Jim Barry Wines, delicious old rieslings and a great Clare vineyard

In the Clare Valley a couple of weeks back Jim Barry Wines hosted its fiftieth anniversary celebrations. The highlight was a tasting of memorable Jim Barry, Leo Buring, Lindemans and Richmond Grove rieslings from vintages 1972 to 1998.

And what lovely twists there were to the tasting: the beautiful old Leo Buring wines came from a vineyard that now belongs to the Barry family; the Jim Barry wines came from a vineyard that the family no longer owns; and the sole Richmond Grove wine, the youngest in the line up, came from the same vineyard as the old Buring wines. And it was made by same winemaker, John Vickery, in the same (but now renamed) winery where he’d first made wine for Leo Buring in 1955.

The thread linking all this is the Florita vineyard at Watervale, located towards the southern end of the Clare Valley. This was the source, acknowledged in the fine print of the labels, of the legendary, long-lived Leo Buring Reserve Bin Rhine Rieslings of the sixties, seventies and early eighties.

When Lindemans put Florita on the market in 1986, Jim Barry saw a unique opportunity to grab one of the region’s great and proven vineyards. But it was tough times in the industry and, according to Jim’s son Peter, Nancy (Jim’s wife) said to Jim, ‘you don’t want it’. But he did.

So Jim said to his sons, Peter, Mark and John, ‘mum won’t let me, so you boys had better do it’. And they did. Peter recalls the financial stretch, approaching several banks ‘with figures to back the lie – bullshit on paper. Several banks knocked it back, one accepted it, lent us money and we made it work’. It’s that sort of vision and risk taking that makes or breaks businesses.

To help fund the purchase, the Barrys sold a corner of Florita to Ian Sanders (the corner became Clos Clare) and another vineyard in Watervale, source of their earlier Watervale rieslings. They also sold Florita material, as juice, to other makers, including Richmond Grove (owned by Pernod Ricard and located in Leo Burings old winery at Tanunda, Barossa Valley).

Twenty-three years on, the entire Florita vineyard is back in family hands and it provides fruit for three labels – Jim Barry Watervale Riesling ($15), Jim Barry The Florita Watervale Riesling ($45) and Clos Clare Watervale Riesling ($24). The Barrys also offer a riesling ($19) from their Lodge Hill Vineyard in the northern Clare.

As we tasted the older riesling Peter Barry recalled that John Vickery at Burings had the technological over his dad in the seventies, and it wasn’t until the eighties that Jim Barry Wines acquired essential refrigeration and other protective technology that Burings had enjoyed since the sixties.

The gap shows in the extra vivacity of the old Buring wines – like the beautiful Reserve Bins DW C15 Watervale Rhine Riesling 1973 and DW G37 Watervale Rhine Riesling 1977. Even so the older Jim Barry wines from1972, 1974 and 1977 in particular drink well, albeit in a rounder, softer style than the Buring wines.

But the gap has been closed in recent times and I’ve no doubt that Jim Barry The Florita and Clos Clare will equal the great wines made by John Vickery so sustainably over so many decades – especially now that we have screw caps protecting these beautiful wines.

The best vintages will be as delicious at almost forty years as they are at one. The connection, of course, is the Florita vineyard. You can see it by searching ‘Old Road Watervale South Australia’ on Google Earth or maps.google.com – it’s the vineyard furthest from Cemetery Road. The little plot on the corner near the cottage is Clos Clare. It’s a great Australian regional story to be explored primarily in the glass.

Florita Vineyard timeline

Leo Buring purchases the Florita site. He plants pedro ximenez and palomino for sherry making and, believes former Buring employee John Vickery, perhaps small amounts of crouchen, trebbiano and shiraz.

John Vickery joins Leo Buring at Chateau Leonay (now Richmond Grove), Barossa Valley. John makes table wine and sherry.

Among the wines Vickery makes is a fino sherry sold under Buring’s ‘Florita Fino’ label. This is probably the first label to bear the vineyard name. Leo Buring established the solera before Vickery’s arrival.

Leo Buring dies at 85 years.

Lindemans, under Ray Kidd, purchases Buring’s business, retaining Vickery as winemaker. At about the same time Kidd replants Florita almost entirely to riesling, leaving about one hectare of crouchen.

In time for vintage, Lindemans installs protective winemaking equipment, enabling production of riesling and other crisp, fruity whites in a style pioneered by Colin Gramp, of Orlando, in the 1950s. The stage is set for Vickery to make his legendary Eden and Clare Valley rieslings, the latter from the Florita vineyard.

1960s, 1970s, 1980s
Vickery’s Leo Buring rieslings, including those from Florita, become Australian benchmarks.

1986 and thereabouts
Lindemans, now owned by Phillip Morris, sells Florita vineyard to Jim Barry Wines.  Lindemans retains the Florita trademark.  To help fund their purchase (it was a stretch, says Peter) the Barry family sells a two-hectare corner with vines and a cottage to Ian Sanders. Sanders names this corner Clos Clare. The Clos Clare wines are made by Tim Knappstein and then Jeffrey Grosset. (Sanders later sells Clos Clare to Noel Kelly. Wines are then made at O’Leary Walker).

The Barrys immediately graft the one-hectare of crouchen, planted by Lindemans in the 1960s, to sauvignon blanc. Four years later they grub this out and plant riesling. Florita vineyard is for the first time planted entirely to the variety that made it famous.

The Barry family sells juice from riesling grown on the Florita vineyard to John Vickery, now working in Orlando’s Richmond Grove Winery (formerly Chateau Leonay). From 1994 to 2003 Richmond Grove Watervale Riesling contains material from Florita.

The Florita trademark lapses and the Barry family takes it up, allowing the launch of Jim Barry ‘The Florita’ Riesling 2004.

The Barry family buys back the lost corner of Florita. Peter Barry’s sons Tom and Sam run Clos Clare as a separate business, making the wine at John and Daniel Wilson’s Polish Hill River winery.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009