Quarantine a mixed blessing

By Ian Hickinbotham
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Barrels of wine in Victoria

Barrels of wine in Victoria [©Winepros/VisitVineyards.com]

 

Our strict quarantine policy has been a mixed blessing over our two centuries of settlement of Australia. Undoubtedly, some horrible plant diseases are not present on this continent, but on the other hand, we really have very few of the 5,000 odd wine grape varieties available.

The biggest single importation would have been Busby’s famous collection that he introduced after returning from Europe in 1831. Most of those original cuttings were planted in the Sydney Botanical Gardens and the subsequent loss of their identities was a major disaster for our industry, exacerbated by the subsequent strict quarantine restrictions.

The identifying of grape vine varieties is an extremely difficult science. We have the recent example of albariño being enthusiastically planted in many of our regions after being specially imported from Spain, only to be recently identified as savignon bllanc following the visit of a French ampelographer.

Ampelography is the science of identifying grape varieties. Indeed it is so precise, the French government intensely trained six scientists after the war and our CSIRO had the wisdom to bring one of them to Australia to help untangle our viticultural ‘mess’. Because of our family’s French speakers education at French universities we hosted Professor Truel during his sojourn in Victoria. I still remember the sight of Prof. Truel trudging up a new elevated vineyard of merlot in his blue suit and tie when the temperature was nearly 40 degrees finally pronouncing that the vines were lowly dolcetto.

Our CSIRO was not found wanting, however. Through personal application, Alan Antcliff had made himself an expert at vine varietal identification. It is recent history how we imported pinot noir cuttings from America and Antcliff pronounced they were really ignoble Beaujolais. That was reported as happening twice, but seems sadly forgotten in the rush to blame our CSIRO for not declaring the albariño was not valid (whereas, the responsible Spanish authority should have been held responsible).

Prof. Truel even declared varieties in Government research stations were wrongly named. Thus, much ‘semillon’ in Western Australia was declared to be chenin blanc. In some cases, where he was not sure, the CSIRO planted the unknown variety with the variety Truel thought it could be. Then, they brought him back to Australia a few years later when he was able to compare the vines growing side by side.

Australia was not alone in this kerfuffle. Much South African Riesling was found to be Chenin Blanc, while currently, there is anxiety about some Chilean Merlot really being Carmenère (though this has long been a permitted noble variety of Bordeaux).

All this enlightened work led to the introduction of legislation requiring that the CSIRO be the only organisation authorised to bring new varieties to this continent. Then, at their discretion, vine material is distributed through the various State departments of agriculture. However, all this responsible action has further retarded the introduction of new grape varieties for venturesome Australian winegrowers.

But we are entering an exciting era: progressively consumers will be drinking wines made from varieties like arneis, garganega, malbec, touriga, sangiovese, nebbiolo, lagrein, fiano, saperavi, rkatsiteli (once the most grown white wine in the world) and taminga, a variety bred by our CSIRO from gewürztraminer and some Spanish varieties.

 

Ian Hickinbotham, one of the most innovative and influential oenologists in Australia over his 50 year career, is the author of Australian Plonky (see related review below).

 

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April 27th, 2011
 
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