An “old bastard” Shiraz vine at Kaesler, planted in 1893
Digging into the past suggests a bright future for Barossa Shiraz
By Lauren McPhate
Nestled in the foothills of Australia’s Mount Lofty ranges, less than forty miles from South Australia’s capital of Adelaide, rests a tiny region with a global reputation. The Barossa Valley’s renown is built on its premium Shiraz, a distinctly Australian take on the Northern Rhone’s Syrah. What may not be so well known are the gradual undulations in Shiraz’s style throughout its near two hundred year history in the Barossa. Here we find wineries many generations deep, safeguarding the world’s oldest vines, which produce unique wines that are profound testaments to the region’s exquisite terroir.
A Brief History Of The Barossa Valley
The Barossa Valley was founded in 1837 and named after the historic Battle of Barossa, a British victory over the French in the Spanish Peninsular War. Interestingly, ‘Barossa’ was registered due to a clerical error and the region remains misspelled, or respelled, to this day.
Winemaking has been ubiquitous in the Barossa since its first settlement by German and English Lutheran refugees. The Henschke family, one of the first to arrive in South Australia, laid their foundation back in 1862. At precisely the same time that the Barossa was laying down its first vine roots, so European vignerons were facing the greatest malady in the history of vine growing. Toward the end of the nineteenth century phylloxera devastated the vineyards of Europe, with some estimates claiming up to 9/10th of European’ vines were ravaged by this pestilent louse. The lasting impact of this blight was the replanting of most European vines on phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks. Essentially overnight the Barossa had the oldest Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Dolcetto, and Semillon vines in the world, with most surviving to this day. Nowhere else in the world is there such a rich and diverse collection of own rooted ancient vines.
The Terroir Of The Barossa Valley
As remarkable as it is that this Australian wine region has the world’s oldest Syrah vines – let that sink in. The Barossa is also notable for having some really old dirt, types that range from 400 to 500 million years of age. It is these fragile soils that help develop the massively structured, complex, and truly age-worthy wines for which the Barossa is rightly famed.
The Barossa itself is divided into two sub-regions, the Barossa Valley and the Eden Valley, each of which has a panoply of unique micro-climates that house a variety of styles of Shiraz.
Producers And Styles: A Brilliant Diversity
Today, Shiraz is indeed Australia’s greatest grape. We find benchmark examples from the centurion vines of Langmeil, Henschke, Kaesler, Chris Ringland and Torbreck. These tres vieilles vignes evoke awe as much as they sate hedonistic delight, and can cellar well up into the double digits. Traditionally Barossa Shiraz is dense and voluminous, remarkably complex, and wrapped up with velvety soft tannins. Today, broader styles can be found whose profiles span red to blue to black fruit, with varying degrees of structure and herbal lift, with the very best buzzing with an undercurrent of energy and vibrancy.
Langmeil, in the Barossa Valley, farms the oldest Shiraz vines in the world to make its top wine, the Freedom 1847
Barossa Shiraz is dense and voluminous, remarkably complex, and wrapped up with velvety soft tannins. Today, broader styles can be found whose profiles span red to blue to black fruit, with varying degrees of structure and herbal lift, with the very best buzzing with an undercurrent of energy and vibrancy.
Perhaps the wines that are truest to this classically robust style of Shiraz are the ones that come from some of the oldest Shiraz vines on Earth. The Langmeil family were among the first German refugees to settle in the Barossa in 1836. Founder Christian Auricht planted the Shiraz vines that now, nearly 2 centuries later, contribute to The Freedom 1843 Shiraz. Seriously complex with loads of volume, The Freedom is full-throttled, bursting with fruit and has absolutely no hard edges. After some time in the cellar, power turns to nuance and introduces subtle notes of roasted meat, coffee, and leather. A superbly enjoyable wine from infancy into maturity, Langmeil Shiraz is distinctly Barossan.
Continue south a mere three miles and you’ll stumble upon a much newer project with equally old vines. Torbreck was founded by David Powell, a young vigneron who worked the vineyards at Rockford. While clearing land, David happened upon some ragged old Shiraz vines at death’s door. Intrigued, he nurtured these venerable plants back to health and convinced his employers to allow him to make their wine. Torbreck’s Runrig nods to Shiraz’s ancestral home, with a small portion of Viognier blended in for aromatic lift and freshness. An immensely complex wine right from the get go, we find layers of rich red and black fruit, olives, and beautiful floral notes.
Venture a tad to the east and you’ll arrive at Kaesler. The first vines were planted in 1893 and today are the source for Old Bastard, another of the Barossa’s greatest triumphs. Some of the oldest and driest soils in Australia are found here, planted with a unique Shiraz clone that is now extinct in France. The mode here is more black than red in fruit, with dense chocolatey notes and a beautiful freshness. Kaesler consistently achieves top scores among the world’s leading wine critics, with Old Bastard averaging 93/100 on Wines-Searcher.
Out of the Barossa Valley and into the loftier vineyards of the Eden Valley, we find another Australian legend. Chris Ringland has been making some of the most iconic wines of Australia for over 30 vintages, with his signature Chris Ringland Shiraz hailing from the highest vineyards in the region. At 600 meters, his dry grown Shiraz has the benefit of an extremely long hang time, which allows for opulently ripe fruit with a beautiful core of acidity. Chris believes in producing massively age-worthy wines, and follows the Spanish philosophy of gran reserva. His top cuvees mature away in cask for over 5 years, then a further year in bottle before release. Immediately these wines are pure hedonistic delights. Seriously rich Shiraz that explodes with flavor, yet remains light on its feet despite its size. This paradox is sheer pleasure and the style is all his own.
One cannot speak of the wines of the Barossa Valley without mentioning its most famous name, Henschke’s Hill of Grace. Named after the church that watches over this hallowed site, the Hill of Grace vineyard is a sacred Eden Valley treasure. It is among the highest vineyards in the area, with gentle undulations creating the perfect micro-climate to house dry-grown, un-grafted vines. Farming follows the biodynamic calendar, and extreme measures are utilized to ensure this vineyard will continue in greatness for generations to come. This 100% Shiraz is profoundly powerful, combining texture with freshness. Tight knit in youth, Hill of Grace is surely one of the longest lived Shirazes in the world. A recent tasting of the 1987 Hill of Grace confirmed that this is a wine for the ages. At thirty years young, this elegant beauty retains its fruit core, with the benefit of time adding perfume and depth that continue to grow as she unfurls with time in the glass. If ever there were liquid poetry, this is it.
While Shiraz is Australia’s signature grape, Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon blends are also uniquely Australian. During a recent blind tasting of top Shiraz blends, it became clear that a proportion of Cabernet adds beautiful lift and elegance to the bold Shiraz. Each wine on offer showcased a definitively Shiraz core, but benefited from cool Cabernet bringing blue fruits, tighter structure, and an extra herbal lift. Be on the lookout for excellent examples from Yalumba, Thorn-Clarke, Penfolds, Jacob’s Creek and Ben Glaetzer.
Barossa’ Shiraz is a reflection of its cultural heritage, history, and future. This distinctly Australian style evolves with its people and the times, yet remains a pure and true testament to its origins. Centurion vines, ancient soils, savvy and curious winemakers, innovation, and cutting edge technology coalesce in a perfect storm to create a vinous expression that is uniquely the Barossa Valley. Introducing, Barossa Shiraz.
Lauren McPhate is a fine wine buyer with TriBeCa Wine Merchants in New York and a Master of Wine candidate. She visited Australia in 2016.