Fans of Barossa Shiraz will find today's best wines show moderate new oak and alcohol. TIM WHITE chooses his top 10 of the moment

Fans of Barossa Shiraz will find today’s best wines show moderate new oak and alcohol. TIM WHITE chooses his top 10 of the moment

Traditional Shiraz from the Barossa Valley is always, supposedly, super-ripe and alcoholic with an equally big hit of new, coconut and vanilla-scented American oak. Right? Well not quite, unless you believe that a ‘tradition’ is established in little more than a decade.

If you travel back to just the late 1980s you’ll find that the vast majority of one of Australia’s most treasured red wine styles was matured mainly in older oak and rated way lower in the alcohol stakes than the 14.5?, sometimes 15?+ alcohol levels, common in many a super-premium and ‘icon’ Barossa Shiraz of the 1990s.

WINES WITH MUSCLE

Nigel Dolan, chief winemaker at Saltram, has analysed the alcohol levels of numerous old Saltram reds made by his late father, Bryan, in the 1950s. ‘A large number of these are in the high 12s to mid-13s’ he says, ‘and 14?+ wines were a rarity.’ Many of these reds are still drinking beautifully today.

But the styles of Barossa Shiraz back then weren’t without muscle. Dolan senior, a few years back, recalled that the reds of the early 1950s were ‘pretty massive wines’. At the time, Australian fortified wine production and consumption exceeded that of table wine. Reds needed to be big to compete for wine drinkers’ attention.

The style of red fermentation was quite different then to today. As Bryan Dolan recalls: ‘The length of time on skins was longer then and the wines didn’t stew, but tended to get a rich, full, fruity character.’ Open fermenters were the typical vinification vessel, which Nigel Dolan reckons can contribute to at least half a percent more alcohol being lost.

If you couple this with the progressive introduction of more efficient yeast strains which kicked in from the late 1970s onwards) it’s easy to see why alcohol levels have gradually crept up.

There was also the possible addition of water. This was quite commonplace in the old days when ferments got a little too full-on. Nor was it unusual for a winemaker to ‘cool’ a ferment using blocks of ice, a technique that is positively French in its ingenuity.
‘It’s purely conjecture,’ Chris Ringland, winemaker at Rockford, confides, ‘but I think there would have been much less philosophical objection about amelioration than we would be happy with now.’

Fashion has been the main reason for recent greater use of new oak, and the chief promulgator of the ‘no wood, no good’ philosophy in the early 1990s was the Australian wine show ‘system’. A healthy dollop of new oak became de rigueur if a winemaker had any hope of picking up a trophy at a capital city wine show. Many an oaky Aussie Shiraz from this period, including many Barossa examples, now taste awful, just a decade on.

Despite what some would have us believe, the style changes that took place over the 1990s had nothing to do with the preferences of any internationally lauded wine critics who have recently ‘discovered’ Australia, although the heady mix of high alcohol, rich conserve-like fruit, and sweet icing sugar wood has certainly wooed many new fans abroad, especially in the US.

There are changes afoot though and this is a recurring theme in the wines I’ve selected. New oak maturation is being reduced in many wines, and where new wood is used the trend is now to use less assertive, finer French oak.

Alcohol levels are dropping too. Many wine growers now pick at slightly lower alcohol levels while still ensuring the grapes are flavour ripe. Some are even installing new open fermenters.

But the most exciting thing happening in the Barossa at the moment will take a little longer to evaluate. This is a ‘heritage’ vine benchmarking project which has established trial blocks of cuttings taken from the hundreds of hectares of century-old, own-rooted Shiraz vines found across the Barossa and Eden Valleys, as well as the industry standard clones. The trial has been set up to determine which clones yield the best fruit and are therefore best adapted to Barossa’s numerous sub-regions. In more than 150 years of Barossa wine growing this has never been undertaken before.

In a decade or so the newest thing under the Barossa sun will be a better understanding of old vines.

10 BAROSSA GREATS

Rockford, Basket Press, Shiraz

When Robert O’Callaghan started Rockford in 1984, few critics or consumers gave a damn about Barossa Shiraz – unbelievably in 1985 one of his near, but much bigger, neighbours carbon-fined all its Shiraz intake so it could be used in the production of white sparkling wine.

The style of Basket Press has remained true, however: grapes from old, unirrigated vineyards are sourced from 30-odd growers from the middle and northern Barossa Valley; the wine is matured in largely (85%) older French and American oak hogsheads (300 litre) for 2–2.5 years. In youth it’s rich, dried fig and blackberry fruited, with soft but densely packed tannins, and there’s a sniff of classic Barossa tar. With age it becomes sweet-savoury and stocky: the 1999 is a ripper, and a reminder that the vintage is a great one for Shiraz in the region. £17.99; AHW

Grant Burge, Meshach

This has scarcely missed a beat since its inception in 1988, although the 1993 represents a slight murmur (the one vintage that Burge himself is disappointed with). In the best years though it is a big, powerful, fruit cakey wine which ages slowly (the 1991 is only now becoming ready to drink). Burge has an amazing amount of estate Barossa vineyard at his
disposal, but it’s usually Filsell, with its 80-year-old vines, that makes up the core. It goes into new oak, which now includes an increasing French element. Both the 1996 and 1998 are in my top three wines of the vintage. £45; Amp, Hed, Mad, Net, OFo, Oxf, Pek, Rés, T&W, Whb, Wrt

Torbreck, Run Rig

Since its Parkerisation this wine has gone off the charts price-wise, but there’s no denying that in most vintages – especially 1999 – there are few other Barossa Shiraz that touch it. The 1999 is spellbinding: dense, tarry, figgy on the nose, packed with burnt blackberry ferrous flavours, and with a finish that goes on and on.

