In defence of Verdelho

In the recent The Age guide to Summer Drinking the authors recommended avoiding any white grape starting with a “v”. This sort of smart Alec nonsense really was disappointing. Frankly these wine writers don’t deserve the title because they clearly haven’t made any effort to investigate the merit of at least one of the “v”s – verdelho. In fact one would hope that professional wine critics would find the time to seek out the virtues of any variety, and distinguish the serious interpretations of the variety from the bland overtly commercial offerings that occur with all varieties.

Verdelho is an interesting grape variety, generally not well known or highly regarded in the world of wine, yet having a long history and being of special significance in some instances. Verdelho is best known as one of the four traditional varieties used to make Madeira. The wines of Madeira, an island off the coast of Africa, became famous hundreds of years ago for their rich full flavour and ability to improve dramatically during long sea voyages (they were picked up by shipping on the transatlantic routes). It is not surprising that for many years verdelho was referred to as ‘madeira’ in Australia. Verdelho is also highly regarded as a white port variety in the ‘home’ of port, the Douro Valley of Portugal. Here it is known as ‘gouveio’.

James Busby and John Macarthur introduced Verdelho cuttings into Australia in either or both 1824 and 1825. Two of Australia’s preeminent viticultural pioneers George Blaxland and John Macarthur (and son William) had visited Madeira in 1806 and 1817 respectively. In 1844 William Macarthur described verdelho as the “most valuable grape for wine hitherto proved in the Colony…rich and generous, evidently capable of being kept for a great number of years.”

There would no doubt have been several reasons for the success of verdelho. It must have proved itself easy to grow under the circumstances of the time. Most of the early vineyards were in Sydney or the Hunter Valley where conditions for grapegrowing are considered relatively humid, with high summer rainfall. Verdelho grapes proved resistant to mildew and bunch rot. The vines must have flourished, despite a lack of irrigation, as the pioneers would have had little time for shy bearing vines. Verdelho was obviously well suited to the winemaking conditions of the times when wines were fermented on their skins without temperature control, then stored and aged in barrels to produce either full bodied reds or sweet wines, possibly fortified with brandy.

Verdelho is recorded as an important variety in many famous Australian vineyards through the nineteenth century. In 1843 Dr Henry John Lindeman planted ‘Cawarra’ in the Hunter Valley with verdelho alongside semillon and possibly chardonnay. Cawarra was destined to become one of the most famous Australian vineyards of its era. Also famous was Joseph Gilbert’s Pewsey Vale planted in the hills above the Barossa Valley in 1847. Gilbert planted riesling and verdelho. John Reynell planted a vineyard and built a cellar south of Adelaide in the 1840s. He bought cuttings from William Macarthur, including verdelho. On the east of Adelaide ‘Auldana’ was planted in 1854 and also included verdelho. The Emu Wine Company operated Auldana, long one of the Empire’s largest importers of Australian wine, and subsequently owner of Houghton and Valencia Wines of the Swan Valley.

Victoria’s Chateau Tahbilk was well established in the 1870s and was growing verdelho. The famous Sevenhill Jesuit College in Clare commenced their vineyard in 1858. The vineyard included verdelho and had become a leading commercial enterprise in the region by the late 1880s. Tyrrell’s was an early pioneer of the lower Hunter Valley and was also growing verdelho at the end of the nineteenth century.

Clearly verdelho was a popular variety late in the nineteenth century. The industry had experienced an eight fold increase in vineyard area between 1850 and 1870 and successfully expanded into Victoria and South Australia. Another boom occurred in the 1880s with vineyard area increasing fourfold (followed by the bank crash of 1884 and subsequent depression and the unrelated ravaging of vineyards in Victoria by phylloxera).

With Federation and the removal of customs barriers between the former colonies, South Australia became the preeminent winemaking state. The industry remained static until the end of the Great War in 1919 when the area of vineyard doubled again. This period coincided with the expansion of the irrigation settlements along the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers. The favoured varieties in the irrigation areas were very high yielding varieties best suited to distillation or drying such as doradillo, sultana, and muscat gordo. Oversupply in the 1920s, depression in the 1930s and war in the 1940s meant tough times for the wine industry. Many areas such as the Yarra Valley went out of production and demand was largely reduced to cheap sweet fortified wine from South Australia. It seems verdelho’s hardy character that made it so valuable one hundred years earlier couldn’t compete with the high yielding varieties required to meet this market.

Slowly branded wine became common in the 1950s as some wineries gained critical mass and developed modern marketing campaigns. It wasn’t until the 1960s that tablewines began to reemerge and wine drinking became popular. Popularity of red wine in particular boomed, followed shortly after by the collapse of the red wine market as white tablewine emerged as the new boom. New packaging – the wine ‘cask’ – and new technology allowed the mass production and mass distribution of fresh, fruity, slightly sweet wines, such as Ben Ean, Summerwine, and others. These wines were made from a range of common varieties available at the time including sultana, crouchen, trebbiano, riesling, semillon, and muscat gordo. Verdelho had been reduced to isolated scattered plantings.

