Sunday, August 02, 2009


Ampelography is the identification and classification of grapevines, Vitis sp. by comparing the shape and colour of the vine leaves and grape berries. Up until the World War 2, ampelography had been an art rather than a science. Then Pierre Galet of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure Agronomique de Montpellier devised a systematic assembly of criteria for the identification of vines. The Galet system was based on the shape and contours of the leaves, the characteristics of growing shoots, shoot tips, petioles, the sex of the flowers, the shape of the grape bunches and the colour, size and pips of the grapes themselves.
Galet then published the definitive book, Ampélographie Pratique, in 1952, featuring 9600 types of vine. This work was translated into English in 1979, and was updated in 2000.
Grapevines came to Australia with the first white settlers in 1788. After that, vineyards sprang up in many of the new colonies across the country. The source of vines was diverse eg. Brazil, South Africa, Spain and France.
In those days variety identification was not a strong point and it seems sure that a single variety could have been introduced under a number of names or the same name could have been used for a number of different varieties.
This has lead to a lot of confusion about the various grape varieties growing in Australia.
In 1976 M. Paul Truel, curator of the INRA grape germplasm at Vassal, France was invited out to sort out the confusion. He found that most of the major wine grape varieties had been generally correctly identified.
But some minor ones in some plantings hadn’t eg. Riesling was called Semillon, Chenin Blanc called Semillon or Chardonnay etc.
In the 1980’s it was decided that a uniform approach to the description of the morphological characteristics of grapevines was needed. This resulted in the OIV (International Office for Grape and Wine) List which contained descriptors for 128 characteristics of shoots, inflorescences, leaves, bunches and berries as well as seeds and dormant canes. This was later modified to a list of 41 characteristics and will probably become the standard system.
However in the past decades, a method of genetic identification has been developed that has become known as DNA "fingerprinting." This technique relies on characteristic patterns in a plants genetic material or DNA. This new technology has proven so particularly accurate that it is now commonly used not only to establish the true identity of grapevines but also their parentage.

But why bring this rather dry subject up?
Wine grape varieties planted in Australia have all come originally from the CSIRO’s plant collection in the recently closed Merbein Research Station and have been thought to be true to type. Last year a visiting French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot suggested that vines in a leading vine nursery considered to be Albarino were in fact Savignin Blanc (a member of the Traminer family). Albarino is mainly grown in Galicia (northwest Spain) and Monção (northwest Portugal), where it is used to make varietal white wines.
DNA testing subsequently proved this true!
The CSIRO had in fact imported the wrongly identified material from the Spanish National Vine Collection in 1989.
It is estimated that around 100ha of the wrongly identified vine material has been planted.
Is this a problem?
Well, yes, it is for those who have planted it.
The variety has shown great promise, has demonstrated good drought resistance and produced some outstanding dry white wines. Those who have planted it have had great success with this wine and have naturally used the Albarino name as a marketing tool to differentiate their product.
But now they will not be allowed to sell the product under the Albarino label due to AWBC (Wine Australia) regulations.
They are concerned that marketing under the label Savignin Blanc will cause confusion with the similarly named Sauvignon Blanc.
Do they grub out the current plantings and replace them with properly identified material (an 8 year wait until wine will be produced) or do they start a new marketing campaign with the renamed variety?
The general consensus is that they do the latter.
Very embarrassing for Australia’s leading scientific research organisation and a tiny bit of a scandal. But looking on the upside, Australia has a new grape variety which adapts well to our environment and makes a good wine, no matter what its name is.

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