Changing Gears in Barossa


Although the news has been a long time coming, it's official: the days of high-octane, oak-driven Barossa Shiraz are now just a distant memory. Sure, these wines still exist, and many are excellent, so fans of the style do not have to go elsewhere to get their fix. But the pendulum has swung since the last Barossa report at Vinous in 2021, and it has swung hard. Barossa has returned to its roots, from Nascar to Formula One, without missing a beat. Typically muscular Barossan Shiraz wines with plenty of raw grunt are now joined by sleeker, age-worthy wines with subtle balance and sophistication, a theme that is repeated across a range of other Rhône grape varieties. But have no fear. These modern styles are also unmistakably Barossa. Their regional power is still in place but now more tightly controlled - Thor’s hammer in a velvet glove.

The sunset over Vine Vale in the cool 2023 vintage.

However, change has not come easily. It has, at least partly, been driven by factors outside Barossa’s control. Twenty years ago, South Australian Shiraz was riding high globally off the back of the cult wine scene that emerged around the turn of the new millennium. Prices skyrocketed for a select few as luscious Shiraz became the flavor of the month. Australia was not alone, as Bordeaux also flirted with hedonistic wines - the controversial 2003 Château Pavie perhaps the most famous example of ultra-ripe styles, while the Southern Rhône also had its fair share. As in Bordeaux and the Rhône, extravagant wines were not the dominant style, but these were the popular wines from Barossa and McLaren Vale that were getting the headlines, the listings and driving the narrative. Many winemakers hitched their wagons to the new shiny show in town.

It proved to be a false dawn. The taste for Herculean Shiraz slowly melted away across most export markets. That was no doubt a rude shock for many Barossan wineries. Their well-intentioned leap into decadent wines, encouraged by some importers and critics, saw waves of jammy, high pH, one-dimensional offerings hitting shelves worldwide. Consumer expectations were high off the back of some lofty accolades, but many of these wines simply under-delivered, especially with time in bottle, and fell over far too young.

While China managed to soak up vast volumes of Shiraz for some years, the slump in the US was, in particular, a very deep cut. What should have been a strong market, thanks to Barossan and Californian leading wines’ similar richness, was squandered. Importantly, this stylistic pivot was not across the board, and many winemakers had stuck to their knitting and traditional wine styles, sitting back as the storm raged around them, most notably some of the well-established brands who had weathered headwinds before: Yalumba, Henschke and Penfolds. Unfortunately, these wineries and the longevity of their wines were somewhat forgotten in the rush to redefine Barossa Shiraz.

Johnny Schuster, Amelia Nolan and Dr. Pedro Parra (also known as Chile’s Dr. Terroir) studying one of the dozens of soil pits excavated at Alkina.

Looking back, this moment in time - from 2005 to 2015 - was an earthquake that reset the local trajectory and was the making of the modern Barossa story. It forced a coming of age in some respects. Many vineyard managers re-evaluated their attitudes and processes before going back to basics. They also forged their own paths, wary of outsider influences pushing them in one direction or another that would see a repeat of recent history.

Luckily, viticulturists had plenty to guide them: long-experienced winemakers and grape growers who had worked the region for decades, as well as a back catalog of many traditionally styled Barossan wines that proudly stood the test of time. Older St. Hallett Old Blocks, various releases from Penfolds and Henschke, Rockford Basket Press, Saltram, Seppelt (now Seppeltsfield), Yalumba, Barossa Valley Estates, Grant Burge, Peter Lehmann and Charles Melton all showcased an ability to age well and grow in bottle. White wines from Pewsey Vale and Leo Buring were also standouts.

There was also a significant new breed of young, hungry winemakers, often more heavily influenced than previous generations by a greater experience of wines from around the world. This worldliness was built not only through significant international vintage expertise but also the fact that Australia’s national appetite for imported wines had vastly grown. Availability, and in turn, cross-pollination of ideas and techniques followed.

Sampling the world’s great wines became a regular occurrence rather than an occasional treat as it had been in the past. It led to a better grounding and greater sophistication in Barossa as local winemakers increasingly looked outside the country for inspiration, more toward global benchmarks, but without losing that classic Barossan generosity of fruit. Whole bunch ferments have certainly risen in recent years, for example, as more winemakers take their lead from traditional techniques in the Northern Rhône. Many well-known producers also changed tack in a search for greater refinement. Combined, this led to Barossa sharpening its focus and improving the quality of its offerings, particularly at the top end.

