Confessions of a Durif tragic

Confessions of a Durif Tragic!
By Andrew Sutherland Smith

Let's start by saying I'm the worst sort of Durif maker - a convert! Just like the reformed smoker, there's nothing I enjoy more than discussing the benefits of my conversion!

What is it that I didn't like, worked through, and ultimately loved about Durif? Easy, its unique tannin structure!

Durif is a pig to grow viticulturally. It's thin skinned, tight bunched, prone to overcropping, prone to second cropping, relatively late, and prone to botrytis. It also has a horrible hard mean tannin structure that doesn't soften till it's well beyond normal maturity.

On the plus side, it has amazing black purple colour, glorious soft tannins when physiologically mature (brown seeds) excellent crushed violet floral tones and a magnificent depth of flavour which doesn't need a great deal of oak. It gets enough tannin from its own seeds to stabilise that awesome colour.

Basically red wine colour comes from the seeds. Usually more seeds, more colour as a general rule of thumb. Durif can have up to 5 seeds per berry. Awesome stuff!

Its grown in California as Petite Sirah (little Shiraz) though there may be nothing too little about the wines (or berries for that matter.) Bunches can be really big, which is another issue when you have bunches touching...another problem spot for bunch rot.

Some of the biggest most colored reds we've had came from big berry size which seems to challenge the deep colored, little berry theory (Surface Area /Volume ratio is higher for a small berry)

What I didn't like about Durif was that in some years it had a hard tough nasty tannin...almost a bit coppery, almost in a metallic fashion. It makes sense now, no-one could ripen it fully, harvested less ripe to avoid split and rain, and made a hard thin wine dominated by minty menthol green herbaceous characters.

As there's not a huge amount of Durif out there, these styles still pop up in the wine show ring from time to time. Perhaps for the uneducated judges these herbaceous styles even look attractive. What can I say, I don't like them.

The other style that can be made is a very soft, sweet, somewhat brown porty style made at a higher pH. This too can have an instant ready to drink appeal to some. Judges included!

What I really enjoy is the black phase fruit characters that this variety has in abundance. Dark morello cherries, satsuma plum, dark fine chocolate, huge mouthfeel and soft tannins. Trouble is to get those you have to go beyond what is considered normally ripe, 15 Beaume fruit is just the start of these you're really looking at wines of 15.5 % alc to be any good...more like 16!

Given that Durif constitutes 40% of what we do at Warrabilla, would we recommend it?

Absolutely, but only in a dry hot climate. Cropping levels we keep down to about 2t/acre but I have seen great Durif at 4-5 t/acre in a warmer region. Exposure is important so think about trellis design. We use a single wire vertically shoot positioned trellis (VSP). Durif loves it . Irrigation has to be pretty carefully controlled or you'll blow the berry size (and potentially get a heap of split!)

Durif has masses of potential in Australia, it's just that until we get some consensus about what is a good style for Durif, we have an absolute plethora of Durif wines all different, all with someone extolling their virtues, and half of them absolute crap!

***Andrew Sutherland Smith is a fifth generation winemaker who established Warrabilla Wines in Rutherglen in 1991. He also grows and makes Marsanne and Zinfandel.

You can read more about Durif here

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