Savour Australia’s History

Wine Australia – Where have all the critters gone?
by Anthony Gismondi

Anthony Gismondi

Anthony Gismondi

It’s easy to forget Australia’s nearly two centuries of winemaking history given most wine writing barely spans two generations of work at a time, but many ‘new’ world producers are not all that new and in a fast changing, internet-fuelled world where change and technology is inevitable, there is something comforting about the history of people and place that can be reassuring and useful.

That’s not to say you will be seeing any rush to a new round of critter labels any time soon because that isn’t going to happen. This time around the reinvention of Australia is more about evolution and revolution but it is all under way with an eye to the past. The history of vineyards and producers in Oz are rich and deep and there is no need to discard that legacy in the rush to another revolution.

One need only look to the ancient soils of Australia to remember this place is steeped in history; decomposed wind-blown rock dates back in some spots to 500 million years ago. As old as as the soils are, the investigation of what is going on beneath the surface is as new as it gets in geological time. While it’s easy to say farmers/growers have a strong connection to their land, much of the new world is only beginning to look at its regions and sub regions with a microscope.

It took as late as 2008, and a couple of sub-regional tastings featuring single-vineyard shiraz, before Barossa got the bug. With so many wines tied to historical ‘parishes’ within the Barossa, I suspect in the years to come historic names like Gomersal, Williamstown, Lyndoch, Rowland Flat, Barossa Foothills, Vine Vale, Light Pass, Greenock, Moppa, Seppeltsfield and Marananga will slowly appear on labels.

There’s a rush to be new and different in Australia but make no mistake, the place is steeped in history. Barossa, Coonawarra, McLaren Vale and Victoria and New South Wales are not unlike the Cote de Nuit or the Haut Medoc of France. In fact, it is only with more study that we can come to know all the nuances of Down Under in the same way we might discuss the styles of wine coming out St. Estephe or Pauillac or Santenay for that matter.

Today, local winemakers and viticulturists are currently collating soil, and climatic and historical data to try and figure out what is going on across the country. I’m sure what they will find are many similarities interrupted by differences in soil type, elevation, rainfall, meso-climates, temperature, soil fertility and much more.

Another big advantage of a long history is old vines. In fact, the Barossa Valley is home to some of the oldest continuously producing vineyards in the world. After a lot of thought and study at Yalumba, owner Robert Hill-Smith put forth an Old Vines Charter to protect Barossa’s and the rest of Australia’s most precious assets after an ill-considered vine pullout scheme triggered the end of so many magnificent vineyards in the 1980’s.

Barossa Ancestor Vine

Today under the Charter, vines 35 years of age or more can be named Barossa Old Vines. Those over 70 will be Survivor Vines; 100 years will be Centurion Vines; 125 years Ancestor Vines. Since 2009 the region has moved to establish an old vine register to protect all of these treasures.

Robert Hill-Smith may be onto something when he suggests, “In the perception of the serious wine-drinker, the old world owns the integrity to old vineyards. To take an Old Vine Charter to the world will cause a lot of people that take Australia for granted to think again. This charter is about integrity; about hoping that the wines we put in front of people express the place and the variety. It is a necessary evolution that signifies the growing up of Australia.”

It’s hard to argue that logic. As for the oldest Ancestor Vines, at least 125 years old and now growing under protection, my advice is to seek them out at all cost and enjoy the history they can bring to your glass.

In Canada there are a few bottles of wine that evoke the history of Australia while pointing to what is surely a bright future. Here are some historical names or vineyards in the market, making modern wine.

Wakefield St Andrews Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 This single vineyard Clare Valley cabernet sauvignon is sourced from the historic St. Andrews property, first planted in 1892. Classic terra rossa soils atop a limestone base yield a refined cabernet Sweet spices and warm ripeness (14.5 percent alcohol) gives this a generosity that is well suited to roast pork if drinking now. Otherwise, continue to cellar for another few years.

Wolf Blass Gold Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 It’s been thirteen years since we last saw this wine. In those days it was cork finished; not anymore. Classic Coonawarra on the nose with an aromatic mix of brambles and spice with a juicy cherry menthol entry.

Wakefield St Andrews Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2010Wolf Blass Gold Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2013Two Hands Bella's Garden Shiraz 2013Heartland Directors' Cut Shiraz 2012

The Two Hands Bella’s Garden Shiraz 2013 is one of six shiraz in the Garden Series set bottled to expose the terroir of individual approved South Australia wine regions. The fruit is bought under long term contract. Bella’s is the largest production and but in 2013 is a picture of density and sweet fruit over pepper and brown spices with a long warm persistent finish. An old site for a new wine.

Heartland Directors’ Cut Shiraz 2012 is the most powerful expression of the winery’s Langhorne Creek shiraz. A soft and drinkable blockbuster with a big, warm finish. Drink or hold a decade. Best with a steak grilled medium rare.

Yalumba Bush Vine Grenache 2014 Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard Trueman Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 Pewsey Vale Riesling 2014Fellow Wine Align critic Treve Ring was impressed with the Pewsey Vale Single Vineyard Estate Riesling 2014 Englishman Joseph Gilbert planted the Pewsey Vale vineyard in 1847 but it wasn’t until 1961 Geoff Angas-Parsons and Wyndham Hill Smith fully develop the historic vineyard site into the contoured Pewsey Vale Vineyard –  a single vineyard dedicated to the single variety – riesling. 

Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard Trueman Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 is the work of Australian winemaker Charlie Seppelt and American Chris Carpenter. The pair have combined their talents at Hickinbotham to produce what they term is the pinnacle of Clarendon cabernet. Elegance and intensity is the hallmark of this deliciously style red with perfectly crafted tannins to bring structure and frame but with no toughness or dryness. Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard was first planted by Alan Hickinbotham in 1971 in McLaren Vale, and over the years has been the source of fruit for some of Australia’s finest wines including Penfolds Grange and Hardy’s Eileen Hardy. it was purchased and refurbished by Jackson Family Farms beginning in 2000 but the history lives on.

Another Treve Ring pick is the classic from low yielding gnarly old vine grenache from the Barossa is the Yalumba Old Bush Vine Grenache Barossa 2012 shows its concentration and depth of fruit here through the mulberry, kirsch and menthol blackberry ripeness and fine, ample persistent peppery spice.

Anthony Gismondi


The History, Evolution & Revolution of Australian Wine

This article is one of a three-part series taking a look at the history, evolution and revolution of Australian wine on the page and in the glass. Please link to the other two articles below:

A Lesson in Evolution, by John Szabo, MS

A Lesson in Evolution, by John Szabo, MS

The Fire of Revolution, by Bradley Royale

The Fire of Revolution, by Bradley Royale