Almost ten years ago when I started my journey into wine, the distinction between Old world and New world was quite clear and somehow easy to grasp. The ancient european culture against the rest of the world, varietalism versus terroir, fruitiness versus minerality, openness and generosity versus discrete and closed wines. Free from layers of history, the New World had the opportunity to be more experimental and creative, proposing direct wines, easy to be enjoyed without the need to wait and swirl, wine with less intellectual weight, approachable by a wider public.
Today of course it’s no longer the case and my recent trip to South Australia has really strengthened my beliefs. I was fortunate enough to travel through what are considered the classic wine areas around Adelaide city and the viticulture heritage found there was something I was not expecting.
Before we adventure ourself into ancient vines it is important to remember that South Australia still remains one of the few areas in the world free of phylloxera. Australia has one of the toughest quarantine regulations and any vineyard you enter is protected with anti phylloxera liquid that has to be sprayed on shoes. Neighbour Victoria has seen a recent outbreak of phylloxera and anyone coming from those areas is in need of extra checks.
With a vineyard heritage unique and amongst the oldest in the world, vines in Barossa are classified according to an old vine charter: a vine is considered Old when it is over thirty-five years old, then it is considered a Survival when it is over seventy-five years old, a Centurial when is over one-hundred years old and Ancestor when it’s over one hundred and fifty years old. Barossa, north-east of Adelaide, counts the oldest vines in South Australia, however examples can be found in Eden and Clare Valley.
Steingarten vineyard is an Old vineyard, property of Jacob Creek, at the hedge of the Barossa region into Eden Valley. The name translates as the “stone garden” for the soil characteristics. Positioned at 450m above sea level, it opens up to an arid scenery, where in the distance, on a clear day, the sea appears. A harsh place, characterised by hot summers, with temperature that could reach 40-42C and cool evenings influenced by the sea breeze. Irrigation has become essential here, but it was not the case few years ago. There is no topsoil, bare schist is at the base of the vine, dynamite had to be used to dig the ground when the vines were planted. There is also chalk and various metals all great elements for Riesling grape. Vines are 55 years old, un-grafted, they look younger, due to the slow growing conditions. Riesling is the main grape planted.
In South Australia Riesling is a signature grape to be put side by side with traditional Riesling producers. Hard-wooded and frost resistant, Riesling is capable of expressing white wine with incredible agebility. But site selection is very important in order to achieve ripeness. Low fertility soils are best for a variety that can yield high if planted in the wrong place. Steingarten is definitely an ideal place.
We tried Steingarten 2013, luminous green highlights anticipating low pH, steely and petrol, with citrus fruits, lime in particular, a touch of yellow stone fruits. Searing acidity, bone dry, dynamic and tense, the wine finishes with a great minerality. Elegance and vineyards’ identity are at the base of the wine, a truly Old world style that would confuse any blind tasting.
Moorooroo vineyard is a Survival vineyard, property of the Schild Estate, the northern vineyard of the family. Planted in 1947 in an area between 150-300m. Irrigation started here 2/3 years ago.
Turkey Flat vineyard belongs to Turkey Flat winery. It is an Ancestor vineyard of shiraz grape planted in 1847 by Johann August Frederick Fiedler. Yield is extremely low providing concentrated grapes. Ancient vines give layers of complexity which are difficult to get from younger vines. Despite the difficulties to maintain vineyards like this, proprietors feel the moral responsibility to keep the genetic heritage alive.
Shiraz is the symbolic grape of Australia. Robust and dark-skinned, in Australia it makes wine of great power and intensity in particularly from Barossa. Like Riesling, Shiraz needs attention with site selection and yield control.
Freedom vineyard recognised as the oldest shiraz vineyard in Barossa and probably in the world, it belongs to the Langmeil winery. Planted in 1843 it is another Ancestor vineyard of 3,5 acre, part of the Busby collection, the pre-phylloxera european material, brought from France and Spain by James Busby the father of the Australian wine industry. The site is predominantly alluvial loam and red clay over limestone and ironstone, these conditions guarantee deep root penetration into the underlying water table of the near by Para river.
Vines are like curling snakes, each vine is a sculpture full of history. It is incredible to think these vines are still producing grapes. There is a sense of respect, for a plant capable of living beyond time and space and there is a great responsibility to make sure these sites are kept alive for the future to come.
Green seal is used to protect the ancient vines from Eutypa dieback a fungus (Eutypa Lata) widely spread in South Australia. The fungus sends a toxic liquid that causes stunting of the shoots, the plant may still produce but yield will be reduced, over years the plant eventually may die.
We tried Freedom 2015, dark intense ruby with purple highlights to underline its youth. The nose is generous with dark fruit first, then tar, dark chocolate and hints of eucalyptus which always reminded me of Australia. The wine shows egual power at the palate with a multilayer dimension that unfolds as the wine progresses through. Long lasting, fresh, velvet ripe tannins. The wine surprises for its delicate equilibrium into a full and powerful body.
Willows vineyard comprises the oldest Semillon vineyard in Barossa, together with Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. Planted in 1936, it is located on the banks of the North Para River near the village of Light Pass. Peter Lehmann historically has been sourcing grapes from here. Semillon is a real rarity in Barossa, however viticulturist Tony Marshall believe ist has great potential. Sand and red clay characterise the soil, a cooling breeze allows slow ripening and natural acidity.
Hill of Grace is another historical vineyard dating back to 1860. The vineyard is the pride of the Henschke family based in Eden Valley. It is called a hill, but in actual fact is not a hill! A Lutheran church landmarks the site.
The “Grand Father”
The vineyard is run on biodynamic principals with preparation 500 and 501 used, although certification has not been pursued. Straw mulch is used to retain moisture, a practice quite common amongst Australian producers.
Layering is used to propagate the vines. The technique consists of burying a branch of the vine to let a new plant grow and continue the life of the mother vine.
At the winery we have the honour to taste Hill of Grace 2012 a vintage considered amongst the best. Full ripe blackberry and mulberry, black olive, roast and black pepper. Overt and generous, multilayered, with velvet polish tannins, spices and long lasting black fruits. An extremely complex wine, expression of its territory. The final taste of iconic vineyards around South Australia.