A Voyage of Re-Discovery

As our sojourn in Australia drew to a close, despite what the laws of physics may say, I’m sure time seemed to speed up, and before we knew it the James Busby Travel tour had drawn to a close. But let’s rewind a bit.  The final two days were as packed as any other, palate fatigue – no way, sleep deprivation – we were made of stronger stuff!

YalumbaOn our penultimate day in South Australia, we spent the morning at Yalumba, in the Barossa.  Settled in the 1830’s by Europeans, Barossa’s heritage is evident in the Germanic sounding names of people, places and roads.  With nothing between here and the South Pole, the winds here can be extremely cold.  The first vineyards were planted in the Barossa in 1842.  It was in 1849 that Yalumba was founded, by Samuel Smith, a British migrant in search of a new life.  Still family owned, Yalumba prides itself on commitment to quality over quantity, to tradition in its commitment to making Cab-Shiraz blends, and yet also to innovation in its ability to experiment with both wine making techniques and the finished article itself.

Louisa Rose, head winemaker was our guide for the morning, we were taken round the distillery, which in days of old would have been used every day, now, it is only used very occasionally.  From the distillery we moved on to the cooperage.  Yalumba is the only winery in Australia with an on-site cooperage, indeed, one of only a few the world over.  The control this affords Yalumba is quite something;  from the extended period of seasoning the wood destined for a Yalumba barrel receives, to the precise level of toasting.  Unique to Yalumba are the 90 litre Octaves, made on site which ultimately house old vine Shiraz – The Octavius.  After our guided tour, we sat down to a tasting, in the impressive underground tasting room that was previously a concrete tank and had seen over a hundred vintages.

Pewsey Vale Vineyard Riesling opened the tasting, ranging from the 2010 vintage, then followed by the 2005, 1999 and ending with the 1971.  Interestingly the 1971 had both cork and screw cap closures, a belt and braces approach if ever there was one!  Flavour profiles were as diverse as the years between them, the 2010 showing fragrant blossom notes, citrus and underlying minerality.  The 1971 was still wonderfully vibrant with honey, marmalade and a hint of nuttiness on the palate.

A horizontal tasting of a range of Yalumba’s Cabernet-Shiraz blends was next, followed by a vertical tasting of The Signature, ranging from the 2006 to the 1991 vintage.  Finally was a tasting of single vineyard Shiraz.  Six different wines from three separate vineyards.  Not necessarily made for commercial success but rather to uphold the innovative and experimental aspect of Yalumba.  These wines illustrated the diversity of one region, showing three different expressions of the same variety.

After an impressive tasting and an equally impressive lunch at Yalumba we were heading on to Henschke for the afternoon.  Stephen and Prue Henschke met us at the historic Hill of Grace vineyard.  Overlooked by the picturesque Gnadenberg Zion Lutheran church, which has strong links to the Henschke family history, the vines in the Grandfathers block date back to the 1860’s.  Prue as the viticulturist talked to us about the vines and their biodynamic practices.  With the now derelict buildings in Parrot Hill visible just down the road, it was in some ways difficult to imagine that this now quiet and peaceful area was once a bustling village with settlers from Silesia trying to forge a new life for themselves.

Back at the vineyard, Stephen gave us a tour of the winery before we sat down for a tasting.  The first flight was three vintages of Julius Eden Valley Riesling, 1996, 2002 and 2010.  My favourite had to be the 1996, golden in colour it had baked citrus fruit and lime cordial on the nose, leading through to marmalade and buttered toast on the palate. A cleansing streak of acidity lead to a deliciously long finish.  Following the Riesling, three decades of Hill of Grace, the pinnacle of the tasting for me.  Starting with the 1986, then the 1996 and finally the 2006.  If ever there was a moment to savour this was it.  The ’86 had notes of leather, cedar, dried herbs and pepper.  The ’96 exhibited vibrant spice, perfume and depth with soft, subtle tannins. Finally the ’06, still a a baby in comparison.  Ripe plums and blackberries coupled with fragrant sweet spices were woven round  structural, elegant tannins.  Like turning the page of a book, with these beautiful, complex wines each time you went back to them you got something more.  A barbecue rounded an excellent day off in the perfect way.  As the sun went down we feasted on lovely food, with a variety of other wines to taste.  If the bites are anything to go by, it seems that the mosquitoes like Henschke wines as much as I do – well almost!

