The Durif Grape

If you are a fan of big red wines made from the Nebbiolo grape,
Posted 21st September 2011        

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If you are a fan of big red wines made from the Nebbiolo grape, such as Barolo, or Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre blends such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape then you may find the Durif grape to your liking. This historic Rhone grape is now rarely seen in France but is starting to make its name in Australia and the USA.

Durif produces a dark, powerful red wine high in tannin and acidity and full of black fruit flavours. Its wines are often described as “inky” with violet notes and hints of black pepper, cedar and liquorice. Its red wine can be long lasting and worth cellaring.

However, for some reason consumers still remain unconvinced about red wines made from this grape. Despite being championed by wine merchants such as Tony Laithwaite and successful winemakers such as Australian Sam Trimboli, who has “DURIF” spelled out on his car license plate, these intense red wines are still only a niche market.

The Durif grape was discovered by French botanist Dr Francois Durif when he crossed Syrah and local Peloursin vines in the late 1800s. It was found that this new grape variety was resistant to the plant disease powdery or downy mildew. There were attempts to cultivate the new grape in its native Rhone Valley but due to the tight bunching of the grapes it was found to be susceptible to rot. Therefore, the grape fell out of favour in France.

However, it was found to perform better in sunnier and drier climates where rot was less of an issue and has thrived in Australia and the USA. Australia’s main concentration of Durif vines are in the Rutherglen, Riverina and Riverland regions whilst most of the USA’s production is concentrated in California. There are pockets of Durif production elsewhere in the USA and in Israel, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Mexico.

Durif was introduced to Australia in 1908 by Australian viticulturist Francois de Castella who was looking for a replacement for vines in Victoria affected by phylloxera. He travelled to France as part of his investigation and returned with Durif which had been grafted to vines from Montpellier which were resistant to phylloxera. The Rutherglen Viticultural Research Station propagated the vines and they were planted around the region after the diseased vines were removed. These old vines are still used in the Rutherglen region, producing some excellent red wine and they are also used in the region’s vintage and tawny fortified wines.

These days, Durif is recognised as Rutherglen’s signature red wine. As well as being produced as a varietal red wine it is often blended with Shiraz or used to produce sparkling red wine. Many producers in the region are continually striving to improve quality in the hope that in the future Rutherglen Durif may become one of the iconic red wine styles of Australia.

Durif’s position in California has been rather more confused. The red wine grape had long been labelled Petite Sirah and it is only due to DNA testing in recent years that it is now confirmed that many of the Petite Sirah plantings are actually Durif. Despite attempts to allow the two grape varieties to become synonymous, allowing Durif red wines to continue being labelled as Petite Sirah, current Federal regulations specify that the two red grape varieties are different and must be labelled as such.

Durif is a popular red wine grape amongst producers in many regions of California including Napa, Monterey, Mendocino and San Joaquin County. It is used to produce a varietal red wine and is also blended with Zinfandel.

One reason why consumers continue to be suspicious of Durif varietal red wine may be that its style can be inconsistent. Winemakers produce varying styles ranging from soft and best drunk young to big, robust red wines full of tannin which can be too over-the-top for some wine drinkers unless they are aged for some time. Whatever the style, a Durif red wine is better as a food accompaniment rather than drunk on its own. It makes an excellent partner for robust foods which can match the power of the red wine, such as stews, roast beef and mature, full-flavoured cheeses.

Durif red wines are not always easy to find in the UK. Wine merchants such as Laithwaites often offer cases of Durif or bottles as part of a mixed case. Favourite labels include Westend Estate The Boxer, De Bortoli Red Sheep, The Black Stump and Dark Corner.

The Sunday Times Wine Club and online wine merchants such as Everywine also stock a number of Durif red wine labels.

Image by pink_fish13.


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