In honour of Australia Day, here’s an article first published by Langton’s in 2011 in which I reported on a memorable tasting of Barossa wines.
I loathe the London International Wine Fair, held each May. Like the MCG, it is too large and too crowded, with too many naff wines. But having enjoyed 14 Coonawarras back to 1982 at the 2010 Fair, this year Wine Australia was again triumphant with an outstanding tasting of “Barossa Vintages” back to 1947.
Hosted by James March of Barossa Grape & Wine Association Incorporated with Ben Glaetzer of Glaetzer Wines, Matt Gant of First Drop and Toby Barlow from St Hallett, the tasting gave a fascinating overview of Barossan winemaking styles and standards over the last seven decades.
According to March, the purpose of the tasting was “to give a sense of where we’re from but also where we’re heading to – and we wanted to share some great wines with some great friends.” The older wines are extremely rare. “For anything from the 1960s you need to knock on Colin Gramp’s door and ask nicely”, said March.
The first wine of the tasting was 2004 Bethany Semillon, so luminously green-gold that it would probably glow in the dark. Although still very fresh and bracing on the nose, the palate – lightly gilded by oak – was more developed and had the toasty flavours of aged Semillon. This very distinctive and impeccably made Australian white wine will prosper for at least another five years.
I was born in 1974 and finding a decent drink with that vintage on the label continues to be a challenge. The ’74 Yalumba FDR1A Barossa Valley was made in “the second wettest year on record” according to the brilliant BarossaVintages.com website. Like Ricky Ponting, the Yalumba was clearly past its best. The very oxidised and animal nose improved with aeration and the palate hung onto some feisty acidity. But it’s getting thinner rather than smoother.
The 1978 Orlando Shiraz Barossa Valley was in much better condition and was quite a pleasant wine, with some brittle tannins lurking on the finish. Gant thought that the wine had a low pH and suggested that augmented acidity had enabled the wine to endure.
The 1980s was a period of wines being “built rather than made” reckoned Glaetzer. But the two examples here from that decade were not in that style. Peter Lehmann’s 1981 Shiraz Barossa Valley was distinctly minty but drying out. It needs to be drunk now before it completely shrivels up.
Mint was also recognised in the 1984 Saltram Mamre Brook Cabernet Shiraz Barossa. Like the Lehmann, the fruit was barren, though a bit of haggard tannin was hanging on for life. Glaetzer liked it, calling it a “standout… It’s pure fruit, no oak”.
Five wines from the 1990s were presented. Henschke’s 1991 Mount Edelstone Shiraz was very representative of its Eden Valley origins, according to Gant. Again, the Barossa mint was there but leathery aromas gradually engulfed it. I didn’t mind the brett because the texture was so good – smudged tannins and twitchy acidity. Drink now to 2015 if you are broadminded about its flavours.
St Hallett Old Block Shiraz 1992 was a good wine – earthy flavours, puckish acidity, and a finish that glowed like a fireplace. From the same vintage, Elderton Estate Shiraz Barossa Valley was made in the epic style, all rich fruit and new oak. Gant called it “a classic of its time.”
The pulsating acidity of the 1996 Rockford Basket Press Shiraz Barossa Valley was very distinctive. Its dark, earthy flavours were not dissimilar to those of the Elderton, though the tannins presented a soft landing rather than a bump.
Having had so many terrific wines over the years from Charles Melton (and enjoyed his company at his cellar door), the Nine Popes Barossa Valley 1999 was disappointing, with odd plasticine smells. It must have been a poor bottle.
From the noughties, Ben Glaetzer’s 2005 Amon-Ra Shiraz Barossa Valley had so much rich, sweet fruit that it almost coagulated. However, it was not at all overcooked and finished as boldly and emphatically as an exclamation mark. Matt Gant’s single vineyard 2008 First Drop Fat of the Land Greenock Shiraz Barossa Valley had engagingly bright fruit and acidity.
The tasting concluded with two masterpieces. The flame-coloured and green-hued 1959 Saltram Wine Estate Vintage Rare Tawny didn’t have a hair out of place. As smooth as a river stone, its intensity went through all the way to its sunshine finish – warm and joyous. Nobody knows – or cares – what grapes it was made from.
From the era when the Barossa made fortified rather than table wines, the 1947 Jacob’s Creek Barossa Tawny was made in the first year of the Barossa Vintage Festival. Green-hued like the Saltram, it had a finish as triumphant as England’s win at Sydney in January.
Summing up the wines and how they had been made, Gant commented, “Everything old is new again… We’ve never made more intelligent or sensitive wines as now.” In the Barossa, then, it’s back to the future.