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SCARY MONSTER OR SUBLIME WINE?

Article by Dan Traucki as published in Wine Business Magazine, Jan-Feb 2016:


DURIF WOULD HAVE FADED INTO OBLIVION HAD IT NOT BEEN FOR A VICTORIAN VITICULTURIST. THANK YOU, FRANCOIS DE CASTELLA.

While the vast majority of wine drinkers around the world have never heard of Durif, the relatively few that have usually hold it in awe because as a mate of mine used to say, “It can be like having a liquid prime rib-steak in a glass”.

If one had to use a single word to describe the wines made from a particular grape variety, there would be varieties described as: elegant, svelte, complicated, interesting, challenging and so on. However, I feel that the word that best describes Durif is “oomph”. It packs a punch. Continuing with the boxing metaphor, Durif comes in two classes or divisions: Middleweight and Heavyweight. There are no Lightweight or Bantamweight Durifs.

As a variety, Durif would have to be described as a baby, or at most a toddler, because unlike most Vitis vinifera grape varieties which have been around for centuries or even millennia, Durif was discovered in 1880 by Francois Durif, a botanist at Montpellier University, when he spotted a most unusual/atypical vine in a local vineyard. He studied it and when he realised that it was in fact a new variety, he modestly named it after himself. Subsequent studies have shown that it is a cross between Peloursin and Shiraz – a bit of natural GM (genetic modification).

Initially Durif was quite widely planted in parts of the Rhone Valley due to its resistance to downy mildew, however while Durif added masses of colour to the local wines, it made a fairly poor wine. I suspect that this was because it couldn’t get enough sunshine to ripen properly in the cool Rhone. It wasn’t very long before it fell out of favour and was ripped out of the Rhone vineyards – you could say that it was an early vinous fad.

Durif would have faded into oblivion had it not been for Victorian viticulturist Francois de Castella, who brought cuttings grafted onto American rootstock into Australia, in 1908, to help replant Victorian vineyards after they had been ravaged by phylloxera. The cuttings ended up in Rutherglen where they were propagated and issued to growers around the area. Here again, despite having plenty of sunshine, it was not in favour for long, with many vineyards phasing it out as soon as they were back on their feet after the devastation of the phylloxera outbreak.  For the few who did persevere with the variety, it became just another variety to use in the area’s famed fortified wines, which were all the rage until the 1960s. It took a long time before the variety received any sort of recognition. Australia’s (and probably the world’s) first varietal Durif wine was released by Morris of Rutherglen in 1954. To put this into perspective, varietal Durif wines have been around for three years less than what Penfolds Grange has.

According to Which Winegrape Varieties Are Grown Where? By Kym Anderson of Adelaide University, the world grows 455 hectares of Durif, most of which are grown in Australia. While it is grown elsewhere in small quantities, in California (where it is called Petit Sirah), Argentina, Chile, Israel and Mexico, the spiritual home of Durif is now Australia; Rutherglen in fact, where it first arrived and where it produces the region’s signature red wine. Today there is Durif grown in almost every viticultural region in Australia other than Tasmania, which is too cool for this sun-loving variety.

Traditionally, most young Durif were a brooding, brutish beast, squid-ink black in colour with possibly only Tannat or maybe Saperavi having arguably a greater depth of colour. It was ready to punch your lights out as it jumped down your throat, assaulting your palate.

In the days when Shiraz and Cabernet were 12.5 to 13.5 percent in alcohol, Durif was nudging (or often exceeding) 15 percent. Interestingly, as Cabernet and Shiraz have gradually creeped up in alcohol over the last two decades, many Durif have been doing the opposite, with a gradual reduction. Today most are around the 14 to 14.5 percent like most other reds.

There are 105 wineries growing Durif in Australia, compared with 84 in 2010. While this is not a big number out of the around 2,700 wineries/wine businesses in the country, it is definitely a growing band of brothers and sisters who have become enamoured with this sensational grape variety. While Rutherglen is still its spiritual home, Durif is now grown in the Hunter, Mudgee, Griffith, Geographe, Heathcote, Barossa and the Riverland. Part of the objective of the tasting was to see how the wines from 'newbie' areas compare with those from Rutherglen.

It turned out that the contenders in the Middleweight class were those wines with 14 percent or less in alcohol, whereas the Heavyweights went all the way up to Warrabilla 2009 Parola’s Durif (18 percent).

I expected that the warmer climate wines would be the Heavyweights given the variety’s propensity for sunshine, and that the (relatively) cooler climate wines would be the Middleweights. However, regionality had less to do with which class the wines belonged in than I thought. For example Domaine Asmara 2013 Private Reserve Durif from Heathcote – a relatively cool area – was a big wine with 16 percent alcohol, almost black in colour with beautiful blueberry aromas and flavours. A rather svelte Heavyweight. On the other hand, many of the Rutherglen Durifs, especially from the long-term makers such as Morris and Campbells, were in the Middleweight class, often barely nudging 14 percent. The style of wine is more dependent on the winemaker’s decision on when to pick the grapes, so that late-picked grapes from a cooler climate can make a bigger wine than early-picked grapes from a warmer climate.

