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Barossa Shiraz: A Broad Church

The new wave of vineyard-driven Barossa shirazes are being heralded as the region’s Second Coming. Sarah Ahmed meets the followers of the doctrine of Local Expression


Yawning at the mention of Barossa Shiraz? Or perhaps it’s your guilty pleasure. True, the fashion for blockbuster wines is on the wane, but you’d be wrong to tar all Barossa Shiraz with the same brush. While First Drop’s John Retsas admits there was a period when media scores and market demands drove a cult of full-throttle styles, he says ‘today, everyone is conscious of making wines with more elegance and restraint’.

Retsas and Matt Gant (First Drop’s winemaker) are part of what Yalumba’s MD Robert Hill-Smith refers to as a ‘second coming’ of artisanal winemakers, bringing new energy to this warm, dry and compact South Australian region, just 40km long by 30km wide. The pair make no less than six Barossa Shiraz wines, three of which are sourced from single vineyards.

Thanks to a surge of characterful single vineyard/district wines like these, Peter Lehmann’s winemaker Ian Hongell says it has become easier to communicate that ‘the Barossa isn’t one flat paddock’, and its wines are not one note.

This makes sense when you consider that the Barossa Geographical Indication (GI) is bounded by two ranges, and itself encompasses three GIs.

To the east, the cooler Eden Valley GI in the South Mount Lofty Ranges (which includes the sub-region High Eden, also a GI) is located between 380-550m above sea level. To its west, the more densely planted and diverse landscape of the Barossa Valley GI comprises the flat valley floor and rolling hills of the Mount Lofty Ranges, lying between 180-380m.

What’s more, according to geologist David Farmer, because the Barossa’s land surfaces are very aged (up to 200 million years), soil types are wide-ranging. In the Barossa Valley, key soil types include terra rossa, ironstone, sand and black Biscay clays, whilst in the Eden Valley, soils are rockier and leaner.

THE BAGGAGE OF HISTORY

Significant differences in average elevation and soil type – not to mention the high profile of sixth-generation producer Henschke – have enabled Eden Valley’s perfumed, spicy, red-fruited and fine-boned Shiraz to stand out from the crowd. Given the region’s 160 year history of continuous winemaking, how come it’s taken so long to communicate about the Barossa’s other regional differences?

First and foremost, Hill-Smith says it’s important to remember that, until the 1970s, Shiraz was principally made into fortified wines from grower-sourced fruit and, for established players whom he says ‘carried the baggage of history’, the transition from fortified to table wine production wasn’t easy.

Ex-Penfolds’ chief winemaker John Duval began making wine in 1974, just as table wines started to outnumber fortified wines. He recalls, ‘You could count on two hands the number of Barossa producers.’ Given the very high ratio of growers to winemakers, his observation that ‘winemakers thought their job started when the fruit came into the winery’,
is hardly surprising.
This separation between wine-growing and winemaking, owing to scale of production, combined with the Barossa’s fortified wine legacy, informed a tradition of blending fruit from across the region for table wines. While acknowledging that blending benefits consistency and can bring complexity, Kalleske Wines’ Troy Kalleske says that ‘if you blend across too many vineyards/regions... wine becomes more “generic” and loses its uniqueness.’

FORGING THE STYLE

Still, there’s no question that the reliably rich, opulent style forged by the ‘first coming’ of small scale wineries in the 1980s and 1990s put Barossa Shiraz on the map. Motivated by a desire to preserve less productive old vines (which the government was paying growers to remove) and enabled by rock-bottom grape prices, the likes of Peter Lehmann, St Hallett, Rockford, Charles Melton and Grant Burge were able to turn the Barossa’s rich treasure trove of old, low-yielding vines to great advantage. And in the process, they got closer to the vineyards.

While Peter Lehmann and St Hallett wineries have grown, so has the number of Barossa producers – now over 100. This has led to an evolution and greater diversity of style, not least because a significant number – Hill-Smith’s ‘second coming’ of artisanal winemakers – specialise in small-batch winemaking and specific Barossa districts. As a result, Duval says ‘Barossa winemakers have a much more intimate knowledge of [individual] vineyards.’

This goes for bigger players, too. St Hallett, Yalumba and Peter Lehmann all make single vineyard wines. ‘These days, viticulturists and winemakers are constantly in touch,’ says Shelley Cox, St Hallett’s winemaker. In the last decade, Peter Lehmann has made a huge investment in small tanks so parcels can be vinified separately.

