Jeni Port samples a new breed of one of Victoria's most enduring wine varieties.

"DAN Crane seems genuinely surprised to hear that his approach to durif might have, well, emasculated the grape. Durif has traditionally had a reputation for being as blokey as they come.


The quintessential no-holds-barred Aussie red, with enough brutish tannin to stop a wild boar, has in the past been a genuinely intimidating wine.


Obviously, Crane, born in Britain, didn't grow up with the old 1970s Rutherglen durif winemaking manual embedded in the cranium. When he joined All Saints Winery in 2003 he saw a red wine that to him was sluggish, full of tannin and just a little constipated. It held limited charm but, frankly, the word ''charm'' didn't appear in the old winemaking texts when it came to durif, a classic - probably the classic - red grape variety of Rutherglen.



So, what did Dan Crane do?


The cheeky Englishman did things his way. He tamed the beast. Kind of. He certainly showed another side to the grape. Each vintage, he delved a little deeper, like an archaeologist revealing more with each scraping of dirt. He wasn't looking for the truth. He says he was just looking for something he could drink.


''It was never my intention to tame it, just to let it sing more,'' he says.


Today, All Saints durif sings more like Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu than Meat Loaf. It is a refreshing difference, yes, but I think there would be a few big burly blokes out there missing Meat Loaf. They're moving into their 50s and they are probably wondering, with a scratch of the head, why wines have to change.

That's simple: wines change because wine drinkers change.


If you're a wine producer you know it's time for a rethink when sales start to stagnate. That was pretty much the case with durif, which has been grown in Rutherglen since 1908. The 1970s and '80s were a heyday but by the '90s the grape's best days seemed behind it.


Crane was a winemaker with Normans, making pinot noir, before he moved state to All Saints. With his first vintage in 2003 he made his play with durif, taking a trophy at the 2005 Rutherglen Wine Show. ''That caused a bit of a kerfuffle,'' he says.


His idea was to bring the grape's red fruits and violets to the fore. That was news to most durif drinkers, who didn't realise durif had the flavour of red fruits and violets. Black as the ace of spades and black fruits, yes, and chocolate and loads of liquorice wrapped in some scary tannins - that was durif to many drinkers. It was like that because it was going to be aged. You didn't drink a lot of durif upon release; you laid it down.


''I don't know how they (winemakers) got that,'' he says. ''Maybe that was the way winemaking was done in the '80s and '90s - added tannin, warm ferments, aiming for that very big, rich, sweet fruit up the front.''


Crane was left to ponder what he did that made a difference. Maybe it was his decision to use wild yeasts to kick-start fermentation. Maybe it was the long maceration time on skins that allowed the grapes to drop their heavy tannic load. Maybe it was the big, old-oak barrels with only a smidgen of new oak.


''The longer maceration style sorts the tannins out a lot more,'' he says. ''You don't get that massive astringency that with a bit of age dries the wine out.''


Take a wine such as the All Saints 2000 Carlyle durif. That's old-school durif, 11 years old, and it's medicinal and beginning to dry out. There is even a touch of meaty brettanomyces (a yeast spoilage) thrown in to complete the barnyardy picture and appeal, if you're into that sort of thing.


Four vintages later and a turnaround in style is obvious. The 2004 durif fruit smells and tastes fresher, fleshier even, and those red fruits start to appear. The 2004 All Saints Family Reserve durif has the taste of sweet fruit - something you would have rarely seen in a durif of the old school.


Everything came together in 2006, a fantastic wine from a fantastic year. I never met a 2006 Australian red I didn't like. The aromatics sing - unusual for the durif grape - with a lifted blueberry spiciness. The wine's weight in the mouth seems lighter, more of a medium body, and durif's tannins fill the mouth in a nice way without being drying or harsh.


''I would still say that's a pretty sizeable beast,'' Crane says.


Size and durif go hand-in-hand. With durif's family background, it made sense. Its father and dominant personality comes from shiraz, its mother is the little-known French grape, peloursin.


When shiraz alcohols started going through the 14.5 per cent and 15 per cent stage in the noughties, durif alcohols followed. Now, winemakers are redefining their shiraz to fit in with a wine-drinking world that has moved on.


The same applies to durif. With the 2008 vintage, durif's youthful aggression appears to be well under control. This is a wine that could see old-school durif drinkers shake their heads.


Rather, Crane shakes his head. I'm getting it all wrong. The structure is there, he argues. It's just not as obvious as before.


''It's like a farmer's handshake,'' he says, obliquely. ''One of those normal-looking, gentlemanly kind of chaps, and then he'll shake your hand and it's like you're holding on to something made out of metal.''


It's a nice analogy.


So, just when you think you know a grape variety, you don't. After 100-plus years in this country, it's nice to experience another side to durif's personality.


We've seen the dark side, the brooding Heathcliff-like intensity. Now, we can visit the sunnier side of durif, the fragrant, elegant side, and - yes - one with charm. Who would have thought?"

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The Age Epicure, Jeni Port, July 12th, 2011