Quenching America's Thirst for Oz
Even in the face of water shortages and dying vines, the winemakers of Barossa and Clare Valley do Shiraz and Riesling better than just about anyone. Can they satisfy America's growing appetite for their wines — and do they really want to?
A short drive down Benbournie Road past the McRae Wood Vineyard is Jim Barry Wines' 8-acre Armagh Vineyard. It was planted in 1964, when Peter Barry, Jim Barry's son and the winery's current general manager, was only 9 years old. The boy and his family had to hand-water the whole vineyard "to get [the vines] through that first summer," remembers Barry. Their efforts paid off. The Armagh Shiraz is now a highly allocated collectors' wine that sells for more than $100 a bottle in the U.S.—when you can find it.
"The Armagh Vineyard, it's planted on hungry ground," the younger Barry says, by way of explaining the vineyard's poor, dry soil. The earth here looks dry, and more grayish-brown than red. I ask him about the beautiful lavender flowers that grow between Armagh's rows, and up and down Clare Valley's main thoroughfare, on the two-hour journey northward from Adelaide. It's Salvation Jane, he says—not a flower, but a weed that sucks water from the already dry earth
Touring the Armagh and Lodge Hill vineyards with Barry was only the first stop on a visit with winemakers in the Clare, Barossa and Eden valleys, places that most Americans know less by sight than by their reputations as homes to many of Australia's most coveted, ultrapremium wines. Stateside, we can't get enough Shiraz, and we are now just beginning to understand how magnificent Rieslings, Grenaches and Semillons from these regions can be. The Australian Wine Export Council's latest figures reflect our enthusiasm for these top-quality wines: As of October 2003, America has overtaken the United Kingdom as Australia's number-one export customer in terms of dollars spent, to the tune of $651 million dollars last year. Half of all the $10+ per liter wines that Australia exports are sold in America.
The reasons that a large chunk of these "expensive" wines are from the Barossa and Clare Valley aren't difficult to discern. The wines have the cachet of location and oftentimes stratospheric ratings ("telephone numbers," one winemaker calls them); grapes for the best wines might be harvested and sorted by hand, or manually pressed in 150-year-old basket presses. Winemakers are so careful with their grapes here because sustaining the vines is, in itself, such a challenge.
Struggling for Shiraz
The first thing you're likely to learn in Shiraz country, explains Yalumba Winemaker Jane Ferrari as we drive along Eden Valley's gravelly roads, is that "it starts and finishes with water." South Australia's been on water restriction for three years. Many of the homes we pass have 5,000-gallon rainwater tanks next to them. The government offers rebates to residents who build the tanks; residents switch on the city water when the tanks are empty. In smaller Clare Valley hamlets, few people live far off Main North Road because there is little public water available beyond the highway. In 2003, for the first time in eight years, the reservoirs in Eden Valley are full—"fuller than a fat girl's sock," quips Ferrari, with evident glee.
For winemakers in these South Australian enclaves, it is as much a matter of necessity as pride to call their vineyards dry farmed. Because the Barossa Valley gets so hot—with summertime temperatures that can reach 100Â°F—not watering vines can mean their demise; vintners sometimes need to practice emergency irrigation. It is strange to be in South Australia and think about how much Americans want Australian wine, when all Australians want is water.
In these parts, it seems, every winery has a flagship bottling, a Shiraz that's made from low-yielding, century-old vines that's treated so carefully and available in such limited quantity that it may as well have been picked by giants, by light of the full moon. Cuvées such as Grant Burge's Meshach, Barossa Valley Estate's E&E Black Pepper, Torbreck's Run Rig, Jim Barry's Armagh, Kaesler's Old Bastard and Henschke's Hill of Grace inevitably invite comparisons to the standard-bearer, Penfolds Grange, on some level, be it structure, price, or potential longevity. But the longevity that's most at issue is how long these vines will live. It's estimated that 8 percent of old Shiraz vines suffer from Eutypa Dieback, or dying arm, a fungal disease that one winemaker calls "osteoporosis of the vine." The disease is spread from vine to vine through open pruning cuts. Cordons that are affected by Eutypa produce few shoots, and eventually shrivel up and die.
At Henschke's Hill of Grace, winemaker and proprietor Stephen Henschke points to a deep, swirled cut in a knotted vine, where one infected branch had to be cut off to save the rest of the plant. Spatters of what look like red glue seal other cuts on the vine, like liquid Band Aids, keeping the fungus at bay. Henschke and his viticulturalist wife, Pru, like winemakers at Turkey Flat and Yalumba, have already planted uninfected rootstocks from their best vineyard blocks into adjacent blocks, bracing for the inevitability—though it may happen well into the next century—that these old vines will succumb to dying arm. But as long as these vines produce rich, concentrated wines, Americans will keep snapping them up.
