the Adelaide Hills from Kersbrook to the north (the warmest) through to Birdwood (the coolest location). Blending the blocks together is already producing some attractive characters: fragrance, structure, mouth feel, vibrant fruit, abundant spice.

Mike Brown at Gemtree Vineyards, is a biodynamic grower who prefers a hands-off winemaking approach. Winemaker Sam Wigan at Running With Bulls is giving his Tempranillo time in Hungarian oak. “I’m using five to 10 per cent new Hungarian oak because it integrates well with the grape’s tannins,” he says, adding Hungarian oak doesn’t impart vanilla notes common to French oak, so it’s about looking to something out of the ordinary.

At Heathcote in Central Victoria, a notable red wine producing region, winemakers Don Lewis and Narelle King at Tar & Roses are studying Tempranillo’s finickety acid profile, amongst other things. In 2014 they did a trial on a half tonne batch of Tempranillo, adding no acid. It didn’t work out well. “I don’t see it as a way forward,” says Don. When it comes to the fuller wine style of the Tar & Roses Tempranillo, he is now certain that it is essential to add acid. However, the grape does have other useful qualities he can employ to deliver structure, namely tannin.

“If you taste the grape in the vineyard it’s not very juicy, it’s quite fleshy and it has a chalky tannin that no other variety has,” says Don. “Those two things – fleshiness and chalky tannins - are the epitome of Tempranillo to me. It was what I was used to seeing in La Mancha (Spain) when I was making wine there.” The TempraNeo group is also monitoring the growing number of Tempranillo clones (plant material) now available in Australia. The main sources are Spain, France and Portugal where the grape goes under the name of Tinta Roriz or Aragones.

Some clones deliver fruit high in perfume, others show pronounced savouriness. Ten years of trials at Australian nurseries have revealed significant taste and aroma differences between the dozen clones available here.

Importantly, Australian winemakers need to know where their clonal material hails from, because it is becoming clear that place of origin can dictate the clone’s performance in a foreign land. A clone taken from a vineyard in Rioja performs better in Rioja then in Valdepenas and vice versa. Comparing the region of origin with their own site’s climate, soil and topography could be a way forward for Australian producers.

Tempranillo’s time

As we head into a warmer, unpredictable future the role of Tempranillo in Australia is destined to loom large. Much larger. Despite its tendency to turn ‘sook’ and drop acid while on the vine, it has shown in a relatively short time that it is entirely well suited to parts of this country, both warm and cool. In warmer climes its generosity of black fruits, spice and sunny disposition is welcoming. What the grape lacks in sophistication it makes up for in pleasant drinkability.

In cooler climes, where Tempranillo grapes are in top demand, each vintage with a price to match (averaging $1448 a tonne in 2012), we see a grape in the throes of reinvention, moulded by some of this country’s most forward-thinking winemakers.

Here, the flavours are finer, more subtle, red and black fruits, spice and herbs and because these wines aren’t carrying a heavy weight, Tempranillo’s meagre acid backbone isn’t taxed quite as much. Sometimes savoury nuance surfaces, sometimes a textural loveliness. Exciting times indeed.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

It is early days still.

