It came out of the east, travelled fast, seduced the winemakers of the Barossa and then it was gone. The aftershock from the 1990s whirlwind that was Robert Parker, who handed out 100 points like confetti to high-octane Barossa reds, is still being felt. Success and what followed took a toll on the region and its signature reds.
“Cartoon-like wines with huge extract, ripeness, alcohol, oak and colour density were the flagships, largely due to the lucrative American market which was for a time blown away by such styles,” says Phil Lehmann of Barossa Valley label Max & Me. “And the wines were so regionally identifiable and lacking in traditional elegance and finesse, they became the punchline of many a vinous joke.”
After the consumer and wine critic backlash, the winemakers of the Barossa are now staging a comeback.
Inside the region
The Barossa is the umbrella geographical indication zone encompassing the Barossa Valley – sometimes referred to as the Valley floor – and the Eden Valley, defined by the area’s higher ridges. One has water for irrigation (Barossa Valley) and one relies completely on what falls from the sky (Eden Valley).
Every major Australian wine producer and group is represented in the GI zone, including Treasury Wine Estates (Penfolds, Wolf Blass), Accolade (St Hallett, Grant Burge), Pernod Ricard (Jacob’s Creek, St Hugo), Yalumba, and Casella (Peter Lehmann Wines). It is also home to quality independents such as Henschke, Torbreck, Elderton and Rockford.
It is also the place to take a moment to discover quaint little villages, Lutheran churches and 19th century stone cottages, and to partake of a little schluk and schnitter or ‘a drink and something to eat’, all of which reflect the area’s German Lutheran history. Indeed, Barossa’s wine history and enduring culture was written by the German/Silesian immigrants and English settlers who arrived in the early 1840s, and their children and the generations who followed and toil the land today.
In the Barossa, one grape rules: Shiraz. The grape’s worldwide reputation has been largely built on an extraordinary collection of old-vine Shiraz going back to the 1840s, which produces an intense, ethereal wine experience. As the custodian of 1843 Shiraz vines, Langmeil Winery views the role of new generations of Barossa makers as critical to the grape’s ongoing success. Langmeil’s sales and marketing manager, James Lindner, says they are the key because they are driving new styles of Shiraz based on tradition. “The Barossa’s new evolution has come with a new generation of winemakers, inspired by the Barossa’s rich history,” he says.
While the warm Barossa Valley has generally produced the boldest and more robust styles of Shiraz, the high ridges of the Eden Valley are increasingly looked to for medium-bodied styles with the grape’s pepper and spicy characters to the fore.
Grenache is also being re-evaluated. “We are getting better at making Grenache in a way that promotes aromatics and texture without being big, jammy and alcoholic,” says John Duval, a former Penfolds Grange winemaker now working with his son, Tim, at John Duval Wines.
The key is not to make Grenache like Shiraz, but to pick grapes earlier, treat them gently in the winery, use less or no new oak and, increasingly ferment and age the wines in large, old oak barrels. The result is a mid-weight, elegant, savoury style which is ultimately more food-friendly than the rich, ripe, confection of old.
Cabernet Sauvignon, once the region’s wine darling, is finding living in the 21st century challenging due to increased heat and drought. “Cabernet will become even more relevant going forward as consumers look for fruit purity,” argues Simon Adams of Sorby Adams Wines and a veteran of 40 Barossa vintages. “Wine styles don’t have to become un-Barossa, rather it means that the cooler places in the Barossa will be explored more.” For many, that means looking to the Eden Valley for their Cabernet fruit.
One of Cabernet’s greatest supporters is Peter Gago, the highly influential chief winemaker at Penfolds. “Quite honestly, we’re delighted with the quality and style of A-Grade Cabernet from the Barossa Valley,” he says. “Our only problem, we literally can’t get enough. More Barossa plantings, please!”
For some producers, a drier future might mean planting less Cabernet. At Kaesler, CEO Reid Bosward is finding that Grenache and Mataro (or Mourvèdre) are the varieties most tolerant of heat and dry conditions. “We also have Touriga,” he adds. “I think this is an excellent variety.” In contrast, Shiraz and Cabernet are said to be “thirsty”.
White grapes, including Riesling, were originally grown in the Barossa for fortified wine production. Riesling went on to become the area’s most valued white grape, a vinous bookend to Shiraz. If you compare the celebrated wines released by Leo Buring and Peter Lehmann Wines in the 1970s to the Rieslings of today, you see a style largely unchanged and almost defiantly dry. Dry Riesling drives sales but once again, change is in the air.
