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Jefford on Monday: The Secret Visit

A little over six months ago, I was standing more or less on the other side of the world. The weather, as I made my way up Stone Chimney Creek Road, was much as it is in this corner of the northern hemisphere today: a sky the colour of mushroom stalks, misty rain blowing on the wind, temperatures cold enough to make wearing a parcel of goose down advisable. If our world didn’t tilt, of course, these seasonal pulses wouldn’t happen. But it does – so the brightness and warmth I left behind back in May is now, in November, lavished on the south.

There was a house on the hill: modern yet modest, neat and tidy, with a bright green ute lurking like a grasshopper in the backyard. A companionable vineyard neighboured it: just 3.5 acres (1.4 ha) of Shiraz, planted in 1910 on a light sandy loam over clay. Not generous soils, but enough to keep most of the vines alive ever since, drinking only the water which falls from the sky. They’re old but not massy, and look north-east: the warmer option here, and necessary for Shiraz growing at almost 500 m, though that turn to the east means they’re in shadow a few hours before summer dusk.

The mist, the solitude, the forbidden allure: I almost felt like a spy. I was there to taste some of Australia’s most astonishing red wines, yet I hardly dared tell anyone I was going. When I owned up later, and shyly admitted how much I’d liked them, I was met with near-incredulity. At least once, I was asked to confirm what I’d just said. These are the great wines you aren’t, in right-thinking circles, meant to like: too rich, too much alcohol, too many “Parker points”. They swim like bandit trout against Australia’s current tide of early-picking righteousness and buttoned-down restraint. But, sorry folks, great they are.

The man who lives, quietly enough, up at 9 Stone Chimney Creek Road is Chris Ringland, and the wines I would use ‘great’ about are his 2007 and 2008 Shiraz (alcohol levels 17.3% and 18.3%). They are enormous and liqueur-like, but in no way specious or confected. I’d call them profound, essence-like, saturated in extract, aromatic to the last drop, shocking in their depth and density. The 2007 smells of mineral oil, leaf litter, stones and dust. Despite its weight and density, it is somehow searching, lively and vivid: definitely Eden, not Barossa (though you’ll read ‘Barossa Ranges’ on the label). The 2008 is more savoury in aroma, and has a little more menthol, too. Its taste is hard to describe. It’s as if the normal gravitational force in a wine had suddenly been doubled, and an entire landscape had been sucked into that physics-defying mouthful: the stones, the trees, the herbs, the plants, all of them minced up into an elixir which creeps like lava over your tongue. These kind of wines redefine the wine-drinking experience. Of course they are not ‘refreshing’; of course they are not burgundy or claret, or anything built to emulate them. They are Something Different: a vast, subterranean murmur from one of earth’s most ancient, most eroded, most enduring landscapes.

There are plenty of specious, highly adjusted wines made in the flamboyant style in Barossa, and the results can be repellent. These wines, by contrast, are pure, true and only gently adjusted (the 2008 has a pH of 3.77 and acidity of 5.92 g/l). The fruit was picked on April 16th and March 28th respectively; four unhurried years pass before they see the inside of a bottle, so the 2008 was only bottled in March this year.  

“I saw the vineyard,” Ringland remembers, “in early June in 1994. I took a look at it. I just figured it was going to do what I wanted. I nipped over the fence on Sunday, and owned it by Monday. I just want to make a delicious wine which will age.” He worked for Robert O’Callaghan at Rockford for 18 years. “Roseworthy taught us as winemakers to ask ‘What are you going to do?’ The big epiphany came from Robert. ‘What is the wine telling you to do?’”

I made my way back to Adelaide in thoughtful mood. How could a scraggy vineyard up in the Eden Hills produce a wine like that, just a few gear-changes away from the crystalline finesse and delicacy of the Rieslings of Pewsey Vale? How is it possible? Is it not wondrous? Would we not be poorer without them? Are both not inspirational? And why is Australia’s wine establishment not proud of beauty this singular?  

Written by Andrew Jefford

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