During the 1970s the ongoing growth in popularity of white wines led winemakers to search for new varieties and the promotion of “varietal” wines. By 1980 riesling became the premier variety due to its prominent fruity aroma and flavour. Both semillon and chardonnay became popular for more full bodied styles of white wine, whilst traminer with its pronounced fruity character was a rising star. Varieties such as verdelho, frontignan, chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc were of minor importance. In 1980 there were about 100 hectares of verdelho compared to 4700 of riesling. The late eighties were another period of oversupply and the industry struggled with excess production.

The mid 1990s saw Australia’s most recent wine boom, with vineyard area tripling and the value of production now almost $5 billion annually. Of the fruit grown for bottled white wine verdelho is now the fifth most important variety after chardonnay, semillon, riesling, and sauvignon blanc. In fact the growth in production of verdelho from 100 hectares in 1980 to 1,500 in 2005 has outstripped the overall rate of growth. Chardonnay now accounts for three of every four bottles of white wine and verdelho one of every thirty – or about 14 million per year.

Verdelho is been more widely grown and more popular in New South Wales and Western Australia. In the Hunter Valley verdelho has always been considered a useful variety, initially for fortified wine and sweet wines and more recently for dry tablewines. In Western Australia verdelho was an obscure variety until identified by Jack Mann as have great potential for tablewine. Jack was keen to produce a special white wine that stood above his famous Houghton White Burgundy and identified verdelho as his preferred variety. He propagated verdelho and the resultant wine was marketed as Verdell. He planted verdelho in the new Moondah Brook vineyard in the early seventies. That fruit is now used for the dry Moondah Brook Verdelho, and the sweet Late Picked Verdelho.
My first experience with verdelho was in 1984 at Lindemans in the Hunter Valley. Our winemaker Karl Stockhausen was very famous for his dry white wines particularly semillons. Verdelho was made in an aromatic fruity style. I still remember the ferment being completed in a pressure tank – the high pressure slowing the ferment with the aim of increasing the fruity character of the wine. Verdelho wasn’t always bottled separately, but sometimes blended into some of the more softer, rounder semillons (‘Hunter River White Burgundy’), or when conditions were right, picked late and blended with semillon to make the famous Hunter River Porphyry.

I next came upon verdelho when I joined Houghton in 1993. Using fruit from the Moondah Brook and Houghton vineyards we made the Houghton Gold Reserve, Moondah Brook and Late Picked Verdelhos. The Gold Reserve was a fantastic wine – fruit picked ripe to maximise varietal character, free run juice only, and fermented dry. The wine was full of fruit, full and rich, dry and crisp. I was an immediate convert and the two wines I was involved with – 1993 and 1994 – were two of the best verdelhos I’ve seen. Both wines are still drinking fantastically well over ten years later. We did make a beautiful wine in 1995 but it was subsequently blended with chardonnay and that was the end of the Gold Reserve range.

Fortunately I again had the opportunity to work with fantastic verdelho at Chestnut Grove in Manjimup between 1999 and 2003. We made several super wines, in a slightly more aromatic crisper style than the Houghton. These wines were regular gold medal winners. I’ve also helped local verdelho makers Upper Reach and Sittella with their wines.

I believe that verdelho is an interesting and challenging variety, a test of grapegrowing and winemaking, that if successful can produce a delicious young wine that will improve for a very long time in the cellar. As a variety it has the rare characteristic of being both aromatic and full bodied. Its varietal character is of ripe nectarines and sherbet, and this is only achieved when the fruit is fully ripe. The flavours develop late in the season so it is essential not to pick too early. However it is also prone to over ripeness, stuck ferments and excessive phenolics and it can easily produce sugary, broad, fat, unattractive wines. The high sugar level of the grapes creates the risk that the wine will be hot and alcoholic or suffer a stuck ferment and have residual sugar. Achieving a fine, vibrant, intense wine is no easy task.

Well made verdelho has the happy knack of satisfying the lover of complex dry wine as well as those who enjoy softer fruitier wines. It makes a delicious drink and this fact seems to have eluded our Melbourne scribblers.

Verdelho is most successful in a warm dry climate. The Swan Valley has been a very successful home to verdelho and Houghton, John Kosovich, Talijancich, Upper Reach, Sittella and Lamonts have all been successful with it. The 1992 verdelho from John Kosovich is at least as good as the Houghton Gold Reserves.

It was obvious that we would plant verdelho at Faber Vineyard. It is the most interesting white variety for the Swan Valley. We have very high expectations of making a classic verdelho. Despite problems we suffered in the vineyard I believe our 2006 Verdelho is the best we have made – very much a classic verdelho – a great drink now, and it should be a great wine in ten years time.

Acknowledgement to Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Wine & Brandy Corp, Len Evans’ Complete Book of Australian Wine, Robert Mayne’s Great Australian Wine Book, John Beeston’s Concise History of Australian Wine, and James Halliday’s and Hugh Johnson’s Art & Science of Wine

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