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Wine Legend: Jim Barry, The Armagh 1999

What makes it a wine legend...?

Wine Legend: Jim Barry, The Armagh 1999, Clare Valley, South Australia

Bottles produced N/A

Composition 100%  Shiraz

Yield 32hl/ha

Alcohol 15%

Release price £60

Price today £132

A legend because…

The heartland of Australian Shiraz is usually considered to be the Barossa Valley, but other regions have shown they can also produce outstanding wines from this variety. Jim Barry, a Clare Valley pioneer, established his winery in 1959. In 1968 he planted Shiraz vines in the Armagh region, which led to the creation of The Armagh 17 years later. The name is a tribute to the place and to the Irish settlers who came here from 1849 onwards. Barry intended the wine to be a challenger to the iconic Penfolds Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace, and it was priced between them on release. The Armagh has been made in most vintages, but there were years when none was bottled under that label: 1986, 2003, 2011.

Looking back

By 1999, the Armagh style was well established, though with less reliance on American oak, and the wine was already considered an exceptional Shiraz with a worldwide reputation. The Barry property had expanded from its early days to consist of 260ha over 11 sites, as well as vineyards in Coonawarra. Jim Barry had by then retired and handed over to his children Nancy and Peter, who became managing director in 1985. Jim died in 2004, and the estate remains in the hands of second- generation Peter Barry and his children.

The vintage

Conditions were patchy in Australia’s wine regions in 1999, but the climate was ideal in Clare Valley, with a dry summer and just enough rain before harvest to bring the grapes to full ripeness. When picked, the bunches were entirely healthy.

The terroir

Clare Valley has cooler nights than regions such as Barossa, and this contributes to a level of acidity that gives wines freshness as well as power. The Armagh vineyard is a mere 3.3ha of sandy clay over alluvial pebbles and clay. Rainfall is modest, with an annual average of 600mm.

The wine

After harvesting, the grapes are crushed and vinified using pumpovers and délestage (rack and return) for a period of 7-10 days. Fermentation takes place at no more than 23°C, with the grapes submerged under boards. In many vintages all the press wine is added to the blend, as the grapes are picked at high ripeness levels that deliver supple tannins and no green flavours. The oak regime has varied over the years; the 1999 spent 15 months in 50% new French oak and 50% new American oak. This vintage was sealed with natural cork, as screwcap closures were only introduced for The Armagh in 2010.

The reaction

Jeremy Oliver was impressed: ‘Ultra-concentrated spicy aromas of cassis, plum, raspberry and redcurrant, with musky, spirity, gamey undertones of animal hide and asphalt. Powerful and velvety; a particularly vibrant expression… Seductively smooth and seamless, dripping with flavours of ripe crushed raspberry, blackberry and tarry red plum, and handsomely coated in spicy oak tones of vanilla and chocolate.’

In 2015, Huon Hooke noted: ‘The bouquet is restrained and quietly complex, while the palate is rich and concentrated, intense and penetrating, with layers of black fruit and espresso coffee, chocolate and toffee flavours all nicely integrated. A big, solid, powerful wine that serves up all the things that we expect in a top Armagh.’

Tasting at the winery in the same year, Andrew Graham was less enthusiastic: ‘Oak kicks off the nose and palate. I think this is still very backward – in time it might follow the path of the 1995, but for the moment it’s just big, oaky and awkwardly bulky.’

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