Barossa Wine and Tourism: www.winebarossa.com
Barossa Valley region
The Barossa Valley, set in the hills about 60 km to the north of Adelaide, is one of the most famous red and fortified wine districts in the world and is also home of many of Australia’s largest names: Orlando, Seppelts, Grant Burge, Jacob’s Creek, Leo Buring, Peter Lehmann, St. Hallett, Wolf Blass, Saltram – and a large chunk of Penfolds – just to drop a few names. Australia's most famous red wine, The Penfolds Grange usually has the bulk of its content sourced from here.
Even as small child living in nearby Elizabeth I was struck by the beauty of the German chateaux and North Para River when my parents went winery visiting. However, as a young adult in the 1980s I took the Barossa for granted as just the local supplier of affordable plonk – cheap ports for those crisp Adelaide winter nights, sweet and fruity, full bodied, and oaky Hermitages (now called Shiraz) for BBQs, and the dry ‘Rhine Rieslings’ and delicate Frontignacs for those warm summer evenings drinking at Henley Beach.
Back then I didn’t like the heavily oaked Semillons and Chardonnays. It was a bit of a shock in the 1990s to find out that US wine buyers were paying hundreds of dollars for the Barossa’s best reds.
To be fair it does seem that the level of wine making has improved generally in the Barossa and deserves it place alongside McLaren Vale as Australia’s leading Shiraz region.
The Shirazes are full bodied, minerally rather rather peppery, sometimes jammy in hot vintages, and usually framed with liquorice and rich chocolate/mocha oaking.
The Grenaches are also making a comeback as a stand alone as well as being part of the Barossa’s signature Southern Rhone Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvedre “GSM” blends.
While there is a lot of Chardonnay the Barossa’s best whites are the lightly oaked Semillons. They are distinctive from the Hunter Valley’s long lasting style, but show excellent varietal expression when young. In recent years a more delicate unoaked style of Semillon is becoming more widespread and in line with contemporary fashion. The problem for Barossa Semillons that unlike Sydney there is virtually no market in Adelaide (or Melbourne) for this variety – and Sydney already has the Hunter Valley.
The Barossa is often portrayed as hot and dry – analogous in European terms to Portugal, and in Australian terms to Perth’s Swan Valley. There is some truth to this, particularly in the lower western parts. However, the reality is more complex with the region showing quite a broad range of micro-climates. For example the higher eastern parts share a border with the Eden Valley, a region famous for its delicate cool climate Rieslings. It also rains significantly more than the northern Adelaide Plains below it.
There are two basic soil types; the brown, loamy sand-clay loam, and the grey to dark grey brown sandy soils. ‘Bush’ viticultural practices (hand pruning without trellises and no irrigation) are also commonly used at the smaller vineyards to complement the low yielding soils as it is believed that stressed wines produce the best quality wine (or so the theory goes – in drought years I reckon the heat stress on non-irrigated vines often leads to inferior wine unless they are very old vines with deep roots).
The Barossa has had a long history and it is worth knowing a bit about how it became Australia’s premier wine region despite its distance from the much larger potential wine markets in Melbourne and Sydney. The name Barossa (‘Hill of Roses’) was coined in 1837 by the South Australian colony’s founding surveyor and town planner, Colonel Light. The area reminded him of the Barossa Ranges region in Spain where he had fought against Napoleon’s army.
British banker George Fife Angas bought 10,000 hectares in the Barossa and sold 2,000 of this to 25 Lutheran families. They were fleeing religious persecution in their Prussian homeland. English settlers also set up in the Barossa. Like the early settlers in the Hunter Valley the pioneers in the Barossa ran mixed farms although the properties here were generally smaller, with wine-making as a core activity rather than as the hobby. Vines were planted in 1841 at Pewsey Vale in the nearby Eden Valley. The first vines in what is now the official Barossa Valley region, were planted in the mid 1840s at Bethany by the Aldenhoven and Fiedler families. In 1847 Johann Gramp planted the first commercial vineyard by the Jacob’s Creek at what would become Orlando.
Although many of the original families moved away they were soon replaced new waves of refugees drawn to the ‘New Silesia’ in the Barossa. The Germans were wine lovers but had to go through a lengthy period of trial and error to work out that Shiraz and Grenache were the varieties best suited to the area – which at the time had no irrigation to help with the baking summers. The success of Riesling in the cooler parts of the Barossa and Eden reflects this German heritage. The Germans bought business nous with their passion for wine.
The expansion of wine production in the Barossa and other regions surrounding Adelaide was so rapid that by the 1870s the local market had been saturated. About half of the wineries had already developed into large corporate structures with significant overseas and English distribution networks. The devastation of the European vineyards by phylloxera in the 1870s opened up new opportunities such as Chateau Tanunda which was established to sell the produce of hundreds of local growers to the new European markets. The good times ended with Europe’s viticultural resurrection. The glut led to a decade of stagnation and the first big vine-pull in the state.
However, a series of misfortunes for others again became opportunities for the Barossa towards the end of the century. The Victorian wine industry, which had been rivalling South Australia as the leading wine state, was all but wiped out by phylloxera. South Africa’s Cape Town, which in the 19th century had been the main supplier of the wine to the British Empire was beset with the Boer Wars and phylloxera. The remaining major rivals around the Hunter Valley and Sydney basin were unable to compete effectively once the tariff protections were lifted after Federation.
The more astute Barossa wine barons were quick to invest their profits made from these circumstances into new interstate wine regions such as NSW’s Riverina. They (along with a couple of Hunter Valley companies) became the model for today’s multi-region, multi-state wine corporations that produce most of Australia’s wine (in volume terms).
