Wine tasting in the Barossa Valley is like no other place. It is arguably Australia’s most well known region both locally and internationally, and while Shiraz is what most people think of when talking about the Barossa Valley, there is a new breed of winemakers that are experimenting with lots of other grape varieties, including some lesser-known (or popular) white varieties such as Viognier, Marsanne and even Rousanne.
Grapes were first planted in the Barossa Valley at Rowland Flat by Johann Gramp in 1847, followed by plantings at Angaston in 1849 by beer maker Samuel Smith in what went on to become Yalumba, and then in 1854 by JE Seppelt and William Jacob. Nearly all South Australian wine came from the Barossa until the 1890s.
The look, feel, food and buildings throughout the Barossa are German, or Lutheran to be precise. Following the settlement of Angaston, its founder George Fife Angas, sought labour for his enterprises. He financed the immigration of German Lutheran farmers from Silesia who were suffering oppression from King Frederick III. Thanks to this, today you find incredible German cured meats, cakes and pastries throughout the region, not to mention a history of winemaking.
The climate in the Barossa Valley is almost perfect for growing full-bodied red wines (i.e. Shiraz, Cabernet) with low annual rainfall and the growing season – October through to vintage starting in late February – experiencing warm days and cool nights. With almost no humidity, there are little risks from disease, and the major risk is the ever-persistent threat of drought that recently impacted the Barossa from 2005-2009.
No story about the Barossa Valley is complete without a comment on Penfolds Grange. Arguably one of Australia’s most renowned (and expensive wines), Grange instantly brings a vision of opulence and quality to the mind. While these days there are many other wines of equal (or better) quality from the Barossa and other parts of Australia, the Grange story, and that of its creator, Max Schubert, embodies a spirit that even today continues to inspire winemakers and wine drinkers alike.
Inspired by the old Bordeaux French wines following a visit in 1949, Max Schubert made the first Grange in 1951 at a time when most wine in Australia was fortified. The wine wasn’t introduced to the market until 1956 where, along with the 1952 and 1953 vintages it was universally rejected, so much so that Penfolds ordered Schubert to stop making Grange.
Fortunately – for Penfolds and perhaps the Australian wine industry – Schubert ignored the order and continued to make the wine in secret. By 1960 the fashion of wine was changing and when Penfolds entered the 1955 Grange in the show circuit, the wine received every accolade possible. While the ’56, ’57 and ’58 vintages were not up to standard (because Schubert couldn’t get access to the wine barrels he needed), the wine has grown in stature every year, including receiving the ‘Wine of Year’ title for the 1990 vintage.
Despite these promising beginnings – and epitomised by this story – the Barossa has been victim to wine drinking fashions and trends. During the 1980s, white wine was ‘flavour of the month’ and consistently low grape prices led the South Australian government to legislate a vine-pull scheme 1987. Approximately 9% of overall plantings in the Barossa were pulled, the biggest loss being old vine Shiraz. Ironically, by 1989, the price of Shiraz had increased by about 300%, and 10 years later, the price of old vine Shiraz was $3000 per tonne.
In response to the loss of old vines during the vine-pull scheme, wines made today with old vines are proudly promoted. Some of the region’s winemakers, galvanised by Yalumba, have also created an ‘Old Vine Charter’ that will hopefully protect these vines from future fluctuations of fortune and fashion.
Another positive result from the challenging times of the 1980s were the icons that banded together during this time to grow the sense of spirit and strength that continues to be very evident around the Valley. Peter Lehman, Robert (Rocky) O’Callaghan, Charlie Melton, Grant Burge and Maggie Beer (known to many Australians for her incredible food and cooking) were central in ensuring the region not only survived, but also thrived.
The Barossa will impress with its deep and intriguing history, local characters, and both old and new generation wines. Enjoy!