Slowly, Barossans re-embraced the natural environment around them - an exceptional, semi-continental climate and terroir best served without too much manipulation in the winery. Vineyard health also became a key concern with the rising use of organic and biodynamic treatments, plus a more thorough approach to sustainability. The prized vineyards and their unique characters were again treasured rather than smothered, as they sometimes had been in the past, thanks to the picking of overripe fruit and long aging in new oak.

Together, all these factors brought on a new dawn. Barossa kicked into a higher gear with a genuinely stunning breadth of offerings of world-class Shiraz, now joined by Grenache and Mourvèdre. But perhaps the most exciting part is the feeling that this is only the beginning, and there is plenty more to look forward to over the coming decades.

Heggies Eden Valley Valley, planted at 550m, is one of the coolest in South Australia.

Embracing Sub-Regionality

A key component of the recent lift in quality has been building a knowledge base and greater understanding of sub-regionality, partly through Barossa Grounds Project. Launched in 2008, this involved an extensive study of Barossa’s various terroirs. The project brought together an impressive range of wine professionals to help understand the sub-regional differences and their effect on wine styles. There was already a good grasping of sub-regionality and climate variations, but much was hearsay or local legend. The Barossa Grounds Project applied scientific rigor to that knowledge. It involved a broad assortment of winemaking studies and tastings combined with work by viticulturists and soil scientists over several years.

The Barossa Grounds Project split the region into a range of informal zones based on climate and soil where the wines share more similarities than differences. The traditional Barossan breakup between Barossa Valley and Eden Valley is at its heart. In 2018, there were 13,989 hectares under vine in Barossa, 11,645 of which were in Barossa Valley and only 2,335 in Eden Valley. The Grounds Project then divided Eden Valley into two areas, with Barossa Valley broken into three larger and two small components. The High Eden Valley, focusing on fine Riesling, is at the southern end of the Eden Valley with altitudes around 500 meters, compared to closer to 400 meters for the rest of the Eden Valley, which produces spicy and elegant Shiraz.

More interesting is the split of Barossa Valley into three key zones: Northern, Central and Southern Grounds. They each create pretty different expressions of Shiraz. The Southern Grounds is the lower, flatter land near Lyndoch and Williamstown with plenty of vineyards around 200 meters in elevation that rise on the eastern side into the Barossa Ranges, all on a bed of sandy clay loams. This is home to plush Shiraz, with fine tannins showing a mix of red and blue fruit that are relatively supple and generally earlier drinking in style.

As we move further north into the Central Grounds, black cracking clays join the sandy loam soils, the altitude of vineyards moving towards 250m. The increased influence of the Barossa Ranges provides afternoon cooling and evening breezes, particularly around Bethany and Light Pass, helping to create more complex, moderately structured, medium to full-bodied Shiraz, with conditions also very well suited for Grenache.

The Northern Grounds, stretching from Seppeltsfield and Moppa to Kalimna and Ebenezer, is the home of the most robust wines but with significant diversity. Flat land in the northern part of Barossa is around 280m, although vineyards on the Western Ridge climb to over 400m. Loams and clay-based soils with significant ironstone deposits combine with a heat trap in the daylight, crafting the richly flavored wines for which Barossa is famous. At night, cooling breezes come off the Barossa Ranges and nearby Flinders Ranges, making this section of Barossa Valley strongly continental, providing exceptional intensity of fruit and strong structural foundations for aging. The Northern Grounds the heart of many of the greatest Barossa Valley Shiraz.

For the moment, the Grounds concepts are not a formal classification with clearly defined boundaries. However, it would clearly be beneficial over time for the Barossa, with greater research, to set some kind of sub-regional classification in stone to help build that Barossa fine wine narrative.

Dean Hewitson’s Old Garden Mourvèdre vineyard was planted in 1853.

Old Vine Appreciation

Sub-regional influences are vitally important, but it is impossible to discuss Barossa without touching on one of its greatest assets: significant vineyard holdings with advanced vine age. However, “advanced” does not indicate over the hill, far from it. Thanks to strict quarantine regulations that stretch back over a century and locked phylloxera out of South Australia, Barossa currently has 54 vineyards alone planted before 1900, plus dozens more planted over a century ago.

