Future tastes of Albarino

© Cape Times Friday 17th January 2014

In the world of wine, the biggest globetrotting grape varieties are all French. The French vignerons got themselves organised a lot earlier than any other European country in terms of knowing what grapes go best where and how to make the best wines from them, so when it came to new plantings in the New World, people felt secure and confident with French grapes and chose those for their new vineyards. Here in South Africa, Huguenot refugees brought over their native grapes in the seventeenth century and most of the grapes we have growing here today are French in origin.

But Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece have an abundance of indigenous grapes and, following investment from the EU, they now have good plant material and a solid depth of knowledge of the different varieties. All of which makes Southern European grapes some of the most interesting and exciting – particularly for farseeing New World winemakers, always on the look-out for hardy, water-wise varieties which can withstand lots of heat and retain their natural acidity.

One person who’s looking to the future is Dave Johnson. His Newton Johnson vineyards and winery in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley have made their name with French grapes, in particular Pinot Noir. This year sees the first release of single block wines from this variety to much acclaim, 2 Platter 5 Star gongs and a Platter Red Wine of the Year award, but Dave is getting himself fired up about another variety instead – Albariño. This grape hails from the north-western part of the Iberian Peninsula and is grown in the Rias Baixas region in Spain as well as the Minhõ in Portugal – an area better known for Vinhõ Verde.

Dave was one of the first people to brave the rigours of the Wine & Spirits Board and introduce the variety to SA, bringing in new plant material from California (he tried Spain but apparently there are no rootstocks available. He then tried Australia, but they’ve recently discovered that someone had made a mistake and what they thought was Albariño was actually a different grape called Savagnin!). After the plants had passed quarantine last year, a tiny number were grafted onto ½ a hectare of Shiraz rootstocks, which Dave believes will work well as they are planted in Albariño’s favourite granite soils. The result is a miniscule harvest of 15kg of grapes which yielded a mere 8 litres of wine this year – talk about small beginnings! Dave’s winemaking son and daughter-in-law, Gordon and Nadia, reckon they will have a commercial crop next year (albeit still a fairly small one) and the big question now is in what style they’re going to make it?

At a tasting before Christmas, Gordon gathered together 6 Albariños from Spain, made in a range of styles – some blended with other varieties, some with lees contact, some with fairly high residual sugar, some with delicious botrytis character – for me and a few other lucky journalists to try. Albariño is a perfumed grape variety, with flavours and aromas not unlike a Riesling or a Viognier – peaches, almonds, blossom, and soft yellow fruits – and the Spanish versions confirmed our feelings that this was not a wine to overwhelm with too much oak. The lees contact worked well and the wines were generally lively and lingering. Most of the Spanish wines came in at around 12.5% abv, and Gordon and Nadia are confident they can keep their alcohol, something which can often get out of hand in warmer climates, in check at around 13%.

The really good and exciting news for the Newton Johnson’s and SA wine is that their tiny, experimental 8 litres is nevertheless distinctively Albariño and actually very nice indeed. It has a lovely high acidity – a hallmark of the variety – and was a really pretty wine with lots of pineapples and litchis. It’s also known as a great food partner, particularly with fish and I bet that Eric Bulpitt, new owner/chef at The Restaurant at Newton Johnson is itching to get his hands on some to see what he can come up with. I hope my return invite is in the post for when he does!