And it’s because a younger generation of winemakers are more connected to vineyards, that, as Hill-Smith says, they have the confidence to express vineyard character and vintage on top of variety. He says a knock-on effect is that minimal intervention is now ‘de rigueur’.

Referring to this century’s fad for wines with massive oak and fruit, Kym Teusner of Teusner Wines says, ‘We’ve gone back a decade – to wines that are drinkable, food-friendly, with less new oak and less alcohol, because we’re picking earlier for better natural balance.’

Sophie Otton, head sommelier at Rockpool Bar & Grill in Melbourne, is impressed with the way the Barossa has been invigorated. ‘Now, less is more,’ she says. ‘There has been a shift away from the porty “Parker wines” that dominated the scene in the 2000s. The craftsmanship is orientated around the unique terroirs scattered across the region.’

This focus on terroir is central to the Barossa Grape & Wine Association’s Barossa Grounds project. Since 2008, the BGWA has held an annual blind tasting of nine brackets of Shiraz to assess similarities and differences in flavours and textures. Each bracket relates to nine different, anecdotally recognised areas.

The BGWA is also amassing climatic data to overlay on the map of sites and soils to investigate what conclusions might be drawn about formally acknowledging
these areas as sub-regions.

IS NORTH WEST BEST?

While it might be early days for the Barossa Grounds project, sommeliers and winemakers alike recognise that the Barossa Valley’s north-west pocket is, as Hongell puts it, ‘the power end of the valley’. Borne out by my tasting from the nine Barossa Grounds areas, Shiraz wines from the north-west were fuller bodied, with rich, concentrated black fruits and ripe but well-structured tannins.

‘In 1974, you could count the number of Barossa producers on two hands’ John Duval

Districts like Ebenezer, Tanunda, Moppa, Kalimna, Greenock, Marananga and Stonewell are the source of many iconic Barossa wines. For example, of the 26 vineyards which supply fruit for Torbreck’s iconic range, 23 are located in the north-west. Owner David Powell actively seeks out its terra rossa soils, and says a slight rain shadow – because it’s drier – makes for lower yields, concentrating wines.

Kalleske adds that yields are typically lower because ‘vines are often grown on gentle slopes, therefore the soil is tougher and less fertile.’ Slopes are also the secret behind the structure and balance of the north-west’s ageworthy wines.

With a slightly higher elevation and undulating terrain, Kalleske says gully breezes mean that the north-west is generally cooler than other parts of the Barossa Valley; the vines there are generally harvested two to three weeks later than southernmost Lyndoch/Gomersal, and one to two weeks later than vines on the valley floor.

For Hongell, a new story to emerge out of the Barossa Grounds tastings is the fragrance and cooler characters of wines from areas south of Rowland Flat, especially Lyndoch. Once again, this was borne out by Dutschke St Jakobi Single Vineyard Lyndoch Shiraz 2008, which surprised me with its elegance, red fruits and minerality.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

I was surprised at a lunch produced by local chef Saskia Beer of Barossa Farm Produce when she eschewed serving beef and lamb, opting instead for flavoursome, robustly seasoned dishes featuring prosciutto, roast pheasant and duck confit. She points out ‘nowadays, Barossa Shiraz has a lot more nuance, is lighter, a bit more approachable, and can be matched to a far greater range of ingredients and dishes.’ (See box overleaf.)

Age, of course, also makes a dramatic difference. Take Josh Picken’s matches for Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz from 2008 and 1978. The sommelier at Penfolds Magill Estate Restaurant matched the 1978 with scallops with a Madeira glaze and witlof (endive) salad, while the 2008 was paired with wagyu beef, braised borlotti beans, parsnips and chestnuts.

And if it’s beef you’re after, Otton’s approach is as nuanced as contemporary Barossa Shiraz. She recommends pairing mature ‘traditional’ Barossa wines (eg Kaesler Old Vine or Yalumba The Signature) ‘with the wild flavours of grass-fed beef’. As for grain-fed beef, Otton reckons its creamier, nuttier, firmer flesh calls for an equally bold but more modern polished style, like John Duval Entity. Finally, for full-blood wagyu, she suggests ‘something more firmly structured and refined from the higher, cooler Eden Valley... to cut through the foie gras-like texture... perhaps a Henschke Mount Edelstone.’

The Cinnamon Club’s Laurent Chaniac similarly exploits regional differences when matching Barossa Shiraz to Indian cuisine. For him, Barossa Valley’s richly-textured sweet fruit ‘works well with sweet spices such as star anise, rich caramelised onion based sauces, also saffron’. While Eden Valley’s more defined tannins work better with smoky tandoor notes since they fall more softly on the palate.