These highly coveted vineyards, the backbone of many of Barossa’s greatest wines, are precious resources held tightly and jealously protected. Just taking a stroll through Henschke’s Hill of Grace vineyard requires visitors to dip their shoes in a bath to protect against unwanted visitors. Marco Cirillo, whose family owns arguably the oldest productive Grenache vineyard in the world (planted in 1848) still personally prunes all the oldest vines himself, not trusting anyone to handle this fragile piece of history and family legacy. These vines were planted only twelve years after the state of South Australia was founded. Importantly though, vine age alone doesn’t guarantee quality. It depends on their condition and sympathetic winemaking. But there is little doubt that a combined tasting of some of these old vine gems offers a fascinating experience and a unique step far back into Australian history.

Shiraz Still Rules

The myriad terroirs and grounds in Barossa are best enjoyed through a deep dive into the local Shiraz, which is by far the most planted grape variety, making up 69% of total plantings of around 8,000 hectares. Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache follow with 1,900 hectares and 700 hectares, respectively. While the reputation of local Grenache is rising fast, there is no doubt that for the foreseeable future, the region’s fortunes are based around Shiraz. There’s been a boost in refinement and diversity of styles seen in Shiraz across the region over the last five to ten years, which has been particularly gratifying.

A handful of factors drive this change, the most potent being the rise in fortunes for the more elevated vineyards in the Eden Valley. Comparatively, there is much less fruit to choose from - the Eden Valley’s 2,335 hectares under vine are dwarfed by 11,600 in Barossa Valley. While much of Barossa Valley is well stocked with vineyards and vines, there are much slimmer pickings in the Eden Valley, where vineyards are generally spread out and isolated. It has historically been a less dependable region for achieving full ripeness, particularly in cooler vintages. This, combined with fewer water resources, has left potentially good sites unplanted, which are instead often used for grazing and to raise prime lamb.

Eden Valley fruit can add a little touch of gold dust and something very special to regional wines. Ex-Grange winemaker John Duval is increasing his reliance on fruit from the Eden Valley in his top-of-the-range Eligo Shiraz. Early vintages predominantly relied on Barossa Valley fruit. The 2006 is 100% sourced from Krondorf, Marananga and Light Pass. Jump forward to the 2018 vintage, and the wine is now Eden Valley dominant (70%). Duval is not alone, and securing premium Eden Valley Shiraz, a highly limited resource, has become a competitive race. This trend will only expand over the medium and long term, particularly in warmer vintages, although recent years have been relatively mild and will slow this trend.

Marco Cirillo from Cirillo Estate hand pruning his 1848 planted Grenache vineyard.

More considerable knowledge and pride around sub-regional differences have also been driving the improvement in quality. While some growers previously preferred to hide the exact source of fruit and simply label wines under the powerful Barossa brand, there is a strong move toward wines that champion their origins, sometimes to a high degree of specificity. Single vineyard and regional wines are certainly nothing new. Still, they are becoming crucial in showcasing Barossan potential with an extensive range of wines now labeled as Seppeltsfield, Greenock, Marananga, Moppa and other regional labels.

This designation of fruit source extends from the sublime to the seemingly ridiculous. The relatively new Alkina operation has identified unique sites through extensive soil mapping. One zone includes only 200 vines from which a wine is made and bottled separately. Michael Twelftree from Two Hands brings a broader approach, bottling numerous regional wines in his Single Vineyard Series from Eden Valley, Seppeltsfield, Moppa and Greenock, with similar winemaking championing those individual regional characters. This fascinating sub-regional story is only now starting to be told and will surely become a significant and interesting part of the overall Barossa Shiraz narrative.

Alternate Realities

The long-standing success of Barossa Shiraz has, without a doubt, been the foundation for the region’s achievements. However, it has also encouraged a somewhat monocular viewpoint, both by local farmers and consumers, that Barossa is a one-trick pony. Shiraz is the leader, and daylight comes second. Yet, Barossa is a hugely diverse region. While semi-continental, it offers both cooler and warmer climate styles in part due to an altitude range of between 100 and 600 meters. Nowhere is this better displayed than as you drive from the flats of Tanunda and Nuriootpa, winding up to Angaston and Keyneton in the Eden Valley.

