The New Barossa

This article first appeared in Decanter, June 2009
Tyson Stelzer

It seems the Barossa Valley is synonymous with the stereotypical Aussie red – big, ripe, high octane and bombarded with lashings of American oak. Or is it? The winds of change are blowing through Australia’s most famous region, and the buzzwords of ‘intensity’, ‘alcohol’ and ‘wood’ have been replaced with ‘old vines’, ‘subregionality’ and ‘balance’. Could it be that the Barossa is becoming more European?

The region has seen the warning signs for some time. “We are in diabolical trouble. Global warming will bring about higher baumes in our grapes and higher alcohols in our wines,” said Wolf Blass, brand ambassador for Wolf Blass wines, at a gathering of Barossa winemakers last year.

“As far as I am concerned, Robert Parker has to be blamed for this. And, unfortunately, we followed by making our wines in this style. I am warning you winemakers, we are going to get attacked by world health authorities if we do not stop! Those wines which are over fifteen percent should not get awarded at any wine show anywhere!”

It’s a sage warning, but one that rang hollow when, just a few months later, Blass took to the road to launch the super-premium Wolf Blass range – with not one red wine measuring less than 15% alcohol and one tipping the scales at 15.5%.

Is the Barossa taking its own warning seriously, or is it simply spouting what drinkers would like to hear? And now, more than ever, consumers expect action.

Australia’s dwindling reputation has been blamed on its ‘critter’ wines – entry-level quaffers decorated with all manner of quirky fauna. “But it’s not just the ‘critter’ wines, it’s the top end wines, as well,” said Penfolds Chief Winemaker, Peter Gago. “A lot of wealthy Americans bought high alcohol, 99 and 100 point wines five or eight years ago, and they’re bringing them out of their cellars now and finding that they’ve fallen over. High alcohols just have to come down.”

For Gago, this plea is much more than just lip service, and he is working to proactively lower alcohol levels. It’s a tough game following three drought seasons and two successive record heatwaves, in which ripeness (and hence potential alcohol) was set to skyrocket. “In 2007 we picked Magill Estate Shiraz on February 8, the earliest in 160 years!” he exclaimed. And in 2008 that record was broken, and again in 2009. “I don’t care what your textbooks say,” Gago responded when he was criticised for picking so early. “We picked early because we make table wine here, not vintage port!”

With careful attention in the vineyard, it is possible to produce balanced wines even in these tough seasons. “We’re amazed that if we don’t overcrop, we can get the style of fruit that we’re after without huge alcohols,” said Michael Twelftree of Two Hands.

This is a trend that makes the Blass’ of the Barossa look like the exceptions and the Penfolds’ and Two Hands’ look like the rule. Following an extensive media and winemaker tasting of red wines from across the region last month, St Hallett Chief Winemaker Stuart Blackwell summed up the sentiments of the room in suggesting that the 2008 vintage wines demonstrated a much more considered approach to picking, fermentation and use of oak than the preceding vintages. “There’s a lot more finesse in the wines that are being made now than there was a few years ago,” he said.

For some winemakers, this is a recent initiative. For Saltram Winemaker Savaughn Wells, Barossa Shiraz will always be big and bold “because that’s what we do best. But, at the end of the day, if we can finesse them a bit, that will be a good thing.” For her, pulling back on new oak is a key part of this ‘finessing’. Saltram’s top wines are progressively moving toward a higher proportion of 2100 litre French oak. These larger format barrels impart less oak flavour and tannin. “It comes back to respect of the fruit,” she said.

For others, the future is not a question of changing old styles but of supplementing them with new. “I was asked from day one, how are you going to change Grange? Well, I’m not changing it,” said Gago. “Grange and Bin 707 have to be multi-regional blends with 100% new American oak, by definition.”

In response to consumer drinking preferences away from American oak and toward single region wines, he launched Penfolds RWT, a Barossa Shiraz made only in French oak. Along the same lines, Penfolds has in the pipeline an impressive French oak Coonawarra Cabernet and a single subregion Marananga Barossa Shiraz.

For many Barossa winemakers, there is no agenda for dramatic change, because they have already been pursuing this style. “We’ve never tried to make a blockbuster,” said Andrew Wigan of Peter Lehmann Wines. “I don’t want to go the way of some makers who are letting alcohol levels get too high. When I travel to Europe, people keep telling me that my wines are not an Australian style but have more finesse and are more European.”

Over the past twenty years, Peter Lehmann’s Barossa flagship, Stonewell Shiraz, has slowly evolved from 100% American oak to 90% French oak. “At Peter Lehmann, we have tried hard to back off on the ripeness in order to make a more international style,” Wigan explained.

The goal for boutique Rockford owner and winemaker Robert O’Callaghan is to maintain his style. “It’s been rock solid from the day we started,” he said. “In a world where marketing is driven by a new product every year, my philosophy is based on keeping the old model viable.” For him, this is about making his wines finer. “The easiest thing to do in the Barossa is to get the grapes ripe and make big wines. What’s hard to do is to tune that down so you’ve got the power without it being too obvious,” he said. It seems to be working for him, and he evidences this with feedback from Europe that his wines look more like Old World wines than New World. “For me, that’s the nicest compliment I can be paid!” he said.

This trend toward a more European style in the Barossa is not just about alcohol and oak. It embraces a respect for the fruit and recognises the distinctiveness of the Barossa’s many subregions.

