Thursday, October 11, 2012

Barossa Gets a Bad Rap

Among American wine enthusiasts, Australia's Barossa Valley, near Adelaide, often gets stereotyped as a warm to hot climate area incapable of producing anything but anonymous jammy, high alcohol wines. There is, of course, no shortage of such wines on the market, many of them produced specifically for the American market and never sold in Australia. In most cases, these wines carry a broad appellation such as "southeastern Australia" and come from inferior, high-yielding vineyards.

In fact, some of Australia's very best Shiraz wines--Henschke's Mount Edelstone and Hill of Grade and Penfold's Grange Hermitage come from Barossa vineyards. And respected wineries such as St. Hallett's, Peter Lehmann and Wolf Blass are all located there.

Yes, Barossa has warm to hot weather but within the broad appellation are diverse micro-climates that include several cooler areas on sloping hillsides or the southern part of the valley. And the whole area is very dry--a plus for good winemaking. Barossa is also the site of some of Australia's oldest vines, planted in the 1840s by German immigrants from the Prussian province of Silesia.

Stuart Blackwell, chief winemaker at St. Hallett's, talks lovingly of the gnarled, treelike vines that go into his Shiraz wines. At the low end is the St. Hallett's Faith Shiraz from vines up to 50 years of age. The Faith Shiraz I tasted at the Oakwood Bistro was red fruited and lively--a trait many would associate with cooler climate Shiraz. Blackwell says this is a trait of the "younger vines"--up to 50 years of age and with yields under 4 tons an acre.

St. Hallett's Blackwell Shiraz comes from vineyards up to 80 years of age with yields of 1 to 1.5 tons per acre. This mid-level wine gets more new oak treatment (American oak) but also has a different personality--black rather than red raspberry plus intense layers of licorice, anise, mocha and spice. Some of this derives from the new oak but much comes from the soil--the old vines that dig deeper into the soil for sustenance.

St. Hallett's Old Block Shiraz is the top of the line, coming from vineyards up to 120 years of age and yields of less than a ton an acre. It was not offered at this tasting, but winemaker's notes include descriptors such as nutmeg, cinnamon, menthol, dark chocolate, cherry, plum and eucalyptus--some undoubtedly derived from the French oak in which it is matured but also traits of the even older vines. The excellent 1991 Old Block sometimes shows up at auction, Blackwell says, and he buys all he can get to replenish his stocks at the winery. Other top vintages include 2002 and 2004, and, if you happen to find or own any, you should not be in any hurry to drink them.

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