It is true that Shiraz is well suited to this climatic range, but there are also plenty of other varieties that can reach great heights. It will come as no surprise that all manner of Rhône varieties top the list - Viognier and Roussanne have performed well in the past, with Grenache Blanc a variety to watch. Riesling is a surprising addition. It was one of the original grapes planted in Barossa by German immigrants in the 1800s. By rights, it should not be successful, but the quality of the wines is a tribute not only to careful site selection but also to Riesling’s ability to craft fine, elegant wines in a wide range of environments. Another highly successful grape variety is Cabernet Sauvignon, led by occasional, exceptional releases from Penfolds Block 42, the world's oldest productive Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard, planted back in 1888. While Shiraz is a little more dependable than Cabernet Sauvignon in Barossa, it is fascinating to consider what may have transpired if Barossan forefathers had more rigorously pursued a future with Bordeaux blends.

Today, two varieties are staking a claim for global recognition - Barossa Grenache and Mourvèdre, often referred to locally as Mataro. Interestingly, Barossa’s forbears embraced Grenache, and particularly Mataro back in the 1940s (Mataro was the most planted in Barossa at the time). The uncomfortable truth is that both these varieties fell from grace and were until very recently considered as little more than weeds, taking up valuable vineyard land better utilized if planted with Shiraz. The fruit was often hidden away in cheaper blends for relatively early consumption, with very few winemakers putting in the hard work to get the best of these two varieties. It is only in the last five years that the value of what are often old vine vineyards has been fully realized, with both now sold by grape growers at a premium and often at prices higher than Shiraz. While Rhône blends of Grenache, Shiraz and Mataro were initially popular, the finest wines are now often single varietal examples made from old vine fruit.

It is not all plain sailing for Grenache and Mourvèdre. They’re picky, and site selection is critical, particularly for Grenache. According to local vine growers, Grenache seems best suited to the sandy soils of Vine Vale, creating expressive and complex wines. However, adding fruit from richer, darker soils to regional blends is common to deliver underlying palate density and weight combined with the more detailed elements from Vine Vale. Mataro appears a little more forgiving with old vines, creating muscular examples of the variety with good aging potential. Unfortunately, as the quality of the best wines can be very impressive, there is now relatively little Mataro remaining in Barossa, making up only 2% of the region.

Barossa Grenache and Mourvèdre are worth hunting down and illustrate the embarrassment of riches and incredible diversity of wines now coming from this marquee wine region. But when combined with the local Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, and in a world where the prices of many international benchmarks have risen to stratospheric levels, every way you look at it, the quality and value of Barossa wines are now compelling.

Two Hands' The Clos Block is unusual in the Barossa as it utilizes single stake trellising without wires, which is reminiscent of the Northern Rhône.

Recent Vintages

After the 2010s delivered a generally warmer set of vintages, the current decade is throwing up some unusual weather patterns thanks to La Niña. However, the 2020 decade started with another warm and dry vintage, the third in a row seeing increasing vineyard stress thanks to spring and summer rains down 40% from the average. The end of 2019 was also marked by baking hot temperatures, a 108-degree Fahrenheit day on November 20 hitting the flowering of some varieties. Luckily, the weather turned in early 2020 with close-to-average January temperatures and a cool February saving the vintage. Overall yields were down 29% from 2019, which was also a low-yielding vintage. In 2020, the growing season created bold and ripe wines with fleshy tannins that will drink well over the medium term.

Two thousand twenty-one was the first in a stretch of cooler vintages - a relief to grape farmers after three long, hot and dry years. Good rainfall in autumn and spring gave the vines much-improved soil moisture leading into summer, although the growing season rainfall was still down 42% on average. A warm November and good conditions during flowering were a promising start to the season before quite a mild summer - December having its lowest maximum temperature since 2014. A long second summer followed, allowing the fruit to be picked at optimal ripeness. After a stream of low-yielding vintages, growers were keen for good yields, which came to fruition. Barossa Valley was up 111% on 2020, while the Eden Valley was up 167% - although only 12% on long-term averages. For wineries that took advantage of generous yields, these cooler conditions created charming, appealing wines without the density and richness of recent years but with seamless quality. However, for producers that stuck to their guns and controlled those yields, 2021 has created wines with power and grace that should age very well.

I tasted all the wines in this report in Barossa Valley in late March, with follow-up tastings during April and May in Sydney.

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

You Might Also Enjoy

Henschke’s Hill of Grace - The Garden of Eden, Angus Hughson, April 2023

The Many Faces of McLaren Vale, Angus Hughson, February 2023

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 1994-2021, Angus Hughson, November 2022

The Power and the Passion: Wynns John Riddoch 1982-2019, Angus Hughson, September 2022