The news that Australia's nascent infatuation with Albariño is a case of mistaken identity reminds me of several other cases of grape misidentification that periodically bedevil some corner of the wine world. Remember Napa Gamay? Italian Zinfandel? All those Rieslings that weren’t the real thing?
As correspondent Tyson Stelzer reported this week, Australian authorities have decided that all that Australian Albariño is actually an obscure variety called Savagnin. If you look it up, Savagnin is the grape variety that has traditionally been oxidized into vin jaune, a white wine verging on brown from France's Jura region. The vintners get a lot of money for that stuff, although I have never acquired a taste for it.
But I do like Albariño from the Spanish region of Galicia, and the few examples I have tasted of Albariño made in Australia have pleased me too. Like the Spanish versions, Australia's show fresh, minerally flavors on a lean, crisp structure. The wines are dynamite with shellfish.
Albariño is doing very well in Oz. The growers like it because it produces lively wines very much like the Spanish versions, the prices remain moderate, and it's rapidly building an audience in a country that loves its dry Rieslings, unoaked Chardonnay and oceans of simple Verdelhos.
We don't see much Aussie Verdelho here, though, and so far, not much Aussie Albariño either. I have rated only Gemtree 2008 from McLaren Vale; I liked it and gave it 90 points. The only other taste of Albariño I have reviewed so far is First Drop's Shiraz-based red wine called Two Percent, so called because 2 percent Albariño is added to the blend instead of the more commonly used Viognier.
So what's the big deal if they have to re-label the stuff as Savagnin? Australia did pretty well selling Shiraz when the rest of the world called it Syrah. I find the stories of Gamay, Zinfandel and Riesling instructive. Oversimplified, here is the history:
Zinfandel was California's own, they thought, until it turned out to be genetically identical to Primitivo of Southern Italy. Some Italian vintners started labeling their wines as Zinfandel to aid sales in the U.S. In the end, researchers discovered that the grape actually originated in Croatia. You don't see much Italian Zinfandel any more, but Primitivo is doing just fine, thank you.
The name Riesling carried so much weight that vintners used to name all sorts of other grape varieties as some variant of Riesling. Europe had its Welchriesling. Italy had Riesling Italico. California had Grey Riesling. For years Australia called its Hunter Valley Sémillons “Hunter Riesling.” In the New World, they called the real deal "White Riesling" or "Johannisberg Riesling" to differentiate it. International trade agreements have cleared all that up. Now, only the real Riesling can use the name.
Gamay, the real thing, is the grape that makes Beaujolais in France. California used to make Gamay Beaujolais from what they thought was Gamay, but turned out to be the obscure Valdigué. This became a moot point as the market turned away from Beaujolais anyway.
Like the vintners who had to figure out what do with all the wine they called Grey Riesling or Gamay that technically weren't, the Australians who are making Albariño—and there are several dozen of them—will have a problem. So far they have had a marketing advantage. It's not quite the same as Italians marketing their Primitivo as Zinfandel, but they knew that we consumers familiar with Spanish Albariño would realize that we were dealing with an Aussie attempt to do the same thing.
Savagnin is a different thing. If you saw it on a label without explanation, you might think someone mistyped "Sauvignon." Or maybe it could be one of those proprietary names, like Meritage.
Marketing a new wine called Savagnin, made in a very different style from what the grape is known for in its homeland, would seem to present a formidable challenge. I like the can-do Aussie attitude expressed by winemaker Michael Fragos, whose Chapel Hill winery has a tank full of the stuff ready to bottle.
"(We’re) awaiting the announcement, scratching our heads and wondering what we're going to do with it," he said. "We'll just have to label it for what it is, market it as a new variety and see how it goes."
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — April 17, 2009 8:24pm ET
Steven Sherman — san francisco — April 17, 2009 9:40pm ET
Michael Schulman — Westlake Village, CA — April 20, 2009 3:34pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — April 21, 2009 2:06am ET
David Peters — Mission Viejo, CA — April 21, 2009 1:15pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — April 21, 2009 1:26pm ET
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