Australia's quest for native grapes

Thursday, 8. November 2018 - 15:15

A unique wine deserves an equally unique introduction. That was the thought going through the mind of Australian winemaker, Russell Cody, in 2001 as he prepared for the big reveal of a wine whose birth was far from the usual. Tyrian, a cross between the Catalan grape, Sumoll, and aristocratic French variety, Cabernet Sauvignon, was born in an Australian lab, and for most of its life had been identified only by numeric code. As he prepared to show the wine to industry leaders at Wine Australia in Adelaide Cody hit upon the perfect introduction.  

Tyrian was all-Australian, there was nothing else like it in the wine world, and so he launched into a rousing rendition – with a slight reworking - of a popular Aussie sporting chant.

“Tyrian, Tyrian, Tyrian,” he shouted, urging everyone to raise their voices with him in unison,
“Oi, Oi Oi!”

For a short time back in 2001, Tyrian was exciting.

“We made five vintages of Tyrian from 1999 to 2003,” remembers Cody, senior winemaker at McWilliam’s Wines headquarters in the Riverina. “The wines were very good, although I guess we put a lot of oak in them. Whatever was big and rich and (generously) coloured and oaky was the big thing back then.”

Thanks to its Cabernet parentage, Tyrian was also endowed with a mountain of tannin which proved tough on the tastebuds. And sales. Cody suspects a combination of Tyrian’s “amazing” tannins and McWilliam’s Riverina address, a major inland irrigated wine region in New South Wales with a history of supplying bulk wine to the Australian wine industry, did little to muster enthusiasm for the wine in the heart of Australian wine drinkers. Today, Tyrian plays a lesser role in the McWilliam’s wine famil – that of blender.

But where Tyrian may have faltered, other unique Australian wine grapes have not, and the quest for an entirely original Australian vinous voice continues.

The search for something unique
Australia has 60,000 years of indigenous history, but wine grapes have only been grown since European settlement, a veritable blink in time of just 230 years. Early wine production in the country took root in warm and hot inland regions, making the sourcing of suitable European Vitis vinifera hit and miss for years. Lack of concentrated colour and natural acidity in red grapes were a constant problem for winemakers.

The creation of the CSIRO – the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation – in 1916 changed all of that. In the 1960s it imported a host of European grape varieties as potentially suitable candidates for a breeding programme for the wine and dried fruit industries. “A lot of Australian grapes back in those days had relatively high pH values,” says Peter Clingeleffer, a viticulturist at CSIRO Agriculture, “so CSIRO was looking for a combination of grapes that would give a lower pH and a bit of colour under the hot, dry conditions.” 

The idea of climate change was still foreign to CSIRO’s Dr Alan Antcliff back in the late 1960s as he and his team worked on the development of their all-Australian grape, Tarrango, a cross of Portugal’s Touriga and Sultana. First released in 1980 by Brown Brothers, Tarrango became the largest selling red wine (by volume) in the UK market.

While the Brown Brothers winery is old, it’s been updated and added on so many times that each visit seems to reveal something new, a near perfect reflection of its owners, the Brown family. They’re a wine clan that dates back to 1889 with a reputation as one of the more adventurous and daring producers in the Australian wine industry. The Browns embrace change, thriving on it.

“It’s a good culture here,” says winemaker Katherine Brown, fourth generation, “one that I believe came from my grandfather (John Charles Brown).”

In the Brown Brothers pristine, all-white tasting room at Milawa in north-eastern Victoria stand two glasses of white wine. The CSIRO-bred grape known as M50 is in both glasses. Winemaking is subtly tweaked for each one. The wine on the left is 8% alcohol (by volume) and has a hefty sugar content of 85 grams of residual sugar. On the right, the wine is 10% alcohol with the sugar dialled down a smidge to 50 grams. “M50 really stands out because it’s got this really beautiful white blossom nose to it,” explains Katherine. “We’re trying to get an idea where it sits. Our idea was maybe between Moscato and dry wines.”

Wine number one is bright and perky with fresh, crushed grapes and spring florals rising from the glass. It’s so sugary that the wine’s sweetness will easily reveal any sensitive dental work, but the acidity goes a way to correct it.

With the sweetness toned down there’s more fruit flavour showing in the second wine. It also has more body and weight. Katherine Brown’s pick is the 8% version. “It’s a nice stepping stone for people who have been drinking Moscato for a long time. But it really depends where marketing takes it next.” Brown Brothers winemakers don’t know the parentage of M50. They like it that way.  “We treat it with an open mind,” she adds.