Eden Valley makers such as Ruggabellus and Chaffey Brothers are making off-dry styles and employing skin contact to produce warmer textures. Pewsey Vale under the Yalumba label has moved into off-dry territory with Prima. Winemaker Corey Ryan at Sons of Eden pursues a Riesling made with extended skin contact and full malolactic fermentation in egg-shaped vessels, then aged in large Austrian oak barrels. “The natural higher acidity in Riesling works very well to promote structure and holds the complex elements together,” he says.
Still, the man often most associated with the grape, Barossa-based winemaker John Hughes of Rieslingfreak, remains frustrated by winemakers’ lack of daring. “I am finding it very difficult in the industry to get winemakers to experiment outside of the conventional dry Riesling,” he says. “It would be great to see many more winemakers going outside the box.”
Chardonnay remains largely unsung throughout the Barossa, perhaps because it is sandwiched by Semillon and Rhône Valley white grapes led by Viognier, and including Marsanne and Roussanne. Viognier owes its growing reputation to one winemaker, Louisa Rose, at Yalumba. She saw its potential and in 1980 persuaded her boss, Robert Hill-Smith, to plant it in the Eden Valley where the company is based. “We knew how well both the aromatic Rhône variety, Shiraz, and the other aromatic white variety, Riesling, had done since they were planted in the Eden Valley in the late 1840s,” she says. The grape has thrived due in part to the region’s warm days and cool nights, which allow natural acids to be retained, and naturally low fertile and shallow soils, with no accompanying excessive growth issues. “While the wines do have a good following in Australia, I think it’s fair to say that Australians haven’t really fallen in love with the variety as much as the rest of the world has,” she adds.
Torbreck Vintners first explored co-fermentation of Shiraz with Viognier in the 1990s but quickly saw the potential for the Rhône Valley’s Marsanne and Roussanne. “I love Roussanne,” says chief winemaker Ian Hongell. “It has a steelier, more floral line to it with peach stone and apricot notes.” His interest in the grapes led to a trip to the Rhône in 2017 and plantings last year of other Rhône white grapes at Torbreck, namely Grenache Blanc and Clairette in tandem with red grapes Carignan and Counoise.
Examples of Barossa winemaking:
Yelland & Papps
Barossa winemaker Michael Papps isn’t into terms such as natural winemaker but he does represent the young, give-it-a-go Barossa winemaking generation. “For us, it’s wild yeasts, minimal additives, and when we are doing the work in the winery it is minimal work,” he says. “So, you are not trying to over-extract the fruit, it’s about gently fermenting the fruit and allowing that fruit to speak for itself.”
The Yelland & Papps Second Take range is minimal all the way. Grapes are picked on flavour and acid balance, and not, he stresses flavour and sugar balance. Grape skins play a big role in his winemaking. “We only pump things over twice a day for five minutes, just enough to wet the caps,” he says, “but we leave wines on skins for longer. Sometimes it’s upwards of 20, 30 days on skins, or in the case of our Vermentino it’s 310 days.” He says, however, he is not trying to make an orange wine or oxidise the skins.
Max & Me
Phil Lehmann admits to succumbing to the odd winemaking trend but now, under his own family’s label, he is enjoying a new sense of freedom and a return to a traditional winemaking approach. “The rediscovery of the traditional open fermentation methods rather than the more usual closed-tank red ferments was a revelation,” he says. “It opened the fragrance of Shiraz, Grenache and Mataro, softened the tannins and stabilised the tannins. Picking the grapes on their ascendency to full ripeness rather than on the other side of the ripeness plateau furnished the wines with more, fresher flavours and a greater life expectancy.”
Like a number of Australian winemakers, he is incorporating into his winemaking the once neglected 500-litre puncheon wine barrel. “For me, puncheons work great when you want to preserve freshness, enhance perfume and have a slower oak pick-up and wine evolution,” he says. “Old French oak puncheons work great for Grenache and Mataro. New French oak puncheons seem to work great on fragrant, cooler-climate Shiraz, like Eden Valley.”
Hogsheads (300 litre), with their greater wood surface area, provide faster oak pick-up and more air during ageing and he matches them with rich Shiraz. And he finds barriques (225 litres) are perfect with tannic varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon.
This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available by subscription in print or online.