Florita — the story of a vineyard

This is the story of the Florita vineyard and of how the competitive force of commerce, brilliant winemaking, the work of a great visionary, and blind luck made it one of Australia’s great riesling-growing sites.

In the 1940s wine merchant Leo Buring purchased the Florita site at Watervale, towards the southern end of South Australia’s Clare Valley. He planted the sherry varieties, pedro ximenez and palomino, and, believes winemaker John Vickery, a little crouchen (known then as Clare riesling), trebbiano and shiraz – but not riesling.

Although sherry was our favourite tipple in those days, Buring, a graduate of Roseworthy College and with wine studies at Geisenheim and Montpellier universities to his credit, had been a pioneer of the Australian table wine trade since the turn of the century.

He maintained a cellar in Sydney’s Redfern (now the home of Langton’s Auctioneers), provided winemaking advice to vignerons and bought table wine in bulk for blending and bottling at his Sydney cellars. John Vickery recalls that he also swapped much of the sherry he made for table wine.

Buring established, as well, a winery and cellars – Chateau Leonay (now Richmond Grove) – at Tanunda, in the Barossa Valley. Then, in the late fifties he closed the Redfern operation and shifted the bulk wine, stored in 350-500 gallon wooden casks, to Chateau Leonay.

In 1955 a young Roseworthy College graduate, John Vickery, became winemaker for the ageing Leo Buring at Chateau Leonay. John made both table and fortified wines and recalls ‘a terrific flor sherry solera’ that’d been established by Buring using flor yeast cultures that he’d pirated from Spain’s Xerez region.

The sherry in the solera, made from grapes grown on the Florita vineyard, was sold under Buring’s ‘Florita Fino’ label – probably the first wine to bear the vineyard name.

Six years after Vickery joined the firm, Buring died at the age of 85. A year later, in 1962, Lindemans purchased the Buring business and retained John Vickery as winemaker.

By now table wine consumption in Australia was on the move, having been sparked by Orlando’s Barossa Pearl in 1956, driven further by a string of similar ‘pearl’ styles (including Buring’s Rhinegold) and the arrival of crisp, fruity whites, also pioneered by Colin Gramp at Orlando in the fifties.

To take on Orlando in the booming riesling market, Lindeman head, Ray Kidd, replanted the 32-hectare Florita vineyard almost entirely to riesling – leaving only about one hectare of crouchen as the only other variety.

By the 1963 vintage, with new protective winemaking equipment in place at Leonay, Vickery was poised to make the great Leo Buring rieslings – many from the Florita vineyard – that earned 50 trophies and 400 gold medals by 1997.

Many of those glorious wines might never have seen the show circuit, though, had it not been for the vision of Lindeman head, Ray Kidd. Ray established in Sydney an air condition, humidified cellar to allow large-scale re-releases of the company’s bests wines.

The cellar held tens of thousands of cases of wine. And though ultimately it failed commercially, it revealed spectacularly the tremendous keeping qualities of our best rieslings via the show circuit and re-release to consumers.

John Vickery’s sublime winemaking skills and Ray Kidd’s cellar, together, showed what the Florita vineyard could produce.

By the mid eighties, Lindemans, now owned by Philip Morris, began selling assets including the Florita vineyard. These were fairly tough times for the wine industry, but long-term Clare company, Jim Barry Wines, seized the opportunity, albeit at a stretch.

Recalls Peter Barry, “we sold five acres with some vines and a house. We had to. But we kept seventy-five acres”. That little slice of Florita now belongs to Noel Kelly and wine from it sells under his Clos Clare label.

Peter says that they immediately grafted the one-hectare stand of crouchen to sauvignon blanc. But four years back they grubbed this out, planted riesling, and, for the first time, the entire 30-hectare Florita vineyard is planted to riesling.

Acquisition of Florita allowed the Barrys to introduce a Watervale riesling to their range and to sell surplus stock into the bulk market. But the Florita trademark remained with the seller.

Well, the wheel turned and in the nineties Orlando purchased Chateau Leonay, hired John Vickery as winemaker and began buying riesling from Florita for its Richmond Grove Watervale Riesling label, launched in 1994.

This relationship lasted until about 2000, by which time Orlando had widened its grape sourcing in the Watervale region and the Barrys had decided to keep their Florita fruit.

Then, in 2004 the Florita trademark lapsed and was taken up by the Barry family, enabling the launch of a Jim Barry wine under the Florita name.

Peter says that for years they’d been making multiple wine batches from the vineyard, mainly in nine thousand litre lots, but with outstanding parcels as small as one thousand eight hundred litres.

In 2004 the Barrys blended these finest parcels, totalling about five per cent of Florita’s production, to produce the first Jim Barry Florita Riesling 2004 – the $45 wine, consumed over the Easter break, that inspired this column.

It really was the epitome of Watervale riesling with its brilliant, green-tinted colour, shimmering lime-like aroma and delicious, very delicate flavour.

Peter Barry tells me that it was an instant success, particularly loved in Amsterdam and the UK, where it sells for about twenty pounds a bottle.

It’s been a long journey for Florita, now a distinguished flagship for Australian riesling in general and, hopefully, one of many single-vineyard specialties that might, over time, raise awareness of the things that we do best.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007