Micro makers focus on individual Barossa vineyards

We’ve all heard of Seppelt, Penfolds, Saltram, Yalumba and Orlando – great and enduring Barossa names. But what do we know of Tuesner, Tscharke, Lienert, Hentley Farm, Clos Otto, Gibson, Schild, Jenke, Haan, Kabinye, Langmeil, The Willows, Whistler, Kaesler, Kalleske, Torbreck, Three Rivers, Rockford, Veritas, Turkey Flat, Greenock Creek and Murray Street Vineyards? – to name just a few of the Valley’s smaller winemakers, many of them comparative newcomers.

There’s a revolution in the valley – perhaps insurrection is a better term – that’s at least as significant as the ‘Rhône ranger’ outbreak of the 1980s. Remember them?

As the industry expanded and consolidated in the mid to late eighties, the Barossa became increasingly a source of anonymous blending material for mass commercial brands – many of them owned by the large, old Barossa firms.

A group of Barossa winemakers, including Charlie Melton (Charles Melton Wines), Robert O’Callaghan (Rockford Wines) and Bob McLean (St Hallett) rebelled against creeping homogeneity and put the Barossa’s best foot forward.

They saw the long-term value of the region’s tried, proven and mature vineyard resources – particularly of the red Rhône Valley varieties shiraz, grenache and mourvedre (hence the sobriquet).

As the larger companies moved away from their regional roots, these small producers embraced regional specialisation and created wine-lover Barossa icons like Charles Melton Nine Popes, Rockford Basket Press Shiraz and St Hallett Old Block Shiraz. These appealed not just to local drinkers but excited a few commentators in export markets as well.

For the Rhône rangers and the others that followed, the Barossa provided rich pickings with its unique vineyard resource spread over a large and climatically and topographically diverse area.

The significant spread from north to south, the varying aspects along the eastern and western slopes and valley floor and varied soils mean significant variation in grape flavours – and hence the styles of wine produced.

These, of course, can never be expressed in multi-region blends. But this vineyard-by-vineyard flavour expression is the international language of fine wine. It’s the foundation of France’s wine appellation (name) system that grew, not from legislation describing wine regions, but from distinct wine styles defining regions.

The Barossa’s pattern of land settlement unquestionably aided the Rhône rangers back in the eighties and seems to be an important factor in the rise of a new band of Barossa sub-regional and single-vineyard specialists.

How can history affect today’s wines? Well, it can. And it’s illuminating to quote from a little booklet that I worked on last year with Phil Laffer, head of Orlando winemaking and viticulture.

In the book (The View From Our Place, Simon and Schuster, UK, 2006), Phil writes of the Barossa, ‘More than any other part of Australia that I can think of, the Barossa retained its ethnic identity for a very long time. This predominantly German influence continues to give us a unique food culture.

From the time the pioneering Germans arrived here in the 1840s until the 1970s, these communities tended to occupy mixed farms, with comparatively low incomes and a culture of growing and preserving much of their own food. They didn’t have any money to move away if they wanted to, so they stayed a very tight-knit community’.

From a modern winemaking viewpoint, the crux of this is that many of those mixed farms included grapes as part of the mix, creating an extraordinary scattering of small to medium holdings across the length and breadth of the Valley.

Many of these are extant today, some in the hands of the fifth and sixth generation of the founding family. Of course, there have been consolidations, grubbings and significant broad-acre plantings over the past decade.

But what the new wave of mostly young winemakers are doing – many without wineries or vineyards of their own – is finding those old, scattered vineyard plots and making small batches of the most extraordinary wine.

They’re mostly of old Barossa families, well qualified, and often have amazing insights into what even very small plots of old vines might deliver.

These are adding to the richness and colour of the other small and medium estate-based operations. And, ultimately, their growing success will probably create a Burgundy-like Barossa – not in wine-style, but in a growing appreciation of sub-regional and individual-vineyard differences expressed in wine.

Our bid to build on the success of ‘brand Australia’ in export markets will rely increasingly on exactly this sort of regional specialisation, where it’s warranted.

And it’s certainly happening in this valley that spreads twenty kilometres from north to south, widens from about 500 metres in the south to ten kilometres in the north, has gentle hills on the western boundary; the higher, cooler Eden Valley rising out of the eastern slopes; and whose south-eastern corner abuts the much cooler Adelaide Hills.

This column will look at some of the new-wave Barossa makers in the months ahead.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007