A MUST HAVE?

So leaving aside its increased versatility with food, what drives listings in the UK? For The Wapping Project’s Marta Michalowska, ‘Barossa Shiraz gives more choice to customers who prefer bolder, richer wines.’ Similarly, at La Trompette, Matthieu Longuere positions them alongside reds from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Languedoc, Priorat and Alentejo.

What seems reasonably clear is that value for money at a lower price-point is no longer the driving factor. The general consensus was, because of the strong Australian dollar, it’s best to steer clear of cheap wines (£8 ex-VAT). Even moving up the price scale, at the £100 mark on his list, Longuere reckons ‘you can get much better value from South Africa or Chile.’

‘Today, everyone is conscious of making wines with more elegance and restraint’ John Retsas

Hakkasan’s Christine Parkinson takes a different approach. Describing Barossa Shiraz as ‘always amongst the biggest, most powerful reds, with intensity and sweetness’, she thinks, mature £30-40 ex VAT wines offer the best value for money.

They have, she says, ‘all the hallmark Barossa character, but are a little gentler than young vintages, and more complex than the region’s simpler, cheaper wines.’

Picking up on Parkinson’s reference to ‘the hallmark Barossa character,’ it was this point that was by far and away the main reason cited for listing Barossa Shiraz. Variously described as ‘unique for its sweet front palate fruit’, ‘sheer gold’, ‘in a league of its own’, and ‘an iconic style’, all the sommeliers I canvassed regarded it as a must-have on any wine list.

Wonderful though this is, I can’t help wondering if the Barossa’s classic status is a double-edged sword for a region which Hongell cheerfully admits is ‘still an ongoing experiment.’

It would be foolish to suggest that a region as warm and dry as the Barossa can do a stylistic volte face, nor should it. But based on my recent glimpse, there’s good reason to believe that, going forward, a broader range of wines - perhaps bearing similar characteristics to both the Northern and Southern Rhône – will at last enable the Barossa to shrug off the monolithic stereotype which has rather dogged it.


TIPS FROM THE FLOOR…
Top sommeliers give their favourite food and Barossa Shiraz matches

FROM THE UK:

Peter Lehmann Shiraz Stonewell 2004:
Pi Pa duck, served with a sweet hoi sin sauce
– Christine Parksinson, Hakkasan

John Duval Eligo Shiraz 2006:
Grilled USDA prime, dry-aged rib-eye steak
– Crispin Sugden, Goodman Steakhouse

Glaetzer Shiraz Amon-Ra 2001:
Slow-cooked belly of pork and foie gras, truffle and morel Welsh faggot
– Roger Jones, The Harrow at Little Bedwyn

Mitolo Reiver Shiraz, 2006:
Potato and ricotta ravioli, morels and leek butter
– Marta Michalowska, The Wapping Project

Henschke Hill of Grace 2004 (Eden Valley):
Grilled côte de boeuf
– Romain Audrerie, Bistro du Vin

Yalumba The Octavius Shiraz 1999
(Barossa & Eden Valleys):

Roast saddle of ‘oisin’ red deer with pickling spices
– Laurent Chaniac, Cinnamon Club/Kitchen

FROM AUSTRALIA:

Spinifex Bête Noir Shiraz 2009
(Barossa & Eden Valleys):

Duck ragu and house-made pappardelle, with a bitter green radicchio and endive salad
– Sophie Otton, Rockpool Bar & Grill
Roasted leg of saltbush lamb and roasted winter vegetables
– Ben Edwards, Australian Sommeliers Association

First Drop Mother’s Milk Shiraz 2008:
Settlers Burger Royale from 100% local Margaret River wagyu
– Karen Gough, Settlers Tavern

Torbreck The Laird 2006:
Testun al Barolo cheese
– Kim Bickley, The Hilton, Sydney

AND FROM THE KITCHEN

Australian chef, Saskia Beer, from Barossa Farm Produce, gives tips using her local knowledge

  • You don’t need a heavy dish or red meat. Look for the aromatics in the wine and work with those
    – either by matching or contrasting.
  • Smoky, salty, sweet foods work well with the smooth tannins and emollience of Barossa Shiraz.
  • Use quite bold savoury ingredients for adding layers to ingredients – for example – anchovies, acidulants, herbs, different oils, spices.
  • With older wines, keep dishes simple, picking the main characteristic of the wine and playing to that.
  • Younger wines have more to play with and can handle multiple flavours, but simplicity is still key.

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – January/February 2012

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