On our final full day in Australia we spent the morning with Pete Schell of Spinifex.  Also in the Barossa, his aim, in his own words is to make ‘cool booze’.  Spinifex is the name of a grass that gets blown about in the wind, reference to the years that Pete was travelling, and essentially rootless.  In making cool booze, Pete sees his work as taking the Barossa style somewhere a bit more interesting.  He is what you might call the new generation of Barossa winemakers.  He has been making wine full time for himself for five years now, this gives him the luxury of being able to focus on wine styles that he likes personally and that is what he had to show us.

In the barrel room, glass in hand we started the tasting with a 2010 rose.  Bone dry, with weight and texture from the lees ageing and barrel maturation, Pete focuses on appropriate fruit maturation and minimum intervention in the wine making process.  The fruit itself for this wine comes from three small vineyards, facing east, off the valley floor.  The small physical differences like this can make large differences in the finished wine Pete explained.  As we sampled different vintages of Lola, a blended white, Pete explained how he ended up in the Barossa.  Originally from New Zealand he had aspirations after studying at Roseworthy of returning there to make Pinot Noir, however along the way he got hooked in by the Barossa.  After working 5 or 6 vintages in France and spending time throughout Europe, it illuminated what wasn’t being done in the Barossa.  The Lola ’09 a Semillon dominated blend had restraint, texture, notes of hay, citrus and herbs.  The Esprit 2006 was a feminine style of wine for the Barossa.  It was subtle, linear, with cherries and wild strawberries on the nose backed up by a hint of spice, all the while retaining a freshness.

After tasting through a range of Pete’s wines, we ended the tasting with a 2010 Semillon that had 100g residual sugar.  Not made for commercial reasons, but simply because Pete likes it, the fruit for this wine comes from a 60 year old vineyard at the top of Eden Valley.  The wine had exotic notes of guava, mango and pineapple, with good acidity to balance with the sweetness, this was a delicious wine.

Torbreck was our final visit of the trip.  Hosted by wine maker Craig Isbel we also had a brief introduction to the man himself Dave Powell, founder of Torbreck.  Dave talked to us briefly about his major influence and inspiration in terms of winemaking, the Northern Rhone.  Like our visit to Spinifex earlier in the day, Torbreck is a winery that is focusing on the modernity of Barossa, quality is key here.  The name of Torbreck itself comes from when Dave spent time in Scotland, where he worked as a woodcutter.  The name of the first forest he worked in was called Torbreck.

We were treated to a great tasting with some beautiful wines.  Starting with barrel samples of Grenache and Shiraz from Lyndoch, Marananaga and Ebenezer sub regions, illustrating the differences that come out of the same region.  The highlight of the tasting for me was the three vintages of Les Amis.  Made from 100% Grenache from vines planted in 1901.  The fruit is as one would expect from vines of that age, low yielding.  Smaller bunches and smaller berries mean there is a higher pulp to skin ratio, which leads to a concentration of flavour.  The 2006 was beautiful on the nose.  Fragrant red fruit, cherries, herbs and garrigue, a deliciously complex wine.  The 2004 was starting to show more aged characteristics, a touch of leather and spice, seamlessly integrated oak yet primary fruit was still abound.  Finally the 2001 was concentrated and complex.  Raisined fruit, overlayed with leather and spice, this was an elegant wine with a beautiful finish.

And so after two weeks sampling some of the best wines that South Australia and Victoria had to offer we made our way to Adelaide for the flight the next morning.  I find it is sometimes only after the event, once you have had time to digest all the information that has been presented that you are truly able to evaluate an experience.  Over the course of two weeks we had seen established, historic names such as Tahbilk, Yalumba and Penfolds, as well as young winemakers, the future rockstars of the wine making world such as Mac Forbes, Luke Lambert and Pete Schell.  Each visit we had was memorable in its own way, but an underlying theme with everyone was the focus on quality at every step of the wine making process, and the desire to change perceptions about Australian wines.  My perceptions have certainly changed, it has been not so much a focus on education, rather more on re-education.  They say that change has to come from within.  Looking at wine making in Australia, that change has certainly happened, it is now a chance for the rest of us to  join in on a voyage of re-discovery and seek the amazing wines that Australia has to offer.

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