"Waves of fashion"
I only visited one winery in Clare Valley—and not a single one in Barossa—that didn't make a Shiraz. It's a glorious thing to be in a beautiful, unfamiliar place where every vintner is proud to pour a red wine that just happens to be my favorite variety. But with that kid-in-a-toy shop sense of glee came mounting worry: What happens if the regions' premier red grape variety goes the way of Merlot and legwarmers—hopelessly out of fashion—and the region's other red gem, Grenache, doesn't set the export market ablaze? Will the Australian government reinstate its vine-pull scheme of the late 1980s, when they paid vintners to pull up knotted old vines that the government deemed "unprofitable"?
Whether Barossa vintners are already quietly considering these very unlikely scenarios, or whether experimentation is just a cog in the wheel of viticultural progress, many area winemakers admit that they're becoming more and more interested in growing grapes that are new for Barossa. Since 2000, 26 acres of Tempranillo have been planted in the region. A quarter of Barossa's 40-plus acres of Viognier have been planted only in the past two years. St. Hallett blends Touriga into their wines, and even sells a Touriga rosé in their tasting room. Yalumba grows Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Marsanne and bottles them as single varieties through their cellar door-only Vinnovations line, a program that helps the winery see how these nontraditional Barossa wines are received by customers.
The widespread interest in such variety diversity is, at least, supported by the myriad microclimates in Clare Valley and the Barossa. The Barossa GI—which encompasses the Barossa Valley, and the Eden Valley, just to the east—and the Clare Valley GI are two very different places, despite their relative proximity. Barossa Valley is 200-300 meters above sea level, 44 miles northeast of Adelaide. Eden Valley is just to the southeast of Barossa, but another 200 meters higher, with soil that varies from sand to clay loam. It's not uncommon, in the Eden Valley, to see dry, sandy soils on one side of the road, and rich clay soil over rock on the other. Clare Valley is farther north than either of them, about 85 miles north of Adelaide. Where Clare Valley is Riesling country, 400-500 meters above level, with the cool nighttime temperatures and afternoon breezes that slow grape ripening, Barossa Valley is hotter and flatter, with soil that is more suited to growing red winegrapes. Folks in Barossa Valley can acknowledge a sort of kinship with Eden Valley (perhaps, because wines labeled with the broad "Barossa" GI can contain grapes from both valleys), but Clare, only an hour or so down the road, seems like a world away.
Cellar-door Visits You've only got a week to visit both Barossa and Clare.
Which tasting rooms should you hit?
|You want to go with what you know, and bring a lot of friends with you: Jacob's Creek Visitors' Centre is large enough to hold a busload of your closest friends, all of whom have surely enjoyed the wines in question before. Ditto Leasingham, Grant Burge, Cockatoo Ridge, and the brand-new Wolf Blass Visitors' Centre, due to open at the end of 2004. Many of these wineries have educational displays and tours, too. |
You want to taste top-flight Shiraz, and you've also got the munchies: Munch on Barossa Valley Estate's or Peter Lehmann's lunch platters, or put some food in your stomach at Kaesler Wines' restaurant—you'll need sustenance before you sample the Old Bastard. Two Hands' new cellar door hadn't opened at press time, but proprietor Michael Twelftree promises bites of fresh bread, cheese and olive oil along with the wine.
You want to be where everybody knows your name: These places are homey—in terms of both size (they're no bigger than your living room) and warmth of hospitality. Stop by these tasting rooms and say hello to Jaysen and Carla at Turkey Flat; Anna at Charles Melton; Kate at St. Hallett; Liz at Torbreck, and Lyn and Pam at Tim Adams.
You plan on dropping a lot of dough at U.S. Customs: Want to bring back some hard-to-find (or not available in the U.S.) wine? Stock up at Rockford (their sparkling Black Shiraz is in short supply in Australia, and isn't exported to the U.S.), Penfolds (their delicious Cellar Reserve wines are sold only in their tasting rooms) and Yalumba (look for their tasting room-only Vinnovations bottlings—bet you didn't know that Yalumba makes Marsanne and Nebbiolo). Henschke has a Pinot Gris and a Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon that they don't export to the U.S.—and their Hill of Grace is a bargain at AUD$288 ($212 in U.S. dollars, compared to a $300 retail price if you buy it in the States).
Contact information for the tasting rooms listed above.
|Barossa Valley Estate
Seppeltsfield Road, Marananga
Phone: 08 8562 3599
Grant Burge Cellar Door
Jacob's Creek Visitor Centre
Jim Barry Wines
Magill Winery and Restaurant
78 Penfold Road, Magill
Phone: 08 8301 5551 (Restaurant)
Phone: 08 8301 5569 (Cellar door)
Barossa Valley Winery
Peter Lehmann Wines
Yalumba Wine Room (Barossa Valley)
In Clare Valley, where about 20 percent of Australia's Riesling grows, grape experimentation is even more rampant, though the actual acreage of atypical grape plantings is still measured in the dozens, rather than the hundreds. The climate there is more conducive to a wider variety of grapes. Knappstein makes a Gewürztraminer. So does Skilly Ridge. ("If you can have success with Riesling," asks Adam Eggins, winemaker at Taylors, "Why can't you have the same success with Gewürztraminer?") Wendouree makes a varietal Malbec. Jeffrey Grosset confessed that he's thinking about planting Nero d'Avola next year. Tim Adams, owner of the winery of the same name, has just planted five acres each of Viognier, Pinot Grigio and Tempranillo.
"Why? I suppose it was a little bit of boredom on Tim's part," explains Adams's wife, Pam Goldsack. "I think a lot of winemakers are feeling that way." If the Tempranillo doesn't work as a varietal wine, she explains, it will likely be blended into one of their other red wines.
Andrew Mitchell, winemaker-proprietor of Mitchell Wines, is more matter-of-fact about the changes afoot. "There are waves of fashion [in the wine business]. Winemakers are trying to diversify," he says in the tasting chambers at his Clare Valley facility. Though he admits that Malbec does well in Clare, he still can't understand the move toward Viognier. Others argue that Clare's climate is one that could harness the overripe, fruit-cocktail flavors that sometimes show when Viognier is grown in hotter regions.
As for more "mainstream" grape varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon can make marvelous wines in the Barossa Valley; the wines typically show stately black plum fruit and smooth, minerally tannins. Some of the best are Kaesler's 2001 (92 points, $22), Rockford's 2001 Rifle Ranch Cabernet (94 points, $40) and Tait's 2002 Basket Pressed Cabernet (91 points, $30). But Barossa stalwart Ivan Limb, managing director of Cockatoo Ridge Winery, which produces 300,000 cases annually, thinks that area producers are overestimating Cab's promise here: "If we didn't crush a berry of Cabernet this year, it wouldn't matter," Limb says, though Cockatoo Ridge also makes one.
|Barossa and Clare Eats and Sleeps|
|One of the few restaurants in Clare open on Sunday night is Citadel 5453 (187 Main North Road, Clare; Tel.: 08 8842 1453), a new pizza-and-pasta joint housed in an old Salvation Army building. Pizzas are $7.50-10.50; main courses are $11-14. George's at Neagle Rock Vineyards (Main North Road, Clare; Tel.: 08 8843 4020) serves their own wine with "non-fussed seasonal menus" that rely on Clare's own produce. |
While in Clare Valley, if you stay anywhere other than Thorn Park Country House (College Road, Sevenhill; Tel.: 08 8843 4304), folks will just look at you strangely. Renowned even outside the valley for its welcoming hosts, David Hay and Michael Speers, this six-suite hideaway also boasts the area's best food. Problem is, you can't eat there if you're not a guest. If Thorn Park is booked, Clare Country Club (White Hut Road, Clare; Tel.: 08 8842 1060), with an adjacent golf club, is a quaint, pleasant alternative.
Among Barossa's top nosh spots are Salters Restaurant (Nuriootpa Road, Angaston; Tel.: 08 8564 3344) and 1918 Bistro & Grill (94 Murray Street, Tanunda; Tel.: 08 8563 0405); at the latter, try the palm sugar and soy glazed half ducking ($18.75). By and large, though, the local favorite is Vintners Bar & Grill (Nurioopta Road, Angaston; Tel.: 08 8564 2488). All three eateries have wine lists heavy on local labels, and are of the "local and in season cuisine" ilk; main courses cost $13-22.
Maggie Beer's Farmshop (Tel.: 08 8562 4477; off Samuel Road in Nuriootpa) sells the full range of the cookbook author's packaged products, but also puts on a really nice lunch. Entrees such as Barossa chook, mushroom and herb pie feature locally grown ingredients. ($18). Another great midday bet is The Company Kitchen at The South Australian Company Store, where you can enjoy fresh salads, pastas and the like at a patio table, and then pop inside for local souvenirs and gifts. (The South Australian Company Store & Company Kitchen, 27 Valley Road, Angaston. Tel.: 08 8564 3788.)
Accommodations are various, from the business traveler-friendly Novotel (Golf Links Road, Rowland Flat; Tel.: 08 8524 0000), which is on its own 18-hole golf course, to the sumptuous The Hermitage of Marananga (Seppeltsfield Road, Marananga. Tel.: 08 8562 2722), an 11-suite haven built in the style of a colonial Australian homestead. There are plenty of area bed-and-breakfasts, too; you'd be wise to visit the Barossa Wine Interpretation Centre (Murray Street, Tanunda; Tel.: 8563 0600), which has brochures on available lodgings, and free area maps.
