- Friday 1 June 2001
Throughout the Barossa, winemakers and growers are experimenting,
often on a small scale, with a wide range of grape varieties and novel
techniques. MAX ALLEN reports
Excuse me. Hello? Yes, if I could just drag your attention away from that glass of dark, brooding, rich Barossa Shiraz for a second. Thank you. You can go back to it later, I promise. Just thought you might like to know that there are plenty of other wines apart from Shiraz produced in the Barossa and Eden Valleys (collectively known as 'The Barossa'). I know it doesn't seem like that. I know it seems sometimes as though every single vine planted in Barossa soil is a century-old Shiraz vine. But the region is in fact blessed with many winemakers who are not only making wines from other grape varieties, but are also pushing winemaking boundaries further than almost anybody else in Australia.
Take that mob of the moment, the group of highly sought after winemakers cheekily referred to by Sydney wine auctioneer and writer Andrew Caillard as the 'tin-shackistes': an Australianised version of 'garagiste' that fits these Barossa winemakers perfectly. There have always been dozens of small winemakers in the Barossa. That's how the region got started 150 years ago: each of the settling families established a small vineyard on their land – next to the orchard, the well and the chook house – to make wine to drink themselves, explaining the valley's proliferation of old vines.
But in the late 1990s, as the world's fine wine market began to really hot up, and as wine enthusiasts and collectors particularly in the US and Asia began to cast their wallets wider for new cult wines they could hoard, the Barossa tin-shackiste winemakers hit the headlines with small quantities of incredibly rich, powerful, often quite idiosyncratic Shiraz- and Grenache-based red wines. Australia's icon Shiraz, Penfolds Grange, had taken off in the US when it featured as Wine of the Year in Wine Spectator magazine in 1995 (see? I told you we'd go back to Shiraz – even if momentarily), but it was the unbridled enthusiasm of the world's most influential wine critic, Robert Parker, a couple of years later that created a surge of interest in winemakers and wineries like Rolf Binder at Veritas, Chris Ringland at Three Rivers, David Powell at Torbreck and Rick Burge at Burge Family Winemakers.This bunch seemed so different to Parker because they were pushing the boundaries of fruit concentration, alcohol levels, 'funky' (read traditional, Old World) winemaking techniques and, subsequently, price levels beyond anything previously experienced (I'll come back to this last point in a minute). They weren't doing what many of the larger, more commercially minded wineries in the Barossa seemed to be doing: churning out variations on the 'classic' theme of sweet Barossa Shiraz fruit wrapped up in oodles of coconutty American oak. They were – are – developing individual, characterful, flavour-packed, single vineyard wines.There have been many positive effects of this revolution. One is that, finally, the all-too-crucial US export market was made acutely aware that Australia doesn't just produce Rosemount Estate Diamond Label Shiraz – that there are winemakers down under with the same all-consuming devotion to character, personality and respect for
terroir as the most fiercely passionate Burgundian.
The success of small producers like Chris Ringland (his Three Rivers Shiraz barely tops 1,000 bottles) has inspired many small growers, retailers and passionate wine people to launch their own label (usually old vine Shiraz sourced from a block down some dirt road) and chase some of that glamour and prestige for themselves. The inevitable downside of the tin-shackiste phenomenon, though, is that with cult status has come price madness. Incredibly high scores from Parker have had exactly the same effect on these wines as they had on the garagiste wines of Pomerol: prices have gone through the roof. Last year, if you were lucky enough to find it, you could buy Three Rivers Shiraz for about AUS$80 (£27) a bottle. This year, it's going for AUS$500 (£170). Crazy. It would be a shame if people like Ringland, Binder and Powell are remembered for prices and not for their fabulous wines. Encouragingly, there are signs that the madness may be easing. At the time of writing, Rolf Binder and his original American importer, the Grateful Palate, had parted company. Binder is said to be increasingly uneasy at the prices being charged for his wines in the US. It's hard not to see that as a slight cooling off, and a return to some semblance of reality.
Wines that got most of these tin-shackistes noticed, many are dab hands with Grenache: the Barossa's secret weapon. Just as there are dozens of century-old Shiraz vines, so too are there paddocks full of twisted, gnarly Grenache vines, squeezing out some of the most concentrated, spicy, intensely flavoured grapes on the planet. For most of the 20th century, Grenache was frowned upon in Australia. It was either used for cheap bulk red because it could be cropped heavily, or tawny port because it went brown in barrel quickly. Some 10 years ago, though, a couple of Barossa winemakers – notably Charlie Melton and Rocky O'Callaghan at the Rockford winery just down the road – started taking the fruit from the old bush vines outside their back doors seriously and making gutsy, ballsy reds from it. In Rockford's case, the wine was made into a varietal, but in Melton's case it was blended with Shiraz and Mataro (or Mourvèdre, to give it its posh name), to make a Châteauneuf-du-Pape model.