Next to M50 sit two reds. Where previously a degree of sweetness has suited the CSIRO grapes developed and promoted by Brown Brothers – Tarrango, Cienna, Mystique – the wine team is contemplating producing a dry red wine. Will it be MS0 or M189? Neither have a name yet. That will come once one or both are ready for their public debut.

Is Cabernet Sauvignon one parent? Probably. The distinctive herbal intensity which verges on green and bitter in MSO gives at least a piece of the heritage jigsaw away. It’s a different story with M189 where fruit and tannin mesh beautifully in the glass. There was nothing polished about its treatment, as it was fermented in a picking bin as the grapes came off a truck at vintage.

Whatever red gets the nod from marketing there will still be many more trials to go, and the finished wine will need to be special if it’s going to make it as a quality dry red wine.
“A lot of these CSIRO varieties lend themselves to sweeter styles but this will be different,” explains Katherine Brown. “It’s much harder to promote a dry red wine with no history, no story behind it.” Taste will be a big selling point, uniqueness too.

In a hotter, drier future on one of the driest continents on earth grapes like M50 and M189 are viewed as better bets by Brown Brothers than some of their more noble European half-cousins. They are banking on it. Each new variety costs tens of thousands of dollars in development and trialling before any wine makes it to the door of the marketing department.

Checkered history
Success with CSIRO-developed Australian grapes has been mixed. Tarrango which started it all in 1980 took off fast but is now in semi-retirement from the Australian domestic market. It will be re-launched as a rose in the 2018-19 Australian summer. Taminga followed in 1982, a cross between Sultana, Gewürztraminer and Spain’s Planta Pedralba. A spicy white, it’s another CSIRO variety that performs best with a touch of sweetness. It’s been a solid performer for Trentham Estate in the hot, irrigated wine region of the Murray Valley.

Cienna, Tyrian and Rubienne made their debuts in 2000, almost 30 years after the original pollination between Cabernet Sauvignon and Sumoll. Three grape varieties, three different names yet each with the same parentage reveals the sometimes confusing complexity of breeding new wine grapes.

“It’s just like animals including humans,” explains CSIRO’s Peter Clingeleffer. “No progeny is ever the same except, of course, identical twins. Consequently, while having the same parents the grapes are unique individuals.”

Cienna went on to be planted by Yalumba but failed to attract a drinking audience for the company. “We planted it in the early 90s at our Wrattonbully vineyard (less famous neighbour to Coonawarra) and we made from it for quite a few years,” says Louisa Rose, chief winemaker at Yalumba. “In hindsight, we probably didn’t plant it in the right area. For us, it was a bit mean and green and we pulled it out.”

However, Cienna had a very different experience at Brown Brothers who planted it and other CSIRO grapes in the hot, inland Murray Valley region and made it in a sprizty, cherry-berry, sweet fruit bomb of a style. “It is now one of the biggest selling red wines in the country, the biggest selling off-dry red,” says Katherine Brown who also has big hopes for the sale of the wine in China.

It’s still early days for Mystique, a dark, savoury dry red plush with macerated black cherries and prunes, released last year by Brown Brothers. Mystique’s parents cannot be revealed until stage two of the grape’s plant breeder’s rights registration is completed but it’s said to have at least five varieties in it.

“Originally it was two (parents), then we back-crossed,” explains Clingeleffer of the grape’s genesis. Back crossing involves taking one of the earlier cross grapes and crossing it with another variety. “It takes a lot of record keeping,” he quips.

Can an original vinous expression of one nation’s land, people and culture be distilled and created in a lab? Australian wine drinkers, like drinkers around the world, relate to a wine’s story, its sense of place, its history, its downright romance. It’s asking a lot of marketing departments to build a wine born with a code number into something highly desirable but still essentially homeless.

“Sometimes I think the marketing has been too easy for them (marketers) in the past,” says Clingeleffer who is nearing retirement after a life spent developing Australian-own varieties. “They don’t want to touch new varieties. Because you are crossing rather than doing new clones you are always going to have to be different. You have to push the uniqueness.”

But with the rise of alternative grape varieties in Australia, a re-evaluation of CSIRO varieties could be on the cards. As an additional incentive, the CSIRO is not allowing the export of rootlings to potential overseas wine competitors.

In their favour, Cienna and Tyrian are a lot easier on the Australian ear when it comes to ordering a wine than Montepulciano, Aglianico or Rkatsiteli. They almost sound full-blooded Italian.

Except, of course, they’re uniquely Australian.
Jeni Port

This article first appeared in Issue 5, 2018 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine.