A while ago I had the extraordinary chance to attend a master class in the wines of the Barossa Valley Australia, specifically wines crafted from Old Vines. The exact definition of Old Vines varies from place to place, but it has come to mean something particular here in South Australia. More than just a chronological categorization of vines based on their year of planting, the Old Vine Charter seeks to protect the unique viticultural heritage of the Barossa Valley. Although originally settled by the English, those who made the most significant impact on local wine culture were the Lutheran immigrants from Prussia. In fact, German was still the predominant language as late as the 1900s. Many of today’s winemakers can trace their lineages back six generations, to one of those original settlers. Barossa vines go back just as far, with some Shiraz plantings that date to the 1840s, qualifying them among the oldest in the world. Red wines comprise the lion’s share of total production, at about 85 percent. Shiraz plays the starring role (50% of all plantings) but is happily supported by Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Mataro (aka Mourvèdre.) Semillon outpaces the other white grapes, although Riesling has emerged as a promising variety in Eden Valley. (NOTE: Wines labeled “Barossa Valley” must be 100% Barossa Valley fruit. Those labeled simply “Barossa” may also include fruit grown in the Eden Valley.)
What Is the Old Vine Charter?
While the Barossa region lays claim to some of the oldest vines in the world, until 2009 there was no formal system for classifying them. The Old Vines Charter was implemented to register vineyards by age, with the goal of preserving, retaining, and promoting these special spots. In the words of Robert Hill-Smith of Yalumba, one of the wineries that championed the Charter:
The Old Vine Charter is dedicated to the recognition, preservation, and promotion of these old vines, and we hope that this Charter may play a small role in ensuring that in the unlikely event of another vine-pull scheme, it is not the oldest vines that are destroyed, as was the case in the 1980s.
Four categories of vines were established under the Charter:
- Old Vine – at least 35 years of age
- Survivor – at least 70 years of age
- Centenarian – at least 100 years of age
- Ancestor – at least 125 years of age.
2009 Pewsey Vale The Contours Riesling (Eden Valley; SRP about $30)
Qualifying under Old Vine status, this vineyard was planted in 1961 with a German Riesling clone. No oak was used in its production. In the glass, the wine is pale green-gold, almost clear at the edges, with notes of lime and wool on the nose. A sip produces peach, tangerine, and lime flavors with racy acidity that come together in a long, mineral/saline finish. This wine just popped on the palate, making me wish I could have taken the rest of the bottle with me to lunch. Absolutely the best Australian Riesling I’ve ever tasted.
2008 Yalumba Tri-Centenary Grenache (Barossa Valley; 14% abv; SRP about $50)
My favorite wine of the tasting. Grapes for this wine came from a vineyard planted in 1889 on the sandy soils Grenache loves so much. That the wine was put through post-fermentation maceration is evident at first glance: it’s a vibrant ruby red that pales only slightly at the edges. Initial floral aromas are complemented by soft notes of plum and cherry, with a bit of garrigue-type herbs mixed in. A taste shows this wine to be full-bodied, with complex flavors of dried cherry, forest floor and, on the finish, licorice and meat. Its structure reminded me of a Northern Rhône Syrah, especially the savory notes on the finish. Other tasters remarked that it reminded them of a warm-climate Pinot Noir.
2010 St. Hallett Old Block Shiraz (Barossa; 14.2% abv; SRP about $70)
From multiple vineyard sites averaging 88 years of age, this wine was a deep, dense, black cherry color. Aromas of cassis and blueberry danced with notes of thyme and a hint of dirt. Flavors of ripe red and black fruit dominate the palate, and the tannins are pleasantly plush. It’s the very definition of a fruit bomb, although without the pejorative meaning of that term.
2009 Elderton Command Single Vineyard Shiraz (Barossa Valley; 14.8% abv; SRP about $80)
Deep purple-red in color, all the way to the rim, this looks every bit the typical Shiraz. From vines planted in 1894, it gives up aromas of eucalyptus, cassis, blackberry, and tomato skin. The palate shows tons of black fruit with a bit of ink on the finish, which is long indeed.
2012 Peter Lehmann VSV 1885 Shiraz (Barossa Valley; 14.5% abv; SRP about $65)
This wine from the dry-farmed northern Ebenezer District looks like dark ruby velvet in the glass. Interesting notes of spearmint and baking spices mingle with the blackberry cobbler aromas, all of which persist on the palate after a sip. Fine tannins, a thin ribbon of acidity, and a long finish make me wish I could come back and taste it again in an hour or two.
2012 Kaesler Old Bastard Shiraz (Barossa Valley; 14.5% abv; SRP about $140)
The grapes for this wine were harvested in the Nuriootpa Region, from vines planted in 1893. It’s dark ruby red, with blackberry, bacon, and dirt aromas that seem a little reluctant to reveal themselves. On the palate it’s all black fruit, with vanilla (35% new oak barrels) and some earthy influences. It’s going to take some time to mature, but it’s pretty great right now. Just pair it with a juicy rib-eye steak and you’ll see what I mean.
2013 Langmeil The Freedom 1843 Shiraz (Barossa Valley; 15% abv; SRP about $130)
The Freedom vineyard, planted in 1843, is thought to contain the oldest Shiraz vines in the world. The wine is deep red with glints of violet throughout, and enticing aromas of plum, baking spices, and cedar wafting from the glass. The palate reflects those same elements, all wrapped up in smooth tannins and balancing acidity. It is full-bodied, with spicy notes of clove and licorice on the finish.
2012 Torbreck The Pict (Barossa Valley; 15% abv; SRP about $100)
A lovely wine, from 100% Mataro (Mourvèdre) vines planted in 1927, it is dark cherry, almost black, with aromas of cola, cherry and licorice/spice on the nose. Similar in style to the red wines of Bandol in Southern France, it is a bit rustic with flavors of black olive, earth, and meat intermingling with the cherries and cassis. Tannins are grippy and powerful, suggesting a long life ahead for this wine, if only we can muster the patience to wait for it. I know I’m not that good! One of the stand-out wines from this tasting, in my opinion.
I hope you’ve been inspired to track down some of these special wines for yourself. They really do speak of a history and a tradition that dates back six generations; one that the Old Vine Charter seeks to protect. If you’re curious about the vines, wineries, and wines protected by the Charter, you can read more about them on the Barossa.com website, which also has photos of the vines as well as profiles on the wineries involved. (READ MORE)
For trade-related information on the Australian wine industry, including market insights and production trends, take a look at www.wineaustralia.com. But above all, be sure to drop by your favorite wine shop and scoop up a few bottles to taste!