Lagrein - finding a new winegrape variety for Australian vineyards

Article by Dr Peter May, Head of Campus, University of Melbourne -Burnley Campus

About 20 years ago I planted a small vineyard in my backyard in Kyneton, Victoria. At the time all the local growers were planting Cabernet. I thought that the area was a bit cool for that variety and thought I'd try Merlot instead. The literature of the time seemed to be suggesting that Merlot ripened a bit earlier and gave softer, fruitier wines. So I planted Merlot.

As many other people found out at the same time, much Australian Merlot was actually Cabernet Franc (this has since been rectified in the nursery industry) and I wasn't too happy with the wine I was getting. What to do? My quest took two directions.

One was to graft the vineyard over to Pinot Noir which is much better suited to the cold Central highlands. This I did and I've been happy with the results of that decision.

The other approach was to cast about for some other varieties that might also be worth a try. I had been reading a lot of literature on winegrape selection and climate at the time and a paper I had read a couple of years earlier came to mind. This was a piece by Drs Richard Smart and Peter Dry, both teaching at Roseworthy College in South Australia at the time (around 1980).

The paper was a proposal to widen the range of varieties being planted in Australia and made a series of recommendations based on climate/variety matches using a climate classification they had just published. They had researched a number of mainly Italian and Spanish varieties and matched them against possible locations in Australia.

In their list for the cooler end of things was this variety Lagrein. I'd never heard of it but followed it up and found that it is native to the valleys of Northern Italy in the Trentino/Alto Adige region north of Bolzano. None of the nurseries were growing the variety here so I put that idea to one side for the moment. A couple of years later I came across a bottle of Lagrein rose while on holiday in Italy . Not long after that, a group of viticulture scientists at CSIRO published the results of a body of work from NW Victoria that looked at the viticultural and winemaking potential of many of the obscure varieties CSIRO held in their collection at Merbein (Kerridge et al, 1987).

In the first of those articles, there was Lagrein again and while not a star in the tastings, it seemed to be ripening a little earlier than Cabernet and Shiraz and so I thought well, why not? I was able to buy some cuttings from CSIRO and planted 18 vines in 1988.

The first harvest was in 1991 and while it ripens quite late in Kyneton (like most varieties and at about the same time as Shiraz), that first batch of wine was quite approachable with great colour and interesting aroma and flavours.

Alan Cooper at Cobaw Ridge tried some of my first batch and thought it was worth trying as an alternative to Cabernet. As far as anyone can tell, his was the first commercial planting of Lagrein in Australia and it has been very successful for that winery. James Halliday in his 2005 Australian Wine Companion scores the 2002 Cobaw Ridge Lagrein at 91 points.

In a recent piece in The Australian, Max Allen described the Cobaw Ridge 2003 thus: "Seductive, crisp, perfumed with violets and cherries, this exceptionally well-balanced, fine, medium-bodied red wine is a real beauty".

There are now larger plantings along the Murray and in South Australia and one might expect that, with time, bottles of Australian Lagrein will become easier to find. While it is highly unlikely to become one of the big half-dozen red varieties, try it if you ever see it.

I've given the reference details for the paper I mentioned above, and for another excellent book that attempts to explain the relationship between the performance of grapevines and the environment in which they are grown. All are worth tracking down if this side of grape growing and wine making is of interest to you.

Kerridge, G., Clingleffer, P. and Possingham, J. 1987. Varieties and varietal wines from the Merbein grape germplasm collection I. Varieties producing full bodied red wines. Australian Grapegrower and Winemaker (January: 14-18)

Gladstones, J. 1992. Viticulture and Environment, Winetitles, Adelaide.

You can check out more about the Cobaw Ridge Lagrein here

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