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Grape Identity Crisis in Australia

Wine producers learn their Albariño might be Savagnin; others ask what the difference is

Tyson Stelzer
Posted: April 14, 2009

Australian growers are shocked over an announcement this week that the majority of the country's plantings of the Spanish grape variety Albariño are actually the French variety Savagnin. The mix-up was revealed by DNA profiling conducted by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the body responsible for importing and distributing vine plant material into Australia.

The authenticity of the vines was first called into question last year following a visit by a French ampelographer, or grape-identification expert, Jean-Michel Boursiquot, who suspected that Albariño vines he looked at near Barossa appeared to be Savagnin, an obscure variety cultivated almost exclusively in the Jura in eastern France, where it produces the Sherry-like vin jaune.

The CSIRO subsequently compared DNA samples from both varieties in Spain with vines from its own collection believed to be Albariño and found a match with Savagnin. The study concluded that wines produced from vines sourced from this collection cannot be labeled as Albariño.

The announcement this week has commercial implications for the estimated dozen wines made from the variety in Australia. Those sourced from the CSIRO material will be required to be tested, repackaged and relabeled.

"There will be repercussions for us financially," said Barossa Valley winemaker Damien Tscharke of Tscharke wines, the country's first and largest commercial producer of the variety, who has significant volumes labeled and ready for release, including a major shipment destined for the U.S.

Tscharke's vines were sourced from the CSIRO in 2001, as were those of McLaren Vale producer Chapel Hill. "We've had it sitting in tanks awaiting the announcement, scratching our heads and wondering what we're going to do with it," said Chapel Hill winemaker Michael Fragos. "We'll just have to label it for what it is, market it as a new variety and see how it goes."

Most other producers say they will take a similar approach and continue to produce the variety, which has recently risen to popularity in the Australian market. The Aussie Savignin vines' ability to tolerate drought and heat makes it one of the most sustainable emerging varieties for the Australian climate, and this has encouraged further planting.

Tscharke quoted one unnamed grower who planted it for the first time this year as saying, "I really don't [care] if it's Albariño or Savagnin—whatever it is, it's performing really well, consumers love it, so we're going to stick with it."

Others are more concerned about its name and the effect on sales. Andrew Pirie, chief executive at Tamar Ridge in Tasmania, will continue to produce the variety, but says he worries about the impact of the new name on sales. Tscharke agreed. "It has come as a shock to me, and to other producers of this popular variety, that Albariño has been commercially released in Australia by the CSIRO possibly not true to type," he said. "It puts a lot of doubt in consumers' and retailers' minds about the variety." Tscharke has decided to undertake his own investigations into its identity, which he says is not as black-and-white as it may seem.

"The CSIRO has conducted objective testing, so we can't dismiss it," he said, "but when I look at the vine and at the wine everything suggests that it is Albariño." He points to the characteristics used to identify Albariño in Spain as consistent with his Barossa Valley vines: "Albariño clusters are conical and have wings whereas Savagnin clusters are cylindrical; Albariño has two clusters per fruiting branch while Savagnin only has one; and Albariño contains two seeds per berry, whereas Savagnin has one," he said.

The situation is further complicated by the tendency of vines to mutate and adapt to their environment. Peter Lehmann Wines viticulturist Nigel Blieshke has found that some of his Albariño grapes have two seeds and some have one.

Both Albariño and Savagnin are genetic mutations of the Traminer variety, part of a family surrounded by well-documented identity confusion in many parts of the world, including Spain. It's been suggested that the notorious genetic instability of this group—cousins of Gewürztraminer, which can be known as Savignin Rosé, and distant relatives of Pinot Noir—means that it would be better regarded as a family of related clones rather than distinct varieties.

This may be a subtle distinction, but it could have worldwide commercial implications for what a wine is permitted to be named and how it may be labeled. At a time when DNA testing is becoming commonplace, such distinctions are likely to become increasingly significant.

While the CSIRO testing found differences between the DNA profiles of Albariño and Savagnin samples obtained from Spain, a 2002 Italian study found the two varieties to be genetically identical, supporting the idea that Albariño may have originally come to Spain and Portugal as Savagnin cuttings from eastern France.

"There has been some question as to whether some Albariño vines in Spain are Savagnin," Fragos said.

"You have to go back to the original source," said Eden Valley grower Jim Irvine of Irvine Wines, "and if the Spanish can't tell the difference, how the hell can we?!"

The original identification of the cuttings would have been made in Spain, not in Australia. There has been suggestion that the source of the vine material in Spain may need to be audited, which opens up all manner of potential complications.

Viticultural consultant Richard Smart said the fight raises concerns over which Australian body has the responsibility for administering correct varietal identification. "It has not been possible for more than 10 years to find out which varieties have been imported into Australia, and there is no national germplasm collection to act as reference," he said. "Is this an appropriate situation for a wine sector in which alternative varieties might help restore a competitive edge?"

Tscharke will call a meeting this week with South Australian and Victorian producers of the variety. "I'm going to try to take the lead on this and get support from other producers to embark on our own testing and determine the truth of the DNA of this cultivar," he said. "I'm certainly not going to walk away from this variety. What we've grown this vintage is what I have always dreamed of some day producing. I just want to bottle it and get it out there, but first I need to find out what to label it."

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