Rarely used now for fortified wine in Madeira, Verdelho has found a new home in Australia. RICHARD MAYSON looks at the grape's rise Down Under.
It came as a shock to learn that the island of Madeira produced a mere 60 tonnes of Verdelho last year. This classic grape, famed for producing some of the world’s most enduring fortified wines, used to account for two-thirds of the island’s production. But over the last century, Verdelho has been relegated to last place among grape varieties. Production has been reduced to a few gnarled old vineyards around Ponta Delgada and São Vicente on Madeira’s windswept north coast.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Verdelho has gained a new lease of life. As recently as the mid-1980s, there were just 30ha (hectares) of Verdelho growing in Australia, a legacy from the time when it was widely used for the production of Madeira-style fortified wines. By 1992 there were 21ha. A decade later, the total has risen to a staggering 1,500ha, with total production amounting to just under 15,000 tonnes. It is now one of the fastest growing varietals in the domestic market and is increasingly finding a niche overseas.
Over the past 20 years, Verdelho has undergone a startling reincarnation. A few heavy fortified wines are still made by historic wineries such as Bleasdale in South Australia but today the emphasis is on making the most of Verdelho’s exotic, sub-tropical fruit.
Verdelho’s origins are unclear, a plight that has not been helped by the rather liberal application of the name in its native Portugal. It almost certainly came to Madeira (and the Azores) from the mainland where there is also a red Verdelho known as Verdelho Feijao. Some experts continue to assert that Verdelho is the same as Gouveio, a white grape growing in the Douro Valley, itself almost identical to Galicia’s Godello (aka Verdello).
It is equally unclear how Verdelho reached Australia. It may have been brought by John MacArthur, who gathered a large collection of vine cuttings during an 18-month trip to Europe in 1815 and established a nursery at Parramatta. However, Rhys Eather of Meerea Park in the Hunter Valley maintains that it was imported by the Australian Viticultural Company in 1825 and planted in the Hunter Valley some five years later.
A parallel story emerges on the flood plains of Langhorne Creek in South Australia where Frank Potts of Bleasdale Vineyards planted Verdelho with cuttings from Madeira in the 1860s. Ann Scutchings, export manager and family member of this fifth-generation company, explains that, ‘for 100 years we made a fortified wine which we called “Verdielho”. Then, in the 1960s, we started experimenting with a sparkling, or spritzig Verdelho.’
Houghton, over in Western Australia, also started making a dry white Verdelho at about the same time, from old Swan Valley vines, but the wine was blended into their hugely successful ‘White Burgundy’ and for a time the variety was effectively lost.
Like so many Australian wines of the generation, the early, unfortified Verdelhos were barrel-fermented and/or aged in oak, and this tended to mask the aromatic character of the fruit. A handful of producers still use a small percentage of oak to lend texture to their wines but most prefer to bottle early without wood. As Grant McMahon, sales and export Manager of Oakdale Winery in the Hunter Valley comments, ‘Verdelho is the wine that accountants like: we crush it, ferment, stabilise and put it straight into bottle.’
It is also a wine that consumers like, particularly in a world that is seemingly saturated by Chardonnay. Craig Willson of Bremerton is emphatic: ‘You simply can’t treat Verdelho like a Chardonnay. We pick our Verdelho after Chardonnay at the end of February or early March, leave the must in contact with the skins for three hours, then ferment the free-run juice. We don’t want to use oak.’ Paul Boulden, winemaker at Sandalford in Margaret River, views Verdelho as a great alternative to unoaked Chardonnay. ‘The style is austere, making it a good match for elegantly flavoured foods, particularly anything with a slight oiliness, which Verdelho cuts across.’ All agree that the spicy opulence of Verdelho is a perfect match for Asian food.
Out in the vineyard, Verdelho has its challenges. It is susceptible to powdery mildew and requires careful canopy management. Verdelho is also a grape that ripens early and quickly. Boulden, with 14ha, owns the largest Verdelho vineyard in Margaret River: ‘I usually pick over two different dates to take advantage of some of the lantana-type flavours [an Australian plant with citrussy aromas] along with the tropical fruit essence. I try to avoid overdoing the eventual alcohol of the wine,’ he adds. Scutchings shares this philosophy, adding that the introduction of mechanical harvesting (which enables rapid picking) has greatly increased the viability of Verdelho as a white wine grape.
From the Hunter Valley and Langhorne Creek, where the oldest vines at Bleasdale date back to the 1932, Verdelho has spread far and wide, and a number of regional styles are now emerging. The wines with the greatest purity of fruit are those from cooler climatic zones such as Langhorne Creek, Margaret River and Yarra Valley. Occasionally somewhat lean, the wines retain a powerful streak of acidity (much as in Madeira) which is frequently offset by 2–3g of residual sugar. Consequently, these wines are capable of taking some bottle age though – rather like Viognier – the allure of Verdelho arguably lies in the immediacy of the fruit.
At the other end of the climatic scale is the Hunter Valley, where Verdelho now counts as one of the main white grape varieties, alongside Chardonnay and Semillon. The wines here tend to be more tropical in character but can exhibit broad, oily characteristics.
Since 1990 there has been an increasing amount of Verdelho planted in the irrigated Riverina area, where lower levels of acidity and a tendency to leave higher levels of residual sugar can make the wines taste sweet to the point of cloying. Some lose their varietal character altogether. Yields of 12–20 tonnes per hectare bring the price down and there are well-balanced, good-value Verdelhos from Casella and de Bortoli.
Although it is struggling to survive in Madeira, the future for Verdelho in Australia looks bright. But Scutchings has set herself a new challenge. She is sure that there is at least one Sercial vine somewhere in Langhorne Creek and she is determined to track it down…