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This is understandable: it’s the grape responsible for Italy’s most famous red wine, Chianti; it is meant to be relatively easy to grow; and while the wine it produces can be quite savoury and tannic, it is also generally medium-bodied and has plenty of attractive red fruit flavour. This means that Australian Sangiovese is likely to appeal to a wide range of wine drinkers, and its fame and heritage make it an easy wine for marketing and cellar door people to talk about. Nebbiolo, on the other hand, has remained a niche player: the 2010 Directory lists 90 producers and just 100 hectares of vines. This is also no surprise: Nebbiolo is notoriously difficult to grow well, being quite fussy about where it grows (generally preferring cooler, more marginal spots). It is responsible in Italy for wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco - not as widely-known as Chianti - and can produce wines that are unfashionably pale, tough, low in fruit volume and very high in astringent tannin. Looking at some stats from the Alternative Varieties Show gives you a very good idea of how both these grapes are travelling in Australia at the moment. At the 2010 AAVWS, there were 60 Sangiovese entries (including Sangiovese blends) and 24 Nebbiolos. Only a third of the Sangioveses were awarded medals, with just three silvers and 17 bronzes. By contrast, more than half of the 24 Nebbiolos were medal winners, with seven bronzes, five silvers and two golds. It has been a similar story in almost all the previous shows: in 2007, for example, the 87 Sangioveses entered yielded just one gold, three silvers and 12 bronze medals – but the 25 Nebbiolos entered were awarded two golds, one silver and eight bronze. So while Sangiovese might be the most popular Italian red variety in Australia by volume, it is not only struggling to realise the huge potential everyone thought it had, but its fortunes also appear to be waning (as you can see, entry numbers at the AAVWS dropped by 30 per cent between 2007 and 2010). Nebbiolo, on the other hand, is proving itself to be a very strong and improving performer, albeit in smaller quantities. The question is: why? Why is Australian Sangiovese so frequently disappointing? And why has Nebbiolo excelled? Part of Sangiovese’s problem lies in the clone that was planted in most vineyards throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Originally developed at the University of California at Davis, this clone of Sangiovese was bred to produce heavy crops rather than high quality, and many Australian growers have struggled with its tendency to overcrop (newer, lower-yielding clones, coming into bearing now, are showing much more promise, but have yet to make their presence widely felt). More important, I think, is that Sangiovese is obviously fussier and more difficult to grow and make well than many Australian winemakers thought. It not only needs some time in the ground before the vines come into balance and produce their best quality fruit, but it also takes a few vintages to learn how best to make that fruit into good wine. Far too many Australian Sangioveses still suffer from a lack of fruit concentration and/or heavy-handed oak treatment. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the best producers of Sangiovese are those with both the requisite experience (such as Coriole, with over two decades of vintages under their belt) and the cultural connection (such as that of the King Valley’s Italian growers) to the variety. The underwhelming producers tend to be those who just planted Sangiovese because it was trendy and weren’t prepared to make the effort to reduce yields in the vineyard and treat the wine sensitively in the cellar. Most of Australia’s Nebbiolo vineyards, by contrast, have been planted by complete Nebb-nuts who are besotted with the magical wines of Piedmont. These people will do whatever it takes to make the best wine possible, and are fastidious in both vineyard and winery. This drive, this passion, this attention to detail is a big reason, I believe, why there are (relatively speaking) so many great Nebbiolos (and why they tend to cost a bit more). These are my observations based on years of tasting and judging at the AAVWS. And the results of the Selector State of Play tasting reflected the same thing. Thirty-five Sangioveses were tasted - the ones that scored well fell into two general groups: pretty, up-front, snappy-fruity wines that displayed Sangiovese’s lovely juicy cherry characters, and more ‘serious’ savoury wines that had good balance of more ripe fruit characters and drier, powdery tannins. But – for this taster at least, and for some of the others – very few, if any, of the Sangioveses we tasted were truly outstanding, automatic gold-medal standard wines (unlike the Nebbiolos). Most of the top wines were from places (King Valley, McLaren Vale ) and names (Pizzini, Dal Zotto, Crittenden) where there is a long association with Sangiovese. We tasted fewer Nebbiolos – just 13 – but the overall standard was higher and there were more outstanding wines. There was also much more animated discussion between the tasters: with its sometimes ethereal, elusive perfume, it’s often quite a disarmingly pale orange colour, and with its occasionally mouth-puckering level of bone-dry tannins, Nebbiolo can elicit strong reactions. To the Panellists’ surprise, the Adelaide Hills emerged as a particularly good area for Nebbiolo, with two of the top wines coming from the same vineyard, Frank and Rosemary Baldasso’s Kenton Hill (this vineyard also supplies the fruit for the trophy-winning SC Pannell Nebbiolo and is just over the hill from the Arrivo vineyard, the source of another trophy-winning Neb). Wine Selectors Tasting Panelist Keith Tulloch also touched on a fundamental problem with many new, alternative varietal wines in Australia – a problem that is also cause for hope. “The challenge with a lot of these varieties is the fact they come from young vines,” he said. “It was a similar story in the Hunter in the 1970s when we had thin wines that didn’t have any weight because the vineyards were so new. You need 10 years of age or more before you get reliable quality and the true essence of the grape.” This means, though, that as good as the top wines we tasted today are, the best are yet to come. Check out Wine Selectors great range of Sangiovese & Nebbiolo today.
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