Fraser McKinley, Winemaker Sami-Odi
The timeless appeal of Barossa Shiraz
With so much on offer in the Barossa Valley, and so many different and exciting takes on Australia’s best-known wine grape, it’s no wonder the region is on the up and up.
Winemakers throughout the region wait patiently for the spoils of this year’s exceptional harvest, which saw the price of a ton of Shiraz reach an all-time high. This comes at a time when more fine wine lovers are rediscovering the wines of Barossa Valley, and appreciating its rich tapestry of history, including some of the oldest vines in the world, talented winemakers, and creativity.
The Barossa Valley is, when compared with other iconic wine regions around the world, rather small. At about 11,500 hectares planted, it is twothirds the size of Napa Valley and one-twelfth the size of Bordeaux. There are 160 wineries in the region, with as many as 25 making fewer than 1,000 cases of wine annually.
A look at just three of the region’s wineries – Penfolds, Hentley Farm and Sami-Odi – tells a story of history, diligent winemaking, careful analysis of soils and weather patterns and innovative farming.
Perhaps the Barossa’s most famous name, Penfolds started out humbly in the year 1844. British immigrants Christopher and Mary Penfold planted their first cuttings, brought by sea, at Magill Estate and while Penfolds has evolved over 170 years to work with many grapes and in several regions, Barossa Shiraz remains at the winery’s core, represented at the top level by RWT ($150).
“The Barossa Valley and its diverse sub-regions and soils guard some of the oldest Shiraz vines in the world,” explains chief winemaker Peter Gago. “The unique combination of climate and soil enables a myriad of Shiraz styles crafted by Barossa winemakers – all trying to express their interpretation and their vision of what best optimizes this variety. End result: diversity, dynamism, interest, and a sustained ‘wow’ factor.”
There is no doubt that “wow” factor led to the Barossa Valley’s first appearance on the world stage, in the 1990s. The wines were full-bodied, dense, rich and unmistakably Barossa. But some producers pushed ripeness too far, and collectors and sommeliers eventually sought lighter, fresher wines.
Andrew Quin, Winemaker Hentley Farm
When Andrew Quin took over as winemaker at Hentley Farm, the year was 2008 and he had not yet turned 30. Quin was aware that some of the region’s wines had gotten too big, and while Hentley Farm’s reputation was growing, he saw an opportunity to set things on a gradual path toward greater elegance and balance – wines that proudly show the Barossa characters of supple, ripe fruit, texture and finesse.
“The Barossa is a warm climate,“ says Quin.
“There should be density and richness in the reds but there should also be vibrancy and natural acid underneath.”
Quin makes six different expressions of Shiraz at Hentley Farm. Two of the wines, The Beauty ($50) and The Beast ($85) come from sites only a few hundred yards apart but through careful winemaking show distinctive characters that setthem apart. “The Beauty is an example of pushing, of looking for fragrance and prettiness but not going too far,” he says.
Peter Gago, Chief Winemaker at Penfolds
Many Barossa Valley winemakers also regard themselves as custodians – craftspeople whose responsibility it is to care for a natural resource that was given to them for a moment in time.
Fraser McKinley, a New Zealand-born design major, arrived in the Barossa in 2002, by his recollection not having tried a Barossa Shiraz. “I was given what turned out to be some very good advice: go work a harvest. It took me all of a week after arriving here to go, “Wow. This is fantastic”.
Before going out on his own and establishing Sami-Odi, McKinley was working as an assistant winemaker and began eyeing a Shiraz vineyard owned by the Hoffman family. “The waitlist to buy from them was pretty long,” McKinley recalls. But he tried anyway, asking if he could not just buy grapes from the Hoffmans, but take over the management of a specific cluster of vines within it and farm organically. They agreed.
Over the past decade, McKinley has increased the size of the plot from .354ha to 2.8ha, part of his bricolage plan to remain tiny. This includes designing and producing his labels, which are different on both the wines he releases each year (Little Wine $90, Barossa Valley vintage Syrah $140).
“A few years ago, I put together a crude spreadsheet that analysed how little wine I could make for a living as a one-man show. My mind is more suited to the details than the bigger-picture plan, and I don’t necessarily have room in my head for other vineyards or other varieties.”
With so much on offer in the Barossa Valley, and so many different and exciting takes on Australia’s best-known wine grape, it’s no wonder the region is on the up and up. Gago predicts the next two centuries will be bigger and better than the last two, and has some sage advice for US drinkers. “The wines will continue to do the talking, so keep it simple: just pour, sip, enjoy, remember, and collect!”