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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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All Pizzazz - South Australian Shiraz
Words by Nick Ryan on 18 Aug 2015
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Green with envy: Organic wine
Words by Daniel Honan on 11 Jul 2016
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Who gets the gong for Semillon?
Words by Ralph Kyte-Powell on 12 Aug 2015
Let me take you back in time. Way back. Pre-Sauvignon Blanc. Back in the years B.C. (before Chardonnay), when only two white wine types vied for the crown of Australia’s best. For a large part of the twentieth century, Australia’s two greatest white table wines were Semillon and Riesling. Riesling thrived in Australian wine’s heartland of South Australia, and the old wine country of the Hunter Valley in New South Wales was the source of the nation’s best Semillon. Confusingly, Hunter Semillon was known for many years as ‘Hunter River Riesling’, and the true Riesling grown in South Oz was called ‘Rhine Riesling,’ but those who knew them would never mix them up, and now, thankfully, they enjoy their real names. Both wine types bore distinctly Australian signatures, but Hunter Semillon went further – it was unique in the world. Nowhere else was Semillon made unblended into a high-quality, light, low-alcohol, dry white wine like this. The style was determined by the capricious climate of the Hunter Valley, where grapes had to be picked early to avoid the summer rains, resulting in only moderate levels of ripeness and high levels of acidity. Over the years, such circumstances meant Hunter Semillon evolved a unique personality, partly due to its improbable ability to build character and impact with long bottle age. Australian wines sometimes attract criticism, often ill-informed, for their lack of regional identity, the sense of place or terroir that marks great European wine, but this wine has it in spades. Hunter Semillon starts life pale and crisp, dry and lemon-fresh, appetising drinking when a delicate, savoury drop is needed. Then, in a most unlikely and miraculous transformation, that shy, zesty young wine is transformed by bottle age. Richness and interest build in the bottle, and after five, ten, or even more years, the zesty young thing grows into a multi-dimensional white wine of fascinating complexity, smoothness and depth. Generations of wine buffs have loved Hunter Semillon in either incarnation, young or old it was always a favourite among the cognoscenti, but the world of Australian wine has changed. The whims of fad and fashion increasingly determine what people drink and poor old Semillon, despite being better than ever, is looking like yesterday’s hero. Now a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc is Australia’s best-selling white wine, obscure Italian white varietals obsess a new chattering class, and even big-selling Chardonnay is considered a bit passé by the fashionistas. Semillon languishes as an also-ran. What a pity. The story in the south The story of Semillon in South Australia is different. While the Hunter Valley version was a thoroughbred, South Australian Semillon was a workhorse used for bottled table wines, bulk wines, fortifieds, sweet styles, distillation, and anything else a winemaker could think of. In the Barossa, where for obscure reasons it was sometimes known as Madeira, straight Semillon enjoyed some popularity, but the style made for many years was more about strength and big, broad flavours than finesse, and in recent decades oak barrels have crept into the equation, making it into a sort of big, fat Chardonnay substitute, and often wiping out any fruit character that existed in the wine. For many in the Hunter, and for most of that region’s fans in the Hunter’s traditional markets, South Australian Semillon only existed as an everyday drop, a component to cut back Sauvignon Blanc’s exuberance in a blend, or a curio not to be taken seriously, never a throughbred like the Hunter version. But things were changing in the rolling country around Nuriootpa, Angaston and Lyndoch. A new type of Barossa Semillon was gradually emerging that started attracting the attention of wine drinkers across the nation. The Barossa boys and girls started easing off on the oak or ditching it altogether, they started harvesting their Semillon earlier, they selected fruit with more care, cropping levels were more tightly controlled, technique improved, special plots of vines identified. The Barossa’s aim of improving the region’s Semillon started to bear fruit. It hasn’t exactly shaken sales of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, but many consumers have been won over by these new wines, commentators have received them very positively, and they are winning more plaudits on the wine show circuit. At the Sydney International Wine Show in 2010 the Trophy for best White Table Wine of Competition was won by Peter Lehmann Margaret Barossa Semillon 2004. Hunter winemakers sat up and took notice. The Barossa was indeed becoming competitive with the Hunter as a source of great Semillon. This is the background to Selector’s latest State of Play tasting. How good is modern Barossa Semillon? And how does it compare to the classics from the Hunter? Is the Barossa wine better in its youth than the Hunter? Hunter Semillon ages superbly; what about Barossa Sem? To get a perspective on the two regional styles, Selector invited submissions of current release wines from all Semillon producers in both the Hunter and Barossa. Additionally, wineries with a good track record for ageworthy wines were invited to submit older Semillons. The taste-off The results confirmed just how good both Hunter and Barossa Semillon can be. Out of 49 wines entered, no less than 39 achieved scores that would get medals in a wine show. This is an amazingly high figure and had panellists scratching their heads to think of another wine type that would do so well. The tasting also showed that Semillon from both regions has two distinct incarnations – young and bottle aged. This highlights Semillon’s ability to offer the best of both worlds, a trait that isn’t shared by many other white wines. Young, zesty Semillons are probably better wines than Sauvignon Blancs to accompany the sort of cuisine we enjoy in modern Australia, especially in the warmer months. Semillons take Thai influences, Mediterranean flavours, briny seafoods and sushi in their stride, yet their delicacy is perfect with simply prepared fish. Bottle-aged examples compete with Chardonnays as companions to more elaborate dishes like baked fish, smoked foods, more substantial seafood dishes, poultry or cheesy preparations. A clear winner? Young or old, both Hunter and Barossa Semillons proved their credentials in this tasting, but which region’s wines were better overall? If it were a competition it would be slightly in favour of the Hunter. But both regions make fantastic Semillon and it was very difficult to separate the top wines on quality. In fact the two top-scoring current releases comprised a wine from each area, as did the top two aged release wines. At the moment there are many more producers of ‘great’ Semillon in the Hunter and the best of them are better than ever; there are only a handful of such producers in the Barossa. Ideas of competition between these two great Australian wine regions can be overplayed. There’s a great deal of affection and mutual respect between them, and each side is very impressed with the other’s best Semillon. The real issue is how to rekindle interest in great Semillon, wherever it comes from, in a population besotted with other white wines. It will be a hard task, but the first step is having the product right, and there’s no doubting that both Hunter and Barossa Semillon’s quality credentials are up to the task. Check out Wine Selectors great range of Semillon today.
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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