History of Verdelho
Verdelho originated on the island of Madeira off the coast of Africa. Seized and colonised by the Portuguese, Verdelho vines were first planted there in the 15th century and the variety is one of four used to make the white version of the island’s famous sweet fortified wine along with Malvasia, Bual, and Sercial.
Madeira can also be made as a dry wine, and Verdelho was a key component. For centuries Madeira’s red and white fortified wines were exported across the Atlantic to Europe where the drinks cured nicely in their shipping barrels before being sold once they reached the shore.
Unfortunately, a blight of phylloxera that spread from Europe’s vineyards reached the island and wiped out much of the vineyards there. Verdelho is a hardy grape that thrives in a warm climate though, and many vines were replanted so the variety can still be found there.
Verdelho is also found on the mainland in Portugal in the famous Duoro Valley that produces the bulk of the nation’s famed wines, with Verdelho a leading type.
Verdelho can sometimes be confused with Verdelho Tinto, which is also grown on Madeira. Though they are related, these grapes are quite different, perhaps, in the same way, Pinot noir can be divided from Pinot gris.
What Food Does Verdelho Suit?
Verdelho is a wine for all occasions. It can be chilled for a summer’s day, served room temperature in winter, quaffed of an evening or sipped by the beach.
Easy, unpretentious and very approachable Verdelho works best with fresh, crisp foods like seafood or Asian dishes as long as they’re not too spicy. Verdelho’s fruit flavours tend to be more tropical than temperate, perhaps reflecting its island origins.
The best food to go with Verdelho is widely identified as oysters, with the light but strong character of the wine cutting through the salty tang of the shellfish and complementing its creamy flavour.
What Does Verdelho Taste Like?
Verdelho that flies under the flag of Portugal – whether from the mainland or the island of Madeira – can be a very different beast to Australia’s version.
The sweet wines of Madeira are very distinctive with anything from roasted nuts, caramel, toffee and stewed fruit all possible within the bottle. When it comes as a straight wine, Portuguese Verdelho can be very dry or a little sweet, but always with a long finish and a fair amount of complexity.
Australian Verdelho is generally praised for its sharp, dry character that also contains a little fruitiness. For this reason, Verdelho can be a bit of a crowd-pleaser, satisfying the palates of those who enjoy a crisper drink and those who like it a little sweeter.
But Verdelho is also a good wine to cellar and let develop, with the passing of a few years allowing its structure to develop more intensity, adding zest and creaminess to the already delicious character it holds.
Verdelho in Australia
Renowned for its toughness and its ability to make a sweet and dry wine, Verdelho was selected quite early on as a good fit for Australia’s fledgeling wine industry.
The man often credited as the “father” of Australian wine James Busby is widely acknowledged to have brought Verdelho clippings down under, along with the wool pioneer John Macarthur in the mid-1820s.
Resistant to mildew and rot, Verdelho grapes were ideal for the early vineyards around the settlements of Sydney and in the Hunter Valley where the first large vineyards were established.
Sweet and dry Madeira wines were very popular in that time and so Verdelho was a natural fit for early winemakers looking to create drinks that would please local tastes.
As the wine industry spread to South Australia and Victoria, Verdelho went with it and continued to dominate white wine production, especially for sweet fortified wines. However, by the 20th century, other white varieties like Riesling overtook it, and when modern demand for varieties like Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay took hold.
Verdelho in Australia today
For a long time, Verdelho fell out of favour with Australian wine drinkers and winemakers, perhaps suffering from the backlash against the sweet wines and cheap styles that were characteristic of the nation’s earlier wine industry.
But the variety has continued to thrive under the radar, finding good soil in places like Western Australia’s Swan Valley, a fertile corridor of farms and vineyards just outside the city of Perth where warm weather and sea breezes create a climate perfect for Verdelho growing.
Verdelho is one of the main white wine varieties in this small but notable WA wine region, and producers like Houghtons and Sittella have embraced this noble grape to make single varietals showing complex flavours and structure.
As Australia’s wine industry charges ahead in this new century, the old image of cheap table plonk and sickly sweet wines is rapidly disappearing.
Verdelho is a historic wine for Australia’s wine sector that has changed with the times, going from an Aussie version of Portuguese dessert wine to a high-quality varietal gaining a strong following.
Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc may the mainstays of Australia’s whites, but Verdelho is there too, insisting on its place at the table, and most importantly, in the glass.
In the Hunter Valley, where Verdelho’s story began in Australia, the grape has always been seen as a useful thing to have around for blends and fortified and is now making a comeback on its own.