The Barossa Valley floor in South Australia doesn’t have the climate that screams quality wine making. It’s hot with little cooling effects from altitude or ocean, with intense sunlight pounding the grapes into extreme sugar levels and ripeness. Nonetheless tourists flock every year to Barossa Valley, much like Napa Valley. The valley has become one of the world’s distinct wine regions. Its top wines, such as Penfold’s ‘Grange’ and Henschke’s ‘Hill of Grace’ fetch prices comparable to DRC or Screaming Eagle. at first visit a wine-lover may be perplexed by the sticky weather, without the effects of a continental to create balance and complexity. Barossa’s voice, however, is one of history, rather than climate.
Original vines date back to the arrival of German settlers in the mid 19th Century, which allots the area winegrowers to claim some of the oldest vines on ungrafted rootstock in the world. Shiraz, the dominant grape in the region, responds well to mature rootstock, displaying inky, earthy flavors that result from lower yields. The hallmark style of the region is dense, vibrant fruit with meaty, spicy aromas that are somehow simultaneously marry the styles of both Cornas Syrah and Napa Cabernet.
During the mid-1800s, religious prosecution drove many German protestants to resettle in Australia and America. During this time, viticultural know-how was carried from Germany to Adelaide in South Australia. Joseph Gilbert established the area for quality viticulture in 1847 when he planted Riesling at Pewsey Vale vineyard in what is now the Eden Valley subregion. Although Riesling vines do not fare well with extreme age, old vine Syrah and Grenache can continue to produce grapes for decades on decades. The founding fathers of the region built communities, attracting other European growers to plant roots. It was during this time at that Henschke’s esteemed Hill of Grace vineyard was planted, named after the Gnadenberg church across the road that was built by the family.
While many vines were destroyed in nearby Victoria at the onset of phylloxera in the late 19th Century, measures were taken to quarantine the region from phylloxera and other foreign offenders in order to protect the vines- a practice that still exists to this day. By 1930, Barossa was making three-quarter’s of the countries crush (although not all the wine was necessarily grown in Barossa). In the 1970s, following the 1976 Judgment of Paris, these historic vines were at risk to the changing styles in the new world. Many growers began to tear out Syrah plantings in favor of the growing popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon. A select number of growers came to the rescue, advocating for the uniqueness of the Syrah grapes. Barossa is now defined by the ancient vines- some over 150 years old. To further demonstrate the importance of vine age in the area, the government created a vine designation system to categorize the vines by age:
Old Vines- 35 years+
Survivor- 70 years+
Centourian- 100 years+
Ancestral- 125 years+
As vines continue to age and wear, growers are investing in the future to protect the hold vine heritage in Barossa. “Younger” Old vines are planted and used for entry level bottles with the intention to grandfather the vines into the best blends, perhaps long after the those who planted the vines live to see them evolve to Ancestral status. Others are grafting original rootstock onto new vines to preserve the personality of the original rootstock. However, the impact that ungrafted rootstock has on the character of the wines remains a subject with great uncertainty in the world of Wine Science.
The intense, concentrated style of Barossa Shiraz is a direct result of old vines in the hot climate. While young vines may by subject to excessive growth and ripeness in the generous climate, the old vines restrain vigor and vegetative growth, pushing all nutrients into fewer berries. The wines are ripe, but with a deep, savory core of spice and black fruits. Some also claim that the age of the vines gives the wines a lush, velvety tannin, while the ripeness provides a lush, round mid-palate. The canopy growth is lower with old vines, which means less shade and more physiological development of the grape. Growers must take care to pick at the desired ripeness, but early enough to avoid raisenation. Many winemakers choose to acidify or add tannin to the wines from the Valley floor, creating an even denser style. The trend for now, however, is showing more winegrowers moving their grapes higher into the hills, such as Eden Valley, where the heat is more forgiving and the style of Shiraz is more elegant. This is where one would still find Riesling and other white grapes.
Winemaker choices are also important; New American oak has long been favored to compliment the ripe blue and black fruits with sweet aromas of coconut, mocha and vanilla. While classic producers such as Penfolds still emulate the juicy, opulent style made famous in the export market, a new voice of winemakers chose to pick earlier and hold back some oak in favor of a softer, more elegant style.
Barossa is not the only region to claim old vines, nor for that matter the only one with ungrafted vines (growers in Chile are rather vocal about theirs). Its terroir is a story of heat and history, concentration and power. The winemakers rightfully champion their lineage, but they are not stagnant. The wines simultaneously remain true to their past and evolve with the times. Australia’s most important quality wine region is planting roots to remain a world player.