‘At the end of the day, it’s all in the grapes, there are no two ways about it,’ says winemaker David Powell. ‘People who come to work in the cellar expect to see me performing some kind of alchemy, but they’re quite disappointed to find that I’m actually not there that much. I’m out in the vineyard. I do 2,000km a week during vintage, out checking fruit.’£1,200–1,500 in bond; F&R

Peter Lehmann, Stonewell Shiraz

This was a toss-up between Stonewell and Eight Songs Shiraz (£18) which was first seen from the 1996 vintage. Lehmann’s chief winemaker, Andrew Wigan, describes the differences between the two wines: ‘Stonewell is sterner structured, more muscular, more
tannins. Eight Songs is softer, and the vineyards which provide the fruit are generally higher yielding.’

The first three vintages of Stonewell – 1987, 1988 and 1989 – are now looking a bit tired, the result of too much wood, but the oak selection has greatly improved over the years, and the time in barrel has been reduced. New French oak is also now taking over the dominant role. The 1996 and 1998 should develop well in bottle for 10–15 years. £25.99–29.99; Lai, Odd

Langmeil, The Freedom Shiraz

There have only been three vintages of this wine released from this recently revived Barossa winery. The Freedom is a single-vineyard wine produced from 1.4 hectares of vines planted in the 1840s which in a good year yield 450 cases. The 1998 and 1999 are both rich, almost liqueur-like wines, with masses of blackberry and cassis fruit, especially in the 1998. It’s open fermented, and from 2000 has gone into 70% new French oak hogsheads. £25.49; Wva

Barossa Valley Estate, E&E Black Pepper

This is of of the best examples of the super intense oaky breed, although once again oak handling has been evolving over the past five vintages or so. The preferred oak is now sourced directly from a few specific coopers in the US. The criteria for fruit selection hasn’t changed though. ‘We focus on the mid to back palate,’ says winemaker Stuart Bourne. ‘We’re after power and finesse. Only a few blocks in that district give us that, no matter how much we may try in the winery.’

The two best releases of E&E Black Pepper so far this decade, the 1994 and 1998, both exhibit these attributes on the palate: they are rich, almost viscous, and really long.
£430 in bond; F&R

Tin Shed, Single Wire Shiraz

A tiny newcomer, vinified with minimal interference in a small tin shed winery by Barossa chef Peter Clarke (of the superb Vintners Inn) and viticulturist Andrew Wardlaw (ex-Henschke). Vine age is again the key with a 90-year-old Eden Valley vineyard making up 80% of the 250-case blend. The oak is one third new, one third 1–2 years old, with the balance being three years and older. This allows the gently white pepper spicy, and raspberry fruit aromatics, to get full expression. £15.99; CeD

Saltram No 1 Shiraz

Toasty oak was the dominant feature in the early 1990s releases of this wine, but latter vintages – the 1998 and 1999 particularly – have shown much better oak integration and balance. Nigel Dolan says the blend always consists of fruit from six to eight mature vineyards. The oak mix has now evolved to a 50:50 blend of French and American with 70% being new, the rest older. The 1999 is a beauty: a perfectly judged combination of rich raisined fruit and fleshier, plummy cassis scented stuff, while the oak component is already well integrated. It is fermented to dryness in traditional waxed concrete open fermenters and the aim now is to maintain alcohol levels at between 13.5–14%. £19.99; Lai

Penfolds RWT Shiraz

The first vintage of this 100% Barossa Penfolds super-premium Shiraz was the 1997 which was pretty smart. The superior 1998 season yielded an even better wine. Fleshier, juicier, both distinctly Barossa and Penfolds in style, yet more spicy and fragrant than the company’s flagship top red, Grange. Penfolds’ new chief winemaker, Peter Gago, describes RWT’s evolution thus: ‘We’d always wanted to make a straight Barossa Shiraz at a 707 (Penfolds top Cabernet Sauvignon) quality level and put it into French oak. But we didn’t want to meddle with Grange which, although it’s a blend of many areas, does have the Barossa Valley as its engine room. So with RWT we set about this stylistic pursuit. One of the benefits of working for a larger wine company is that you can have your cake and eat it.’ RWT is matured in a mix of new and old French oak. £39.99; Tes, Wai

Yalumba, The Octavius

Oaktavius, as us wine critical wags have dubbed Yalumba’s most serious straight Shiraz, started life in 1988 as a Cabernet, but this changed with the 1990 vintage, clearly signalling the change in fortunes for Australia’s (now) most revered black grape
variety. Yalumba’s man in charge of red, Kevin Glastonbury, says they too are toning the oak and alcohol component down somewhat. ‘The first three vintages were 100% new oak. With 2000 we’re back to 60%, while in 2001 it will be 55%.

‘We’re also trying trying to pick a little less ripe,’ Gastonbury continues. ‘The 2000 will probably only be 13.5% and I think people will notice the difference.’ Why the change in style? ‘For me it’s all about balance. I just can’t sit down and drink an Octavius, Meshach or Stonewell on my own.’ The latest Octavius – the 1998 – is an amazing, massively
proportioned, oaky, blackberry-bitumen wine, and quite a thing to taste: but when – if ever – will it be ready to drink? £35–39.95; BBR, Lai

Tim White is a freelance wine writer, based in Australia.

Written by TIM WHITE