There have been hard times in the Barossa as well. Many local Germans were put in internment camps during the First World War. The state parliament anglicised many of the German town and place names although fortunately this was later reversed. In 1938 three of South Australia’s famous wine barons – Hugo Gramp, Tom Hardy and Sid Hill Smith and a Commonwealth Minister, Charles Hawker, were killed when their plane crashed into Melbourne’s Mt. Dandenong. Also the Barossa’s wine corporations had to survive the middle decades of the 20th century through selling cheap port and flagons of sherry – luckily the Barossa is well suited to fortified wine production. The best fortifieds are very good - Seppeltsfield has the Barossa’s most famous long lasting treacly port that only gets released 100 years after the vintage.
With so many corporate headquarters located at the Barossa it is not surprising it was also the location for the technological innovations that laid the basis for the revival of modern table wine drinking in Australia. Ray Beckwith, a Roseworthy graduate who was an expert on wine yeasts and acidity, became chief scientist at Penfolds Nurioopta operations in 1951. He pioneered the application of modern scientific methods to Australian commercial wine-making such as pH controls. Soon other wine corporations began to set up their own laboratories. The scientific approach to wine-making does not sit well with romantic images of traditional wine-making in cob-webbed dank cellars. However, it did lay the basis for Australia’s wine corporations to build their reputations as the producers of reliable and consistent quality wine.
In 1953 Orlando pioneered a revolution in Australian white wine drinking through the introduction of West German designed pressure fermentation tanks. Australia's whites had suffered due to the hot conditions and were often oxidised and lacking in freshness. Winemakers tended to try to mask these faults with heavy oaking even with varieties like Riesling. Essentially the modern fermentation process prevents the escape of the carbon dioxide produced as the grapes ferment except as controlled by the winemaker. The build up of pressure slows the rate of fermentation. In skilled hands this should result in wines, which are much greener, fresher and more aromatic than made by traditional methods.
The 1953 Orlando Barossa Rhine Riesling was initially rejected by conservative palates with jibes about tank and pressure cooked wines. However, it won at show after show, and public opinion was soon won over. The Barossa white wine revolution had begun. Wolf Blass first made his name in the 1960s at Kaiser Stuhl and then in the 1970s under his own brand with pragmatic but hugely popular Barossa white wines aimed at the growing market of female wine consumers. Peter Lehmann's cheap but classy Rieslings, Chardonnays and Semillons won many fans around the country in the 1980s.
The huge popularity of the Barossa’s white wine
‘moselle’, ‘rhine riesling’ and ‘white burgundy’
the 1970s and early 1980s led to one of the great “D’oh!” moments in the industry – the mid 1980s vine pull scheme. Growers were subsidised to pull out their century old Grenache, Shiraz, Palamino and Mourvedre vines that had been the basis for the region’s reds and fortifieds. The future for the region was meant to lay with Chardonnay !!!! A lot of growers did just that. Fortunately some bucked the trend and have been proven to be right. Chardonnay, which is a pretty robust and hardy variety, was taken up just about everywhere else in Australia, and often with more success.
Some of the Barossa’s Grenache and Mourvedre vines were saved for fortifieds. A new wave of ‘Young Turk’ wine-makers saw the potential to create a space for boutique wineries in the Barossa making super-premium Shiraz and GSM blends from the surviving ancient vines: Rockford’s ‘Basket Press’, St. Hallett’s ‘Old Block’ and Charles Melton’s ‘Nine Popes’. Some of the Grenache vines are amongst the oldest in the world. The Penfolds Kalimna vineyard also has the Block 42 Cabernet, planted in 1888 and considered to be the oldest surviving Cabernet Sauvignon in the world.
Their efforts have greatly assisted by the USA’s most influential wine critic, Robert Parker jnr, who clearly has a passion for Barossa’s best reds. Parker’s high rankings has meant that the small quantities of wine made from these old vines are able to command massive prices from US wine lovers. The global profile given to the Barossa’s Shirazes and Grenaches has sparked a major boutique winery expansion since the 1990s, even if the vines are often a mere thirty to fifty years old rather than 100+. Torbeck is the main newish winery that has most benefited from the US market for Barossa super-premium old vine reds.
There are now more than 80 wineries with new ones setting up all the time. Two of the new 21st century wineries making a splash in interstate and overseas markets are Two Hands at Marananga and Murray Street Vineyards at Greenock. There are several exciting even newer players such as First Drop and Landhaus. The limit for growth in the region is not demand – rather the salinity from a rising water table that poses a potential threat to the whole region.
Wine-related tourism is a massive part of Barossa. The German influence extends well beyond the wine – the regional cuisine reflects this with the bakeries full of rich stueselkuchen and bienenstich cakes and butchers with the leverwurst and blutwurst sausages. Unfortunately in the last few years the Germaness is starting to fade.
There are a few restaurants with most famous being Maggie Beer’s Pheasant Farm. Also every Saturday morning the region’s small agricultural producers sell their wares at the Farmers Market in Angaston.
With some many famous wineries it is bit hard to know where to start your Barossa visit. However, there are some definite must dos – the historic if pretentious Chateau Yaldara, also Chateau Barossa with its 30,000 rose bushes, Richmond’s Grove castle-like cellar door, and the grand old Seppeltsfield with its world famous fortifieds. The stone cellar door and heritage equipment at Rockford is a living tribute to the old Barossa wine-making traditions. Bethany is the Barossa’s oldest winery, while Langmeil claims to have the oldest surviving commercial vineyard in Australia. Also many of the Barossa’s smaller producers have got together and established the Small Winemakers Centre at the impressive Chateau Tanunda on Basedow Rd, Tanunda.
Australia’s most prestigious regional wine festival,
the Barossa Vintage Festival, is held every odd
numbered year over a week commencing on Easter Monday. On the alternate (even numbered years) the Barossa Slow Food and Wine Festival is held in the Autumn. top