History repeating itself in the Barossa

They say that history never repeats itself.  But in the Barossa Valley, the grape oversupply crisis of the mid 1980s could be about to repeat itself.

This time around, it’s not just the small growers being caught in the spiralling price decline, but the owners of the broadacre plantings of the 1990s.

It’s in tough times like this that whole regions, not just affected individual growers, begin to look for solutions to the age-old boom-bust cycle of the industry.

For market-orientated thinkers, the Barossa poses a big but not unique branding problem. Indeed the concept of building and sustaining a brand Barossa can be transposed to any winegrowing region – including Canberra.

In the Barossa’s case, local vigneron and marketer, David Farmer, wonders how, after the area’s renaissance in the late eighties, so little of its output appears on Barossa denominated labels.

In the autumn edition of Barossa Living, an excellent new regional colour mag, editor Peter Fuller, quotes leading winemaker Robert O’Callaghan as saying, “… we still have a crazy situation, that despite all of the marketing and promotional work we’ve done for the region, less than thirty per cent of Barossa fruit is branded Barossa – the rest goes to other regions to prop up their wines and gets no acknowledgement”.

Since the eighties, O’Callaghan’s Rockford Wines has led the way in acknowledging the part played by the Barossa’s very old vines in making distinctive, powerful but graceful reds.

And O’Callaghan’s leadership in producing and proselytising the regional specialties continues to light the way for other winemakers – as it did twenty years ago.  For example, those robust Kym Teusner grenache shiraz mourvedre blends reviewed here last week, like O’Callaghan’s early wines, are the product of a passionate young winemaker seeking fruit from distinguished old vines – and paying the grower adequately.

Despite the activity of these small, regionally focused makers – and prices of up to $8000 a tonne being paid for the very best old vine material – the question remains as to why seventy per cent of the Barossa’s fruit finds its way into anonymous multi-regional blends.

Part of the answer lies in the region’s dramatically expanded plantings, spurred by the shortages as the export boom took off in the mid nineties. The valley, like so many other Australian growing regions, simply overshot the mark – devaluing the currency, so to speak.

But even before the oversupply hit, the Barossa’s strength in boosting the flavour of multi-regional blends, by its very anonymity, helped, over time, to commoditise Barossa grapes. So much for brand Barossa.

While these multi-regional blends have been at the heart of Australia’s export success, Farmer criticises the larger companies for their dearth of Barossa branded wines.

While the whole story is somewhat more complicated and must take into account varieties – chardonnay for example – that don’t particularly express Barossa regional character or good varieties that are overcropped and poor quality, it’s unquestionable that making and marketing regional specialties builds value for everyone in the process – as benchmark wines like Rockford Basket Press Shiraz demonstrate.

And from the benchmarks flow less expensive but still expressive regional specialties.

There’s a lesson here to be learned by Canberra vignerons. If the Barossa, after 160 years, still struggles for a regional identity in the minds of consumers, Canberra, as a comparatively young district should diligently seek and acknowledge what it does best then vigorously and consistently promote it.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007