After a while the penny dropped and other winemakers leapt aboard the bandwagon. Today, there are heaps of excellent, robust, sweet and spicy Barossan Grenaches or Grenache blends: Turkey Flat's Grenache Noir, Grant Burge's The Holy Trinity, Henschke's Johann's Garden, Veritas' Bull's Blood – even Penfolds have joined the gang, with its Old Vine Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvèdre, which goes to prove that this innovation has gone mainstream. Charlie Melton also uses Grenache to make arguably Australia's best rosé – the big, rudely fruity Charles Melton Rose of Virginia – a seriously radical move in a country which still unfathomably seems resolutely antipathetic to the wine style that best suits its climate. And the innovation doesn't stop there. Melton's latest experiment is a Vin Santo-style dessert wine made from ripe Pedro Ximénez and Muscadelle grapes that have been left to hang from the rafters of the winery before being fermented then stored in old, 60-litre Madeira barrels, allowing a gentle oxidation. The result is rich, deeply golden, unctuous stuff, shot through with alluring hints of oloroso sherry. About as far from your usual clean Aussie winemaking as it's possible to get. Now if Shiraz is the archetypal Barossa red grape, then Riesling is the region's white grape par excellence – traditionally, at least. Sure, Semillon and Chardonnay are arguably more popular with growers, winemakers and customers – both in a ripe, oak-matured, sometimes quite fat style – but Riesling is undoubtedly the variety best suited to the Barossa and, in particular, the cooler, more elevated Eden Valley. Actually, no, that's not true. There is some doubt being cast on Riesling's pre-eminence, despite a century or more of sensational, crisp, austere, long-lived wines. Yalumba, for example, is staking a big claim to greatness with its substantial plantings of Viognier up in the Eden Valley. It has been experimenting with the notoriously difficult grape since the 1980s, and, by the mid-1990s, has established itself as the market leader, first with the single vineyard Heggies Viognier, then, more recently, with a super-premium Viognier called The Virgilius (there is a story behind the classical name, but I really don't want to burden you with it).
Importantly, Yalumba is not playing around with Viognier here. It is making a statement. The Virgilius is the company's flagship white wine – meaning that it sits at the top of the portfolio hierarchy, with a price tag – AUS$45 (£15) to match. And it's a brilliant example of the grape, too: powerfully aromatic (lychees, white flowers, musk), gloriously complex, textured and rich. Crucially though, Yalumba has made this statement knowing full well that its flagship wine has no cellaring potential. It is at its best drunk young – maybe one or two years after vintage. After that, it falls over and goes all flabby. Then again, this flagrant flaunting of one of the great laws (that a wine's greatness is in part measured by its longevity) fits well with Yalumba's history of experimentation. As well as running one of Australia's most important and diverse vine nurseries, Yalumba is also at the forefront of importing new and unusual vine varieties – grapes like the underrated Garganega, the top white grape of Soave, which has been planted in the Eden Valley. The Spanish red grape, Tempranillo, is also being trialled by a few winemakers, notably Peter Lehmann in the Barossa Valley. There are exciting wines to be made when these new/old vines begin to bear fruit.
The award, though, for the most obscure white grape in the Barossa has to go to Jim Irvine, a veteran winemaker in the Eden Valley, who has a vineyard full of the rare Champagne grape, Meslier (Irvine produces a crisp, appley fizz from it). Like Charlie Melton and many of the other innovators I've mentioned, Irvine is a restless soul: as well as the Meslier and some Zinfandel (surprisingly thin on the ground in Australian vineyards, although this is slowly changing), he has made Merlot his Holy Grail, and produces, in the Irvine Grand Merlot, one of the country's most unusual, and controversial versions of the great red grape.
While many of Australia's Merlot winemakers seem to be chasing the fine, fruity, elegant, tannic style, Irvine's Merlot is unashamedly opulent, quirky and downright oaky – indeed, with close to three years' barrel maturation, it ends up sometimes tasting quite smokey and syrupy. Irvine knows that what he's doing stands apart from the rest of the world, but in wonderful Barossa fashion, he couldn't, quite frankly, give a rat's arse. In fact, Jim Irvine's Grand Merlot often tastes far more like a Barossa Shiraz than a Barossa Merlot. Which brings us neatly back to where we came in. So off you go, then.