Incredible things are happening in Aussie wine. Sheer quality is hitting us in wave after wave, as we slowly – very slowly – wake up to the new packages on our doorstep. One such wave is currently tracking over the Tasman – a container of our Aussie favourites – and as it approaches our shelves we are starting to feel distinctly thirsty.
Aussie red was a bulk wine of choice only a few years ago, and it may be to the Australians’ ultimate advantage that, in New Zealand at least, this position has been impinged on by the bright and jaunty Mediterraneans now flooding into the country. But as memories still smoulder of over-cooked, clunky Barossa syrups in which any freshness was an afterthought to be added in the winery, it can be quite a paradigm shift to take a New Barossa red in your glass, wrap your palate around it – or vice versa, most likely – and let its deep and inherent qualities sink into your soul.
A dry and hot valley of ancient soils, the Barossa’s diverse patchwork of meso-climates (local conditions) are exactly the kind of thing normally associated with some the world’s greatest wine regions. Which Barossa is, of course. As distinctive terroirs unfold their individual glories in the increasingly popular single-site wines, the same diversity remains a serious source of value in giving the good old regional blend a dimension and consistency that is hard to match.
Even less appreciated than these stalwart qualities is the cultural value we’ve all suddenly realised is attached to the region’s rich supply of old vines. There is a certain irony in this particular backstory: while half of Europe modernised and replanted with ‘global’ French varieties, the productive backwater of Barossa was able to behave a little like France’s Languedoc in its pre-phylloxera days. A fruit bowl widely drunk but overlooked and underpaid for its product, broadly hampered from achieving its exceptional potential. The unassuming growers who lived there just got on with what most of the New World regions would love to claim – a century and a half of inter-generational, highly localised food and wine culture. Meanwhile many of these old families were tending a stock of Riesling, Grenache, Shiraz and Mataro vines that kept getting older and producing less, standing there decade after decade on increasingly gnarled, bushy, untrained stems. So when the villain of these type of stories – the government – finally turned up and offered money for the old treasures to be ripped out, it was thanks to a local sense of tradition as much as the vision of a few, that Barossa still has in production more centurian vines than perhaps any other location on the planet.
None of this is news to the folks at Kalleske, who have been there since 1853. After six generations of growing it was their seventh – Troy and Tony Kalleske – who started their own family label. Having recently won a major award for sustainable small business, Kalleske are stayers in the most holistic sense while becoming leading lights in organic and biodynamic winemaking. Their products are richly coloured and structured and celebrate the traditional vinous glories of the Barossan ‘extraction industry’. Yet, from their slightly elevated Greenock site, there is also a palpable harmony, a New Barossa brightness, and a simply neckable ‘just rightness’ to their wines. With their oldest vines dating from 1875 and an average age of no less than fifty years, the Kalleskes’ position would be envied by any wine family in the world. Yet their humble, gifted and simply delicious work ends up on our shelf for as little as $30. It’s hard to tell if that crashing sound is a new wave or an old one, but Kalleske are certainly rocking some boats.
As more recent arrivals in the valley, Spinifex don’t need any qualifiers to be described as ‘New Barossa’ – a style in which they have become icons. Like Kalleske however, there is something very old at play as well. Ex-Kiwi Peter Schell and his French wife Magali Gely have spent a lot of time in her homeland of Southern France – an area comparable to the Barossa in both climate and history, as I suggested – and they bring to their new home a classically low-intervention touch.
As in the Languedoc, Spinifex spend their time blending miscellaneous and Rhone varieties into wines of soft ripeness, with a structure that is very present but also flowing, non-linear and encompassing. By closely observing the distinct qualities of their various sites – mostly in Barossa but also Eden Valley – Spinifex manage to deliver a kind of indefinable ex-factor, a complex depth that somehow embodies the archaic potential of their place, even as it extends it into new stylistic territory. Both timeless and cutting-edge, both European and Aussie, both sophisticated and inherently, eminently Barossa, these wines set in motion a deliciously new spin on tradition.
The still-youthful Ben Glaetzer was only 26 years old, back in 2004, when he won Qantas Young Winemaker of the Year. But more than just his winemaking was getting noticed, with his rather Australian-sized personal style seeing him win Robert Parker’s ‘Wine Personality of the Year’ in 2005. This ‘prodigy’ didn’t explode onto the scene from nowhere, however – his family were some of the earliest growers in some of Australia’s earliest regions, the Barossa and Clare Valleys.
Glaetzers sheer skill has made him a true poster boy for the New Barossa style: he seems to be able to infuse his own casual charisma into wines of true personality, vivacity and sense of place. While his self-labelled Barossa range have become premium icons in a very short period of time, his more everyday Heartland wines offer supreme quality from the slightly cooler and slower-ripening South Australian climate of Langhorne Creek. What is common to all Glaetzer’s wines is a fruit brightness and lush richness that is delicious while young, yet balanced for a long enhancement in cellar. Generously ripe but never too much, Glaetzer almost amplifies the South Australian sense of impact and satisfaction, yet frames this within entirely cosmopolitan virtues of balance, freshness, definition and finesse.
Like Spinifex, Gemtree are a new addition to our portfolio – and relatively new players by South Australian standards (established only 38 years ago, in 1980). But for years we’ve watched them deliver label after label of pure quality, and since they converted to organics and biodynamics the quality has merely increased. Like Kalleske they offer a deeply extracted and full-flavoured style, often with an inky-black intensity of huge fruit and deep, classic complexities. But here too there is a kind of vibrancy that goes beyond the mere McLaren Vale typicities. Something is happening in this style – an iridescence to the blackness, a brightness to the depth, an unbounded expressiveness and tactile sense of quality that has much in common with the new styles of their Barossan colleagues.
All these producers have something in common, and it’s not that they’re doing something new. Rather they are all bringing a desirable and delicious regeneration to a style and area that was inherently fantastic to begin with. Whether realising the worth of old Barossa vines or intensifying the quality of tradition through the indefinable presence of vital, healthy soils, the new South Aussie producers are lifting our drinking appreciation to a very high crest of culture and sheer quality.
From an ancient continent just across the ditch, these Aussie wines are suddenly some of the best in the world on quality. OK we admit it – you Shiraz lovers were right all along.