Right, let’s get this straight from the outset — Touriga Nacional is neither a cycling race nor an all-terrain vehicle: it is, by general acclaim, the premier red grape of Portugal. And (probably) without you knowing it, it has been growing in several Australian wine regions for quite a while.
Touriga (there is a second variety of the grape, the Franca, but as no one cultivates it in Australia we don’t often bother to use a specifier) initially owed its Australian residency to its role as a prized component in fortified winemaking. In Portugal, around half of the Touriga crop is harnessed to port production.
St Hallett, one of the Barossa Valley’s bastions of fortified winemaking, planted out a vineyard of Touriga in 1976 for port-making purposes, only to see Australian drinking habits perform a handbrake turn. By the mid-1980s, in response to the free-fall in demand for fortifieds, the winery was auditioning Touriga in a different role. It became a component of a new blended table wine, and the St Hallett Grenache-Shiraz-Touriga, a twist on the standard GSM, was an immediate hit with consumers and wine show judges alike.
St Hallett winemaker Toby Barlow developed a special fondness for the grape, and after a tentative start in 2005, has made vintages of single varietal Touriga back-to-back since 2011. And at a time when the rest of the Barossa was turning over its blocks of Touriga to other varieties, St Hallett marched resolutely in the opposite direction.
“We planted a bit more about five or six years ago — we figured it was one of the varieties we have been making ‘still’ for some time; we have a bit of a history with it, and we really like it,” Barlow says. “Particularly as a blender, it’s fantastic.”
So just what are the characters that endear Touriga to maker and drinker? Barlow says the grape brings perfume and lift to a blend. It also has an intrinsic perceived sweetness that doesn’t derive from sugar, which, he says, is very typical of the variety. On the textural side, it has a distinctively lush mouthfeel.
In making the straight Touriga, Barlow says he leaves the fermenting wine on its skins for an extended period to build tannins and an element of bitterness to counterpoint the perceived sweetness and lushness of the middle palate. The wine does not see any new oak: to maintain its fresh flavours, ageing in used oak hogsheads lasts only nine to 12 months.
On the vine, Touriga’s dark, thick skinned berries and slow ripening tendencies bear more than a passing resemblance to Cabernet, but Barlow has discovered some crucial differences.
“It’s pretty tempting to leave it on the vine because with its big thick skin it handles pretty much anything, but we’ve found you do need to pick it early. If you let it go, the sugar climbs to about 14 per cent potential alcohol and then tends to flat-line, and then the acid drops away and you lose vibrancy.”
Barlow’s enthusiasm seems to be catching — the St Hallett block is used a source vineyard, and the demand for clippings has picked up in the past few years. Barlow cites the example of a fellow winemaker from the Hunter Valley who came down to work a vintage in the Barossa, took a shine to the variety and started his own vineyard with clippings from St Hallett.
“Last year he won a trophy with his Shiraz-Touriga in the Sydney Wine Show, so he was pretty happy with that,” Barlow says.
The judges of Hot 100 SA Wines were pretty happy with the St Hallett 2015 version too, awarding it a top 10 spot at number six, praising its “beautiful colour, heady fragrance and graceful momentum across the palate”.
The Touriga Nacional sits between a straight Grenache and a straight Mataro in St Hallett’s range of single-variety heritage releases. And as the wine is only available through cellar door, there may be a bike race involved after all.
St Hallett Wines
2015 Touriga Nacional