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A short history of Verdelho

Verdelho is a sweet white variety that originates around Portugal and is now grown all around the world.


The earliest recorded planting of Verdelho is from Portugal in the 15th century. It was one of the most widely planted varieties on the island of Madeira* till the 20th century. Plantings began to diminish (due to Phylloxera and later market driven trends) until regional authorities became concerned they were losing a national treasure and took steps to revive the 'noble variety'. The 1970's saw Verdelho dwindle in its homeland and it was only the steps of dedicated wineries and individuals who brought it back from extinction. The vines used are almost all grafts of the old vines onto American rootstocks. Prior to Phylloxera, Madeira had a great many grape vine varieties, but today there are mainly four: Malmsey, Sercial, Verdelho and Bual. Verdelho first appears in Australia around 1820. John Macarthur (1767-1834), the great pioneer and publicist of the wool industry, with his sons James (1798-1867) and William (1800-1882) had toured France, Switzerland and northern Italy in 1815-16 with the express purpose of studying viticulture and collecting grape vines. They returned to Australia in 1817 ahead of their collection and in the 1820s established vineyards at Camden Park and near Penrith. Early plantings were unsuccessful and the Macarthur brothers nearly gave up, but when it became evident that much of their imported collection was spurious and that grape varieties and not soil types were the cause of failure they began to make progress. Varieties grown include Pineau Gris, Frontignac, Gouais, Verdelho, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Grenache and Mataro. By the late 1820s from Verdelho and two varieties of Muscat they began to make a small quantity of good wine. 1824 was the first vintage at Camden Park.

In 1824 Dr William Redfern (1774-1833) brought vinedressers and Verdelho cuttings from Madeira for his Campbell Fields estate.

1825 saw the Australian Agricultural Company import vines from the Horticultural Society's Gardens at Chiswick, England, including the Verdelho. In 1912, Penfold's Wines purchases 'Minchinbury'. Over the subsequent years, Penfold's expands the cellars to store in excess of 1.25 million bottles, as well as expanding the vineyards to over 400 acres. Varieties grown include Verdelho, Riesling, Cabernet Riesling, Pinot Noir, Hermitage, Traminer and Pinot Blanc. Verdelho is also known as Verdello or Breval in Italy and Gouveio in parts of Portugal. By contrast, in 2001 Australia picked just over 10,000 tonnes of Verdelho.

Growing characteristics

Verdelho is a very sweet, hard, elliptic or oblong, greenish- yellowish fruit that grows in small to medium-sized (15-22 cm) bunches which are generally laterally compressed and dense and ripen to a golden hue. The Verdelho vine has a high and very vigorous stem with brownish or reddish-brownish shoots and short internodes. The leaves are of moderate size, round, wavy, with some hair above and hairy beneath but with indumentum (thick, woolly or hairy covering) not very dense and irregularly distributed, sometimes being almost absent on the whole leaf or part of it. It is a high yielding, early ripening variety.

Wine characteristics

Verdelho is mainly used to produce medium-sweet white wines, but that's not all. Modern winemaking techniques such as controlled pellicular macerations or b√Ętonnage (the skins bubble together for 24 hours before the pressing) have unlocked some surprising characters from this grape. The resulting wines are aromatic, herbaceous revealing laurel leaf and fresh hay and citrus. They have a full middle palate and with good oak treatment, develop nutty characteristics normally only found in rich Chardonnays. You can't help talking about Madeira wines when talking about Verdelho. There are four basic types of Madeira with each named after the grape from which it's made.
These are:

  • Sercial that was once thought to be the Riesling grape and makes the lightest and driest Madeira
  • Verdelho makes a tangy medium-sweet wine, with somewhat more body Bual gives a definitely sweet style with baked, smokey complexity
  • Malmsey offers a lusciously rich, sweet, and honeyed wine

*The island of Madeira is approximately 50 by 20 kilometres (30 by 12 miles) in size and is situated in the Atlantic 600 kilometres (370 miles) from the Moroccan coast at a latitude of 33 degrees. The rainfall on the island is heavy because of its position in the Atlantic and its mountainous geography. Because of its latitudinal position, summers are hot and winters very warm. Land is at a premium, and vineyards are located on small terraces of the steep cliffs, rising from the water's edge to some 914 metres (3 000 ft) above sea level in places. The best grapes come from vines grown on the southern slopes of the island that receive the most sunshine

* Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans

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