Yesterday’s wine was a lovely Castro Martin Albariño and up until recently today’s wine could have been held up as a New World counterpoint. But just as the availability of DNA testing has upset many families with revelations of misattributed parentage, so too has it brought clarity, at times unwelcome, to the identity of grape varieties. And with that somewhat dubious introduction, I bring you Tscharke Wines Girl Talk Savagnin 2011.
When I wrote about Albariño yesterday, I failed to mention how well regarded it is. It’s considered the best white variety of Spain, and had a surge in popularity over the last two decades. In that time, it has attracted the attention of not just consumers but also of vignerons and winemakers in the New World anxious to see how the variety would perform in their terroirs. As such, plantings found their way to California, Oregon, New Zealand and Australia.
Or so it was thought. Jean-Michel Boursiquot of the University of Montpellier, who we first encountered when I wrote about a Chilean Carmenère, visited Australia and suggested that what was being called Albariño was in fact Savagnin Blanc. The issue was taken up by government researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), which was originally responsible for bringing the variety from Spain. Known Albariño samples were imported, comparisons were made, and in 2009 Boursiquot was pronounced correct. From that vintage onwards, any wines produced from what had been thought to be Albariño needed to be labeled Savagnin (Blanc) or Traminer. Needless to say, there was a huge uproar.
First, Savagnin Blanc / Traminer. Savagnin Blanc is a grape closely associated with Jura, France, where it is most commonly made into vin jaune, an oxidative style wine that has similarities with the fortified wines of Jerez. Traminer is a relative of Gewürztraminer, though without the aromatic qualities, and of diminishing popularity in cooler, continental areas of Europe. Traminer also has a history in the Barossa Valley in South Australia, where it has been used to make sweet wines which have likewise waned in popularity. In 2000 the French ampleographer Pierre Galet established that Savagnin Blanc and Traminer were in fact the same grape.
So back to 2009, and suddenly Australian producers are told that wines which had been successful as “Albariño” are now required to be labelled as either an unfamiliar French grape or as an unpopular Germanic grape. Looking at press coverage and remarks from producers at the time, the entire Kübler-Ross model played out very rapidly. Some producers did not believe the CSIRO’s findings, or if they did they wanted to find some accommodation in being able to continue to use the name Albariño. There was widespread anger at the CSIRO for selling the vines as Albariño in the first place, and I’m sure no shortage of depression at the bad fortune. However, as the label on this bottle attests, there was acceptance.
Also, it should be noted that subsequently the origin of the confusion was traced back to Spain, whence the vines were supplied, not a mix-up on the part of the CSIRO which was responsible for importing the material and then distributing it to nurseries and growers.
It was something of a tragedy for two reasons. First off, the people who were hurt, the producers, were not the ones at fault. They were sold vines as Albariño, and in particular in the case of Tscharke they found the vines had the ampelographic characteristics they expected – conical clusters, multiple pips, the right number of bunches per shoot and the right berry size and colour. While sales of “Albariño” were on the rise, selling Savagnin or Traminer was a completely different prospect. Even in the unlikely event that consumers would seamlessly switch varieties, there were still associated costs of changing labels and all the accompanying materials.
It also brought Australian labelling into question with regard to varieties. Australia has a very chequered history with the use of dubious place and grape names on labels, but had made great strides in recent years to conform to international standards. Unlike some historic misrepresentations, this was not an attempt to ride on the coattails of a popular region or variety, but rather an honest mistake in trying to produce wines of the same grape locally. Nonetheless, the damage was done.
However, three years on I optimistically like to think that the worst is behind “Albariño” producers. Varietal Savagnins grace the shelves of bottle shops, and while I don’t have sales figures, I hope that consumers still enjoy the wine even if the name on the label has changed. While misidentifications of grape varieties can cause confusion and grief, they are a fact of life. Improvements in genetics based ampelography will continue, and I personally am expecting some surprises when Wine Grapes is published in October.
Tscharke Wines is based in Barossa Valley, and is the product of Damien Tscharke, who also runs Glaymond Wines. While Glaymond is best known for classic grapes of Barossa, the Tscharke label was split off in 2004 to showcase alternative and emerging varieties, such as Montepulciano, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, Zinfandel, Graciano, and now Savagnin. They even produce a Frizzante Savagnin under the name Eva. They were the first, and in 2009 the largest, Australian producer of “Albariño” and were thus at the centre of the controversy at the time, and had doubled their production between 2008 and 2009 to some 4,000 cases.
As to this wine, in the glass it is clear and bright, with pale lemon green colour and a viscosity on the inside of the glass when swirled that can’t make up it’s mind if it’s a film or legs. On the nose it’s clean with medium minus intensity, and notes of pear, custard, and a little bit of green vegetable. On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium plus intensity, medium body, medium alcohol, and medium minus length. There is apple zing, with both green apple acidity and a bit of red apple sweetness, as well as some lemon-lime and bitters, and a hint of waxiness on the finish.
This is a good wine. The palate is a bit low on complexity, and the finish is slightly short, but it’s an interesting wine for those of us who like alternative varieties. The fruitiness is attractive, and it certainly hits the numbers in terms of acidity and intensity on the palate. I’m not an expert, but Albariño was not the first thing that jumped to mind when I sniffed it – I didn’t get any blossom which is my usual tell (though often wrong) for that variety. Then again, if someone had told me that’s what it was, I don’t think I would have disputed it either. I hope that Tscharke has put the mix-up behind it, and continues to pioneer alternative varieties in Australia.