Rutherglen Durif might not be the darling of Australian wine writers, but it has attracted a niche consumer following. Recently a group of Rutherglen winemakers sat down to evaluate wines from across their region. It was a positive experience according to those involved. Nathan Gogoll reports.
RUTHERGLEN’S self-proclaimed ‘own’ red grape variety, Durif, was recently the focus of a group of winemakers at a benchmarking workshop. Internationally respected wine industry consultant and Master of Wine, Nick Bulleid, was invited to host the one-day educational tasting event by the board of Winemakers of Rutherglen.
Wendy Killeen, chair of the Winemakers of Rutherglen, described the day as “amazing” and “incredible”.
“We’ve been talking up the virtues of this remarkable grape variety for decades. It is a grape variety widely perceived to be the other grape variety, alongside Muscat, that has found a unique home in Rutherglen,” said Killeen.
Durif’s origins in Australia trace back to the early part of the 1900s when Dr Francois De Castella, a senior viticulturist working for the Department of Primary Industries went to Europe to find the best way forward for the Victorian wine industry after the devastation caused by Phylloxera. After many months of travelling through Europe’s most famous wine regions, he arrived home with a wealth of important information and the beloved Durif vine.
Initially widely planted for fortified wine production, the variety started to find favour among table wine producers in Rutherglen about 60 years ago. The variety has grown in popularity so much so that now 75 per cent of the Winemakers of Rutherglen have Durif positioned prominently in their repertoire of wine varieties.
The workshop included the blind tasting and assessment of at more than 40 Durif wines, including some barrel samples from the 2014 and 2015 vintages alongside finished wines. The Rutherglen examples were also benchmarked against Durif from other regions.
Bulleid is well qualified to facilitate this type of event as he has a long list of professional credentials, including previous benchmarking workshops across the country. He said he was pleased with the participation and the discussions on the day.
“We looked at the finished wines first, to look at the range of styles and handling; then we looked at the unfinished wines. I’m sure there were lessons to learn for vintages to come,” said Bulleid.
The wines were identified only by codes, so only the winemakers who entered knew where their own wines sat in the line-up. But the codes were only available for confirmation after the tasting. Bulleid said this format worked well because it was non-threatening and allowed for positive discussions.
“With one of our preferred wines from 2014, the winemaker was happy to put up his hand afterwards and say ‘that was my wine’ and tell us it was a gold medal winner at both the Rutherglen Wine Show and at Canberra,” he said.
“Even when it came to feedback on negative aspects, such as sulphites or aldehydes on the unfinished wines, the comments offered were encouragement for how these issues can be fixed.”
Bulleid said this form of regional tasting was another example of the collaboration available to winemakers to make sure they are not falling victim to their own ‘cellar palate’.
“I always recommend winemakers get at least one other person from outside the winery to look at their wines with them – and it doesn’t have to be a consultant, it can be a neighbour – because an objective view is really important.”
Chris Pfeiffer, the managing partner and senior winemaker at Pfeiffer Wines, said it was a good day.
“It has been a while since we sat down and all looked at the Durif and how it all stacks up for the region,” said Pfeiffer.
He agreed the benchmarking exercise allowed for constructive feedback.
“There is diversity in the interpretation of Durif and we need to encourage that, there are wines with more elegance about them along with the tannins – which almost sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it is possible,” said Pfeiffer.
“In the 2015 wines we saw good fruit expression; violets and black cherry. And people were also talking about the colour and density of the wines. This group of wines looked quite strong; very promising.
“The 2013s looked pretty good as well – I actually like the wines from the 2013 vintage, but I might be in the minority on that one. What we had to deal with in 2013 and 2015 was compressed ripening and we are probably looking to be prepared for that in 2016 as well.”
Pfeiffer said one of the key talking points for the winemakers was the picking window for Durif and the search for a balance of sugar and tannin ripeness.
“Most of the wines were sitting around 15 or 15.5% alcohol. This seems to be where the balance of fruit is possible, without having any green flavour.”
He said there weren’t many examples that stood out for being vastly different.
“Nobody is doing anything radical that I know of, instead people are looking at things like extended maceration to soften the tannins of the skins. And that process has been seen right across the region. But we also saw one winemaker using some Viognier to lift the florals.”
Marc Scalzo, Rutherglen Estates winemaker, said the tasting was not designed to single out the best local examples of Durif.
“I suppose the purpose of the day, from my point of view, was to allow the winemakers to look at what we’re doing across the region. The purpose wasn’t to pinpoint a style that will define Rutherglen, or even work best, but to discuss the variety and learn more about it,” said Scalzo.
“Rutherglen has got something here; we’re definitely on to something with Durif. It has a place in the market, it already has a strong following and that following is growing. I see this event as a way that we can get together and talk about how we are going to keep that all going.”
THE STRENGTH OF THE REGION
While there are a number of factors involved in the widespread planting of Durif in Rutherglen, Scalzo pointed out there was one key element responsible for their success.
“Our difference is the weather. Durif is a bit of a sook in the vineyard and it’s very prone to botrytis, it just can’t handle late summer rains. So here in Rutherglen we have a natural advantage with our weather.”
There was no officially ranking, or even scoring, of the wines. But as Bulleid mentioned earlier, there were winemakers willing to acknowledge their own wines.
“Our 2013 Renaissance was seen as a style with merit, a strong wine from a quality point of view,” said Scalzo.
The Rutherglen Estates winemaker said there was a lot of discussion about tannin and its management.
“There was a lot to talk about when it came to picking, because that’s probably the most important decision to get right with Durif. For me, it’s about finding the balance between alcohol and tannin and fruit flavour.
“The tannins are abundant and you don’t need to overwork them. If you do push too hard you start to lose the fruit flavours and the mid-palate. We try to get our tannins and colour out early in the ferment, then really back-off with the plunges and pumpovers we do – to make sure we’re not over-extracting our wines.
“Days two and three are when we do the most work, and toward the end of the ferment we are basically just keeping the cap wet.”
There was also discussion about oak maturation.
“Again, the point wasn’t to pick the ‘right’ style, but it was noted throughout the tasting which wines had French and which wines had American Oak. I think it is really important to work with your coopers and understand what impact different seasons and toasts have on your own wines.
“What we do see with Durif is that raw oak tannins can really stand out. The cedar character that goes with Cabernet, in my opinion, doesn’t work with our Durif wines. So I don’t go for charry barrels, but a medium to medium-plus toast.”
Scalzo agreed there was both positive discussions and constructive advice for winemakers on the day. “It highlights what a united group the Winemakers of Rutherglen already are. We are known as a tight-knit group and that was reinforced on the day – we are striving to get better at what we do as a group. To have Nick hosting was fantastic. So I think everybody got a lot out of it.”
Besides the technical wine details, the attention also shifted to the sales environment. Pfeiffer summed up the mood of the room when he said he believed it would be possible to continue attracting more consumers to Durif.
Bullied drilled down deeper into this area.
“I was asked ‘how do we make Durif more mainstream?’ and I would have to say the consumers who are looking for a big red and who know about Durif and Rutherglen are actually the mainstream already – they know about it, they know where it comes from and they probably already know of a couple of the producers.
“But getting Durif to be listed more on-premise needs to be done more carefully, but it can be done with the right restaurant and a menu that can handle it.
“We know Durif is sitting at one of the poles of wine styles, but it has certainly got a niche. And there’s a strong franchise for it.”
This article was first published in the December 2015 edition of the Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
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