Current Middleweight contenders:

Mandalay Road 2014 (Geographe WA). A keeper/long-term contender.

Wynwood 2014 Grey Gum (Hunter Valley). An excellent current contender which just won the Top Gold in Class 26, in the NSW Small Winemakers Show.

1838 Premium Blue 2011 (Mudgee). A very elegant contender.

De Bortoli 2013 Deen Vat 1 (Griffith). A smooth operator at its peak and rearing to go – amazing value.

Campbells 2013 Limited Release (Rutherglen).  Needs time to come together.

Cofield 2013 Provincial Parcel (Rutherglen).  Getting its act together to be a serious contender soon.

Lake Moodemere 2013 (Rutherglen).  A slightly lighter style contender with plenty of staying power – will go the distance.

Scion 2013 (Rutherglen).  Impressive appearance, just needs to settle down a little bit more to be a serious contender.

St Leonards Vineyard 2013 (Rutherglen).  Still a bit gangly, needs time to show true potential.

Anderson Story Teller & Basket Press (Rutherglen).  Nimble and agile, rearing to go.

Morris (2012 and 2010) Bin 158 (Rutherglen).  Not in the Heavyweight category as expected – given their provenance but good contenders.

Contenders for the Heavyweight Division:

Kalleske 2014 Buckboard SV (Barossa). Big and brawny, just kicking off and needs a lot of time to settle down and integrate.

Calabria 3 Bridges- (2013, 2012 and 2008) (Griffith). A very elegant heavyweight and really serious contender.

919 Wines 2010-2012 (Riverland). Consistent excellent svelte performer- another really serious contender.

Dell’Uva 2012 Petit Sirah (Barossa). Durif by another name – an awesome contender so lithe and graceful one of the front runners.

Naked Wines Jen Pfeiffer  2013 The Diamond (Rutherglen).  A lighter style heavyweight that needs time to develop and mature.

Warrabilla 2013 Parola’s Ltd Release (Rutherglen).  The heavy at 17.5 percent alcohol – an awesome contender that will become even better over the years. Also watch out for the Reserve Durif from the same stable – another worthy contender.

Rutherglen Estate 2013 Renaissance Durif (Rutherglen).  A big unit that is so approachable and friendly.

Pfeiffer 2013 (Rutherglen).  Starts out a tad light and sweet but finishes with a great right hook knock-out.

Stanton & Killeen 2013 (Rutherglen).  This long-time maker produced another viable contender for the crown.

All Saints 2012 Family Cellar (Rutherglen).  A great solid performer, classy rather than flashy.

Morris Wines 2007 CHM (Rutherglen).  Superb contender that is just starting to show its true potential and will develop over many years to come. Will be brilliant.

Campbells 2006 The Barkly (Rutherglen).  Just hitting its straps and rearing to go.

While not in contention, the tasting also included Morris Wines Durif from 2002, 2001 and 1992, kindly supplied by the winery and the 1985 from my cellar. None of these wines could be described as heavyweights, they were richly flavoured, elegant and bright in colour. Even the 1985 showed almost no browning. They epitomise what Durif can achieve with aging and good cellaring. Rich, delicious chocolatey wines that leave the palate begging for more.

The real Heavyweight of this tasting was Warrabilla, which kindly sent six back vintages (going back to 2002) of each of its Reserve and Parola’s Durif. They were all huge, big wines, but well balanced with none of them suffering from the alcohol heat.  Warrabilla 2009 Parola’s Durif was stunning, by far the best Durif of the tasting and one of the best I have ever tasted. It is a huge wine (18.0 percent unfortified) with massive dense dark purple/black colour, a strong nose of ripe plums and fantastic mouthfilling, senses thrilling flavours with hints of chocolate and aniseed. It is a huge but smooth, rounded wine which is superbly balanced and lingers on the palate for eons. The slightly tannic finish, along with the masses of flavour, augurs well for a long and salubrious life for this awesome wine.

There were no unacceptable or mediocre wines in this tasting, there were a few out of the over 50 wines tasted that were a bit gangly and disjointed, like an awkward  teenager, that would be a struggle to enjoy now, but they showed promise for the future, if patience is applied. The older Durif vintages amply demonstrated that patience is truly rewarded by breathtaking flavours.

Stop press At the Hong Kong International Wine Fair, I tasted a great midweight Durif from Mexico – LA Cetto 2013 Petit Syrah, from north western Mexico, which could effectively be considered as southern- southern California.

Even more unusual was the Durif I tasted from Thailand, made by GrandeMonte Vineyard in Asoke Valley. The winemaker, Nikki Lohitnavy, was Adelaide Uni trained before doing several vintages in Europe (France and Portugal)/South America (Brazil and Mexico) and South Africa. Her GrandeMonte 2014 Durif was very reminiscent of the De Bortoli 2013 Deen Vat 1 in style and weight, but with slightly different, floral flavours.

DAN TRAUCKI is a wine journalist and a wine industry consultant. His company, Wine Assist, specialises in exports to Asian markets.  dan@wineassist.com.au

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