Viva Lagrein

The following article was Dave Cann’s submission for the 2006 ‘Working with Wine’ Competition…

Lagrein. Could this obscure Italian native be the variety that quenches Australian winemaker’s insatiable desire to discover the next big thing while still offering a level of comfort and familiarity to consumers? Or is it just another novelty?

“I am a convert to the cause,” wrote James Halliday in the Weekend Australian (March 6-7, 2004) following an extensive Lagrein tasting of Italian and Australian examples. But, will the Australian consumer follow suit?

Lagrein Dunkel – pronounced lah-GRAYN doon-KEL – does promise to offer a palatable answer to both producers and consumers.

Lagrein originates on the banks and slopes surrounding the Adige River. Set in the alpine valleys of South Tyrol in Italy’s far north-east this is an area steeped in history and controversy. Ceded to Italy from Austria following World War I, the semi-autonomous region of South Tyrol is considered the birthplace of the modern vineyard trestle system and is also said to have been where the Romans discovered the use of wooden barrels for storing and transporting wine.

Although the region shows plenty of promise for producing high quality aromatic white wine styles, reds still dominate the South Tyrol landscape. Much of the regions wine is produced in bulk and sent to Italy’s northern neighbours, notably Germany and Austria.

Lagrein’s naturally deep colour, vibrant fruit flavours and rich tannins as well as its ability to fully ripen in cooler climates has made it an important variety for red wine production in the region. Once used as a blending variety and to produce rose wines of much renown, Lagrein is now instead held in esteem by growers for its ability to deliver dark, robust single varietal reds.

Lagrein’s ability to ripen fully in cool climates is what first attracted Dr Peter May, former Head of University of Melbourne’s Burnley Campus to the variety. In 1988 Dr May sourced 18 vines from the CSIRO and planted them in his experimental vineyard at Kyneton in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges. It was one of the early wines made from this vineyard that lead to the first commercial planting of the variety in Australia.

“I was impressed by the variety’s depth of colour and intriguing flavours,” says Alan Cooper of Cobaw Ridge in the Macedon Ranges. Cooper believes that site selection is vital for achieving the best from this variety. Low fertility, sandy granite soils help control the vigorous tendencies of the vine. Cool to temperate climates allow a full flavour spectrum to be achieved. It is this depth of flavour that acts as a beautiful balance to the variety’s naturally juicy acidity and plush tannins.

“Plush” is a great word for describing Cooper’s Lagrein. Both the 2003 and 2004 demonstrate Lagrein’s trademark dense colour, tannins – which Cooper describes as “firm without being heavy” – and refreshing acidity. The 2004 displays a more floral nature with aromatic violet and sweet berry fruit characters, while the 2003 shows greater depth in berry characters and a finer chalky nature on the palate. The inky black-magenta hues of the 2006 tank samples demonstrate just how intense the variety’s colour can be.

Cooper firmly believes that “a cool climate is essential for delivering a true expression of the variety.” He feels that the warmer regions’ wines are a “little jammy and somewhat rustic” in nature. “Perhaps these regions are more suited to southern Italian varieties,” he suggests.

According to Cooper, Lagrein may not be “the next big thing”, but he does believe it is “not as confronting” as some of the other new varieties being presented to the market.

Robin Day, from Domain Day Winery in the Barossa Valley, agrees, “Lagrein is ideal for Australian palates,” he says. “It’s not like trying to get people to understand Nebbiolo.”

Day says he chose to plant Lagrein after “the variety stuck out in a tasting of Italian reds.” Like Cooper, he was impressed by the variety’s deep colour and fleshy nature and immediately saw Lagrein as a potential inclusion in his high altitude Mt Crawford vineyard.

Fragrant strawberry and floral aromas punctuate the rich, full-bodied Lagrein wines from Domain Day. While the 2004 shows a nice firm nature with hefty tannins, the 2003 is starting to show the benefits of age, exhibiting enticing liquorice and earthy notes.

While conceding that it is a hard sell, Karl Feddern of Rossiters at Red Cliffs near Mildura, describes Lagrein as “absolutely sensational.”

Working with the variety in a much warmer climate presents Feddern with its own challenges. Feddern attempts to replicate the cool nights of the South Tyrol by utilising a technique of late watering in the evening to help a faster drop in fruit temperature. While in cooler vineyards they work to control the vigour of the vine, Feddern finds this works in his favour helping to shade the fruit from the hotter inland sun.

Feddern’s example of the variety is certainly at the richer end of the spectrum. The 2003 Rossiters flaunts intense oak aged characters of chocolate, sweet spices and cedar over varietal red berry flavours. Although not as complex as the Cobaw Ridge and Domain Day examples, Rossiters’ Lagrein aptly portrays the approachable, friendly nature of the variety.

Fred Pizzini, from Pizzini wines, also sees potential in Australia for Lagrein and considers it an option for his King Valley vineyard. Planted in the right locations, Pizzini believes Lagrein’s potential lies in its ability to produce “comfort wines in a style that consumers can easily compare with varieties like Shiraz.”

Pizzini believes that there would be a number of sites in the alpine influenced King Valley, home of many Italian varieties in Australia, which would be ideally suited to Lagrein.

Perhaps the best example of Lagrein’s potential for acceptance in Australia comes from the inaugural release of Cobaw Ridge’s 1997 Lagrein. “It was a bit of a surprise,” says Nelly Cooper recounting the first day they released their now cult wine, “no one had heard of it, but we still sold out that day.”