Albariño – what’s in a name?
I have been on the Albariño bandwagon ever since I tasted Gemtree’s first non commercial bottling of the variety a couple of years ago. Frighteningly trendy on the global scene and much loved by sommeliers, Albariño saw many producers, notably Gemtree, Tscharke, Irvine and Chapel Hill, with commercial quantities in the marketplace by the time Jean-Michel Boursiquot, an ampelographer or vine detective from the University of Montpellier visited Australia last year. Boursiquot set the cat amongst the guinea fowl by suggesting that much of what has been planted as Albariño in Australia might in fact be Savagnin, originating from the French region of Jura. DNA testing has borne this out, but significant confusion still abounds. How did it happen? According to Dr Chris Bourke, the Spanish inadvertently sold Savagnin as Albariño between 1955 and 1984. Dr Bourke himself questioned the authenticity of the CSIRO stocks as far back as 2004 and he also states that a French ampelographer identified some Spanish Albariño as Savagnin as far back as 1983. Earlier investigation could have spared much financial heartache for producers who have committed significant precious earth to the planting of this variety since Dr Bourke’s questioning in 2004. A number of growers assert that Australian plantings share many of the same key physical identifiers as Spanish Albariño. Damien Tscharke and Mike Brown have each confirmed that their plantings share with Spanish Albariño key physical identifiers – two seeds per berry (where Savagnin has one), two clusters per fruiting branch (Savagnin again has one) and conical clusters and wings where Savagnin’s are cylindrical. Prue Henschke counters this argument, stating, “these are... not, on their own, reliable... especially when the comparison between the Australian material was being made under very different growing and seasonal conditions.” That being said, results in bottle have been nothing short of sensational and in no way contradicted local growers’ belief that what they had in the ground was ‘as advertised’. In the words of Jim Irvine, “if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it is a bloody duck... if what the Spanish are doing is confused then why not allow us the same grace... it is atrocious that the AWBC have said no to a sunset clause off the bat. It’s all very well to be a compliance centre but they seem to have completely forgotten their marketing mandate... they are hurting us, not helping.” It is even less surprising that these new Aussie wines are delivering on expectations when we consider Dr Bourke’s suggestion that much Spanish labeled Albariño may well be a blend of Albariño, Caino Blanco and Savagnin. Style or variety? Given Albariño’s potentially broad varietal umbrella there is an opportunity for the AWBC to offer at least short-term support for the use of the name Albariño on Australian made product. Allowing a temporary dispensation to continue using the name Albariño would provide time for the AWBC to negotiate with its international partners including the OIV to form an agreement that wine labeled Albariño can be produced from Albariño or Savagnin or comprise of a blend of Albariño with Caino Blanco and/or Savagnin. This would then give Aussie growers an option of augmenting their current plantings minimally in order to fit this very broad new varietal definition without significant financial punishment or the risk of losing their current winning styles. A spanner in the works here is Prue Henshke’s assertion that while the Spanish are selecting and propagating Albariño at the current time there are no current plans to release it internationally. This being the case an interim sunset clause becomes all the more important. There is growing local industry support for enshrining a more inclusive definition of Albariño. I contacted Andrew Buttery and Mike Brown from Gemtree to ask if they would consider lobbying the AWBC to push for the name Albariño to be retained. Mr Buttery was concerned “that the AWBC are ultra conservative on this and all other labeling issues to the point where it puts us at a disadvantage compared to some other countries. If we are all on a level playing field then I don’t mind...” Dr Bourke adds “The Spanish have got it as wrong as we have and Australian and Spanish wine name authorities need to deal with Albariño as a style rather than simply as a variety. It would be foolish to punish the Australians and allow the Spanish and Portuguese to continue to promote their product in Australia as Albarino.” Tscharke argues even more passionately that the grapes being grown in Australia as Savagnin have much more in common with true Albarino and that the product in bottle is nothing like Savagnin. He adds, “I would find it very hard to release ‘Girl Talk’ as a Savagnin when what I am growing is from a wine style point of view is clearly Albariño.” Darren Golding’s position is a little different, as he says, “If I had a bottomless pocket I’d take it on, if common sense were allowed and we weren’t bound up in legislation we’d be fine – our standards of accuracy in labeling are exemplary here but sometimes that can bite you on the bum. For the AWBC to issue their response to this issue without first engaging the growers in a meaningful way is woeful.” The problem is that the DNA evidence is irrefutable, but in clinging unquestioningly to the primacy of DNA the bigger picture can’t be acknowledged and debated. Nomenclature Australian producers are divided in their approach to marketing and face pressure to release 09 wines now. Some, like Gemtree and Tscharke are opting to promote 09 wines relying on recognition of their secondary branding, ‘Moonstone’ and ‘Girl Talk’ respectively. Savagnin will be mentioned on their back labels. Others like Irvine have considered a move to trademark and alternative name but have found stakeholder consensus difficult to achieve. According to Marc Allgrove from Chapel Hill, “Alternative naming also carries with it the challenge of gaining approval for the name in all countries you wish to sell the product, which comes at significant cost.” These producers will likely release their 09 bottlings as Savagnin Blanc - disturbingly close to Sauvignon Blanc and therefore not without it’s own challenges. Alternatively growers can legally use the name Traminer as it shares the same DNA, if not flavour profile of traditional Australian plantings of Traminer. Given our disdain for what has historically been marketed using this name, this option is unrealistic. Allgrove adds that he supports retaining the name Albariño, but is concerned that the horse has bolted. “It is important particularly with aromatic whites to get them to market quickly. The ideal scenario is to retain the name Albariño, but only if resolution can be achieved quickly... which is unlikely.” More fruit for the sideboard There are other compelling reasons to promote the ongoing success of this varietal in Australia. Damien Tscharke cites the vines suitability to the local climate, being disease resistant and requiring very low water inputs. It seems also well suited to a wide variety of climates, producing superb results from climates as diverse as King Valley and the Barossa. There is qualified industry support for retaining the name Albariño. A change of name now and subsequent market confusion threatens the continued existence of this style in Australia and must also call into question Spanish production as well. A cohesive and thoughtful global approach must be taken in order to secure the future of this magnificent wine style in Australia and elsewhere. Producers seem to be steeled to face the challenges of rebranding this new/ old product. In the words of producer Rollo Crittenden, “Australia is now the biggest producer of Savagnin as a dry white table wine with 150-200 hectares under vine, this is a magnificent wine style with much potential to grow in Australia but with an equally large marketing burden to face.”