A few of the bigger area wineries—Grant Burge, Penfolds, Peter Lehmann and Wolf Blass among them—make Chardonnay, but others say that Barossa's climate just isn't the best place to grow it. Henschke, and Wolf Blass Winemaker Caroline Dunn, get their Chardonnay from the cool-climate Adelaide Hills, where Petaluma's famed Tiers Vineyard is located, and where the state's best Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grows. Kaesler winemaker Reid Bosward has a couple hundred cases of Chardonnay made in Victoria that he pours only at cellar door, to satisfy tourists who expect wineries to pour it.
"In Australia," he laughs, "we have to cover all the bases."
However eager winemakers may be to experiment with other varieties, the expansion that is overtaking the Valleys still has its heels firmly grounded in Shiraz. Leasingham has a four-year strategy in motion to double their production by 2005, says winemaker Kerri Thompson; much of the increase will show as a spike in Bin 61 Shiraz production. Two Hands Wines' Michael Twelftree and Richard Mintz are releasing two superpremium, estate-bottled Shirazes under the Branson Coach House brand. Napa Valley winemaker Jayson Woodbridge, who debuted his $150 Hundred Acre Cabernet Sauvignon two years ago, has just purchased two Barossa Valley vineyards from which he hopes to make two single-vineyard, ultrapremium Shirazes.
Barossa Valley is "the number-one untouched frontier for making world-class grand cru," says Woodbridge, whose high-density vineyard plantings and perfectionism has some locals raising their eyebrows. If the Shiraz he makes isn't as good as he thinks it should be, Woodbridge says, it will never be sold.
"Frankly, you scare us."
Breaking into the U.S. market isn't Barossa's problem, but keeping the U.S. customer interested is. Some producers, particularly boutique wineries, are having great success. Two Hands Wines, whose first vintage was 2000, sells all the wine that they make. Driving through the valley, you find that Australian cult wineries like Greenock Creek have "closed" signs on their cellar doors: There's no cause to stay open, really, if they have no wine left to sell.
"Some [distributors] ask us if they can buy another pallet [of wine]," Twelftree says. "But we weren't kidding when we said we only made 1,000 cases [of one of our wines]. We can't just run out back and make more."
Larger producers, like Jacob's Creek, take the opposite tack, and have the winery capacity and grower relationships to make wine on demand, so that their wines don't have to sit in warehouses waiting to be sent out. Talking to area winemakers, it's hard to imagine bottles gathering dust in warehouses. Taylors, the biggest winery in Clare Valley (known in the U.S. as Wakefield, due to Taylor-Fladgate's copyright on the name), has been exporting to the U.S. since February 2003, but Eggins says that he still fears the implications of a full-on U.S. debut.
"Frankly, you scare us," Eggins explains. "I want to buy more fruit before breaking into the U.S. market" at full speed, he says, afraid that, big as it is, the winery won't be able to meet America's demand for its wine.
Against the backdrop of Australia's overplanting (The Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia predicts that the state will be producing surplus grapes, at least through 2007) and what Limb calls "the hardest he's ever seen the industry," not being able to meet demand is a lucky problem to have. Some wineries are clever enough to figure out what their biggest premium export market wants, and put themselves in the unique position of meeting that demand. Bruno Tait, proprietor of Tait Wines, says that his U.S. importers called him one day and asked if he could make a Shiraz-based red that would sell for about $15. The result was Tait's The Ball Buster, a Shiraz-Cabernet-Merlot blend. Jacob's Creek chief winemaker Phil Laffer says that their Cabernet-Merlot was developed because the U.S. market demanded it. The winery is now debuting a nonvintage sparkling wine in select U.S. markets. Whether it's a good thing or not, America seems to get what it asks for. We should ask ourselves, though, whether we should be requesting certain blends because they are more familiar to us, or just sit back and relish wines that Australian winemakers know they can do best.
In "Our Fixation with America," a column that he wrote last October for Melbourne's daily, The Age, Shaun Carney says that Australians "are the world's greatest students of America. …Most Australians probably feel they know America and Americans pretty well, while most Americans, if they ever actually think about Australia, hardly know us at all." Upon my return from the Barossa, I'm sad to say that one of the first questions that my American friends asked me was whether the water in Australian toilets really did swirl in the opposite direction. I told them that I didn't notice, because I was too ashamed at myself for not knowing that the reason there are two flush buttons on Australian toilets (one is only a "half flush") is to conserve water. Wine brought this American to Barossa and will likely bring me back. But it's only one of a thousand reasons that I've become a student of Australia.
|A Gourmet's Guide to Adelaide|