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The New Barossa
Part 1: introduction

The Barossa currently has a bit of a buzz about it, and I’d travelled there to meet the next generation of potential winemaking stars. Of course, every wine writer tends to think the most dynamic, buzzing and exciting wine region is the one they’ve just visited, but the Barossa genuinely seems to be a region on the up.  

Historically, the Barossa has been the spiritual home of the Australian wine industry. The first vines here were planted in the mid-19th century by German immigrants keen to recreate the wines of their homeland – hence Riesling was a popular choice. Grenache, Mourvèdre and Shiraz also found their place. For much of the Barossa’s history the focus has been predominantly on fortified wine styles, which were very popular, and to some extent easier to make in this warm climate than table wines. At Langmeil winery an old poster – from when the winery used to be called Paradale, in the 1950s – illustrates how fashions have changed. It advertises 12 wines: five Ports, three Sherries, two Muscats and just two ‘beverage wines’ – Hock and Claret.

This region has seen some difficult times. Most recently, the Barossa suffered in the vine-pull scheme of the 1980s when many of the fantastic old Shiraz and Grenache vineyards were uprooted as the focus of the Aussie wine industry shifted to cooler-climate sites and to Cabernet Sauvignon, away from warmer areas and the more traditional varieties.

Things revived in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the likes of Charles Melton, Peter Lehmann, Rockford and St Halletts raised the profile of the Barossa as a source of characterful, uniquely Australian wines, and the momentum here has been growing ever since. Change and renewal are a natural part of life, though, and as with many wine regions across the globe, a new generation is now emerging, keen to make the most of the Barossa’s precious resource of old vines.

The Barossa has some of the world’s oldest commercial vineyards. South Australia has been spared from phylloxera, which is now kept out by an effective and strictly enforced quarantine. Vines are almost always planted here on their own roots, and there are quite a few vineyards with vines 100 years old and counting. The oldest vineyard with its original vines that I’ve seen dates from 1843, and it’s amazing to think that these ancient vines, dramatically knarled and twisted, are good for anything. As an aside, there’s the intriguing scientific question of why old vines are preferred to new ones: many scientists suggest that it’s their naturally low vigour that is responsible for the better grapes they are reckoned to produce. Whatever the explanation, there are plenty of fantastic old vine vineyards here, and the good news is that the ambitious young winemakers can get their hands on them. Here’s why.

One of the key facets contributing to the current dynamic state of the Barossa is that most vineyards are owned by growers who have no ambition to make their own wine from them. These tend to be long-term residents who see themselves as career grapegrowers. Fortunately, the Barossa has largely been spared the influx of retired doctors, lawyers and bankers who have flocked to regions such as the Hunter – ‘lifestylers’ who want to live the wine dream, and whose ‘vanity’ wines are rarely interesting. The fact that most vineyards here are grower-owned has lowered the bar of entry of passionate but capital-poor young winemakers. They can spot a promising vineyard, pay double what the big company was previously buying the grapes for (usually remarkably little), and make wine they way they want, often in the corner of someone else’s winery.  

The grower benefits from both the higher price they get for the grapes and the fact that they can often taste a bottle that comes from their vineyard, rather than seeing the grapes disappear into some huge blend. The most far sighted of the winery owners don’t mind their young winemakers doing a bit of homebrew, because they know they’ve got a better chance of keeping the best ones longer if they allow them a project which they have the creative direction and ownership of. It’s a story that’s been repeated dozens of times in the Barossa over the last few years, to the extent that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on – tough for wine writers and buyers, but good for the health of the wine scene here. 

The goal of this series is to introduce some of the new winemakers and talents emerging from the Barossa, telling the stories of wines that look set to move this region forward to greater things over the next decade. I’d been sufficiently impressed by tasting some of these wines in London that I paid my own way to visit the Barossa and see what was going on at first hand in September 2004. I then followed this up with a second visit in October 2005. The roll-call here is by no means a comprehensive list of the producers doing good work, but I hope it conveys an impression of what’s going on and introduces readers to some new names who deserve the recognition, as well as catching up on a few more established producers. Unless indicated otherwise, the reports here are from the initial 2004 visit.

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