For the love of tannins

The contentious Rutherglen durif

“There was a little girl,

Who had a little curl,

Right in the middle of her forehead.

When she was good

She was very very good,

And when she was bad she was horrid!”

That’s the way fifth generation winemaker and founder of Warrabilla Wines, Andrew Sutherland Smith, explains his ever challenging, bold (sometimes wayward) but beloved child - the durif.

She’s thin skinned, loves the sun (and of course needs sunblock applied), hates the wet, attracts fungi and moths … In short - she’s hard work, but boy is she worth it!

Durif is a red grape variety hailing from the South of France, though now primarily calls California and Australia home. Stewed cherry, raisin, mixed fruit spice, dark leather, crushed violet, licorice, chocolate and Monte Carlo biscuits are all qualities and characters this ‘big’ wine can evoke. 

“When it’s ripe, it’s massive, with this lovely fruit character and an incredibly soft tannin structure to it,” Andrew illustrates.

“When it’s good, it’s good. It’s like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead”.

That begs the question, ‘what about when it’s bad?’ Andrew has a very firm stance when it comes to durif that goes something like ‘go big or go home’, which is where his issue with second croppers (smaller offset bunches) rears its head.

“The trouble with those is they’re immature ... green as grass, herbaceous and have a very hard tannin structure,” he explains.

“I’ve had judges in wine shows tell me they like the minty herbaceous character in these durifs, but I don’t like it - I drop that fruit on the ground”.

Campbells durif grapes vine

Winery operations manager at Campbells of Rutherglen, Ian Diver, also enjoys the hearty repertoire of flavours Rutherglen soil enables, but agrees the tannin factor always needs to be carefully managed.

“It can be a bit tricky,” he muses.

“You really need to tame those tannins. With it being related to shiraz, we use very similar methods. We try to extract maximum flavour and a decent amount of tannin without those tannins being a bit too harsh or too extractive.

“It’s reputation is it’s a big, bold red wine. There’s such a wide variety of durifs available in the area as well and they don’t all have to be as big and bold as that”.

Campbells Barkly durif bottle platter

With over a century of experience under her belt, Rutherglen arguably produces the best durif in the world. As it is a late ripening variety, it requires a warm climate to develop to enough to ‘tame the tannins’, with soil type doing its part as well.

“It seems to have a great ability here and part of it is definitely soil types,” Ian said.

“With heavy red clays you tend to get a lot of ironstone character coming through in the wines from the decomposed clay minerals around.

“It really does like the hot, dry weather here in the summer as well, because it needs to get fully ripe to get quite high percentages of alcohol with body and tannin and colour. It’s really suited to the climatic conditions we’ve got”.

But that’s just your ticket to the game, as Andrew explains.

“Durif is a pig to grow!” He said, in kind of a way a proud parent might roll their eyes at an overachieving, cocky child.

“It’s thin skinned, it’s prone to botrytis, the light brown apple moths love it and it’s tight bunched, which gets the botrytis going. It’s very prone to sunburn too. We actually put Surround on it, which is like a sunblock for grape vines”.

For your take on the ever challenging, sometimes contentious, high maintenance and world leading durif, head to Rutherglen.