Show judges too cool-climate orientated says Grant Burge

Visiting Canberra two weeks back, Barossa vigneron Grant Burge rated 2010 his “best white vintage in 10 years”.  Then came the highs and lows of a wet 2011 season, “throwing up all the diseases in one year”, devastating crops in many vineyards, and driving up spraying and vineyard costs across the board.

In his own vineyards – about 400 hectares, mainly in the southern Barossa – Burge sprayed against disease 12 to 16 times, instead of the usual four. And when late-season rain spurred outbreaks of botrytis cinerea, vineyard workers cut out infected berries by hand.

Faced by unrelenting disease pressures, says Burge, “some growers stopped spraying, because they felt uncertain about the final result”. Better to cut their losses early, they reasoned, than to spend more on spraying when there might be no grapes to sell in any event. Some lost their entire crops.

As a winemaker needing every berry, Burge persisted and in the end reaped a good harvest from his own vineyards. In the final ripening period, he says, mild to cool weather settled on the Barossa, bringing healthy fruit to flavour ripeness at unusually low sugar levels. Reds at Burge’s elevated Corryton Park Vineyard, for example, came in at around 12.5 to 13.4 Baume (a measure of sugar), instead of the usual 14 plus.

The low temperatures at ripening produced intense flavours and high natural acidity in the whites, says Burge, and now believes they’ll be even better than the 2010s.

He rates Barossa Valley ahead of the adjoining, cooler Eden Valley in 2011, particularly for cabernet sauvignon. Burge’s Corryton Park vineyard – normally much cooler than the Barossa floor, and more akin to Coonawarra – usually produces his best cabernet.

But in 2011, says Burge, “cabernet sauvignon off the valley floor is the best in 25 years. If fact, I’ve never seen the quality before. I’ve never seen the purple colour on the floor, like at Corryton, but it’s black-purple”.

Overall, says Burge, 2011 wines seem generally leaner, very pure in their fruit expression, less alcoholic and needing time to mature – comments closely paralleling the Canberra 2011 experience.

Burge visited Canberra to promote his flagship Barossa shiraz, Meshach ($155), released, like Grange, at five years. But Burge operates on a large scale for a private Australian producer – and the styles he makes extend far beyond the more expensive reds behind his reputation.

Burge’s 400-plus hectares of vines supply only 60 per cent of company needs. The other 40 per cent comes from about 20 long-term growers, says Burge.

He now makes more white wine than red, largely through the success of his $30-a-bottle sparkling wines, sourced from the cool Adelaide Hills (immediately to the south of Eden Valley on the Mount Lofty Ranges).

But Burge’s most intense passion clearly lies in his beloved Barossa reds.  On this trip he’s showing us Meshach 2006 (straight shiraz, mainly from the Filsell vineyard) and Holy Trinity 2008 ($36), a blend of grenache, shiraz and mourvedre.

They’re beautiful examples of their styles – Meshach made since 1988 and Holy Trinity from 1995. While we might call them “traditional” robust, warm-climate styles, they’re both thoroughly modern wines, expressing regional fruit flavours first and foremost, and benefiting from careful fine-tuning over the years.

While the market still loves them, Burge laments a shift away from the style in wine shows. He says the judges are now “all cool-climate orientated. I went to a few shows last year with Craig [winemaker Craig Stansborough] and warm climate wines like McLaren Vale and Barossa couldn’t get a look in. Anything showing American oak got kicked out. But some of the cool shirazes were tried were just green. I understand they need to show a lead for the industry, but they shouldn’t get too far from the public. The judges now have a narrow focus”.

He sees it as a worrying trend that wine judges today tend to award a narrower range of styles now than an older generation did in the past.

Burge offers interesting insights into international markets, too. He exports to 32 countries, sees opportunities for strong brands despite our dollar’s strength. Describing China as “the wild, wild east”, he’s built export volumes of high quality wine there through “individuals all over the place” and expects ultimately to have a central distributor.

He’s neve done much in the United States but plans to attack the market in the near future and sees huge potential there for good wine. Research, however, revealed a widespread perception in America that Australia doesn’t make good quality wine – a stereotype, he believes, created by the success of cheap, fruity wines like Yellowtail.

He’ll therefore emphasise Barossa Valley, not Australia, as Grant Burge wines roll out across America.

Oh, and the wines? See Grant Burge Meshach 2006 and Thorn Vineyard Eden Valley Riesling 2010  in today’s reviews and Holy Trinity 2008 next week.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011