The region is a complex tapestry of “micro-areas” which its winegrowers are only starting to understand, according to Yalumba Chief Winemaker, Louisa Rose. She has recently released three single site Shirazes, labelled according to their Barossa subregions of Eden Valley, Light Pass and Lyndoch. “It’s fantastic to have three Shirazes from the same vintage made essentially in the same way. It’s a great way to explore the differences and to explain that the Barossa is not just one big blob!” she said.

The Barossa subregionality debate has been hotting up this year, convoluted by the detail of the many communes and parishes that make up the complexity of the region. Should sites be distinguished on the basis of soil type, altitude, microclimate or traditional town boundaries? The process of settling on an agreed standard has been further delayed by those companies who own trademarks to the names of some of the areas in question. Ebenezer, Koonunga Hill, Kalimna, Stonewell and Bethany have been established brand names for some time.

For many Barossa producers, the fascination with exploring subregionality has nothing to do with branding. Charles Melton (Charles Melton Wines) recently purchased 75 acres of the highest altitude site in High Eden, in the cool part of the hills in the east of the Barossa. It will raise some eyebrows later this year when he plants Grenache in such a cool site, traditionally planted to Riesling and Chardonnay. He also has plans for a ‘field block’ with a mixture of the thirteen southern Rhone varieties. He expects that this cool climate, dry grown, low-yielding Grenache won’t stand alone but rather become a crucial blending component with his Barossa Valley floor vineyards. “We’ve got fifteen different blocks of Grenache throughout the valley and the fruit from each is very different,” he said. “For us, this distinctiveness is one of the exciting things about the Barossa.”

As a region, it seems the Barossa will continue to discuss and debate subregionality for some time yet. “The last 20 years have just been exploratory,” suggested Melton. “We really have an opportunity now to take the knowledge that we’ve gained and use it to take a step forward.”

One united front on which the region has found agreement is a standard for classifying its old vines, launched last month under the banner of The Barossa Old Vine Charter. “What does ‘old vine’ mean?” asked Gago. “It’s like ‘reserve bottling’ – what does that mean? We need to define the nomenclature. This is a code for classifying the old vines of the region.”

Under the Charter, vines 35 years of age and older may be named “Barossa Old Vines.” Those over 70 years of age, “Survivor Vines,” 100 years, “Centurion Vines” and 125 years, “Ancestor Vines.” But don’t expect to see these names on Barossa labels tomorrow. There is considerable work to be done in the meantime, including establishing an authentication process through a register of old vines. It’s no easy task hunting for records that extend right back to the first Barossa plantings of 1842.

Other Australian regions have expressed interest in embracing the Charter. Rutherglen has requested permission from the Barossa to use it and the Winemakers’ Federation has suggested that it’s something that the whole of Australia could consider. “We would like to ultimately see some sort of position that establishes old vines in a logical hierarchy around the world,” said Yalumba’s Brian Walsh.

“In the perception of drinkers of serious wines in the world, the Old World owns the integrity to old vineyards,” suggested Yalumba Proprietor, Robert Hill-Smith. “To take an Old Vine Charter to the world is going to cause a lot of people who take Australia for granted to think again. This charter for us is about integrity and about hoping that the wines we put in front of people do express place and variety. It is a necessary evolution that signifies a ‘growing up’ of Australia.”

For the Barossa, the future is about showcasing the distinctiveness of its diverse landscape and its long-established vineyards, and of presenting this free from the distractions of high alcohol and dominating oak. Its best producers have been following this philosophy all along, creating wines that are accessible to European palates. For them, warnings of ‘diabolical trouble’ seem as far removed as the Barossa is from Europe itself.

Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz 2004 (19.5/20)
UK agent: Enotria
Painstakingly assembled from some of the Barossa’s best vineyards, Stonewell is one of Australia’s greatest red wines, and for what it represents it’s outstanding value. It takes twenty years for a good vintage to fully blossom – and 2004 is one of the best. It trumped every other Aussie Shiraz in my annual taste-off with Matthew Jukes last year.

Yalumba Tri-Centenary Vineyard Vine Vale Grenache 2005 (18.5/20)
UK agent: Negociants UK
Planted in 1889, these vines really do span three centuries. Their fruit is treated with the utmost care, fermented with wild yeasts and aged in old French oak barrels, leaving nothing but flavours of pure red fruit, game and exotic, lifted five spice in all of their unadulterated glory.

Penfolds RWT Shiraz 2006 (18.5/20)
UK agent: Fosters
RWT is Penfolds’ “Red Wine Trial” and although the trial ended almost a decade ago, this is not only one of the best RWTs to date but it will also be among the longest-lived. It’s packed with classic Barossa Shiraz from a great vintage, exemplifying just how well suited this region can be to French oak.

Dutschke St Jakobi Shiraz 2005 (18/100)
UK agent: Genesis Wines
Wayne Dutschke’s single vineyard Shiraz reflects the cooler south of the Barossa in its vibrant red berry fruits and fresh, lively acidity. The 2005 is among his best yet, hailing from the season that he has named “the perfect vintage!”

Fox Gordon Hannah’s Swing Shiraz 2006 (18/100)
UK agent: HwCG
Tash Mooney crafts wines of complexity and restraint, as her flagship Shiraz demonstrates, tipping in at just a touch over 13% alcohol. Picked at the perfect instant of ripeness, this is a wine of poise, balance and fine structure.

Teusner Joshua Grenache Mataro Shiraz 2007 (17.5/20)
UK agent: Stokes Fine Wines
Kym Teusner could label Joshua as “oak-free” because this is exactly how he makes it. This wine is all about delightfully pure fruit and spicy, sweet fruit cake flavour. Joshua is polished, suave and ready to get the party started.