A Changing of the guard
A new breed of winemaker is changing the face of the globally renowned region, challenging the conventional approach to winemaking.
The strength of South Australia’s Barossa Valley as a Shiraz producing district is globally recognized, but a new breed of winemaker is emerging in the region and subtly shifting emphasis away from Shiraz and traditional winemaking methods.
The Barossa Valley is an old wine region by Australian standards; with vines at Turkey Flat dating back to the 1840’s. Originally settled by German Immigrants freeing persecution in the Prussian Province of Silesia, the Valley still retains ties to its Lutheran Heritage, with numerous churches, German bakeries and small goods outlets.
The early winemakers focused their efforts on Riesling and fortified red wines, but by the late twentieth century, Shiraz had made such a name for itself that it was synonymous with the Barossa Valley brand.
Some of the most expensive and collectable red wines Australia produces hail from the Barossa – think Penfolds Grange, Henschke Hill of Grace, Torbreck, The Laird and Chris Ringland Three Rivers Shiraz – all pushing well beyond $500 a bottle, towards a $1,000 price point! And while these wines are fruit forward, dense, generally ripe and undeniably delicious, I sense a sagacious shift by some shrewd winemakers towards other Mediterranean styles (like Tempranillo and Montepulciano) as well as other commercially undervalued varietals which are seemingly headed for somewhat of a renaissance.
I was intrigued recently by the experience of a group of my friends (well at least they were friends until they left without me!) who spent a few days tasting their way around the Barossa Valley. These self-proclaimed wine bogans sampled the wares of the wineries around Seppeltsfield, Greenock, Nuriootpa and Lyndoch and raved not so much about their experience with the region’s Shiraz but rather, their Merlot and Grenache!
My disappointment at being left at home was tempered somewhat when a few of the group had the good graces to return with samples of their favourite finds -which ironically were not Syrah or Shiraz styles, but Merlot. Yes, Merlot!
Kies Family Wines
Surprisingly, their “number one” find was a cheap and cheery Merlot from a small family winery, Kies at Lyndoch. Whilst the Kies cellar door may only have opened in 1985, the family have been growing grapevines in the Barossa for seven generations. The Kies’ wines range includes Semillon Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, White Frontignac and various iterations of the Merlot grape.
Kies 2016 Deer Stalker Merlot
For casual summer lunches, the 2012 Spring Rose Merlot ($20) is a light but luscious Rosé that will delight with its strawberry ice-cream mouthfeel. Winemaker, Joe Irvine has also used the Merlot grape to craft a Sparkling Merlot – the Sparkling Monkey Nut Tree Merlot ($30) as well as two other straight Merlots. The top end Merlot is made for those who prefer a more austere style – the 2012 Monkey Nut Tree Merlot ($30) but it seems that “the find” for my “phenolic-free” friends, was the least expensive Merlot on offer – the 2016 Deer Stalker Merlot. It is a soft young style with a Ribena like colour in the glass; a vibrance that embraces the ripe strawberry and raspberry characters across the palate and finishes sweetly but with lingering fruit. There is only the slightest hint of tannic influence at the back end. It may not be a style that impresses the wine experts, but it is hard to argue with the theory of producing such a commercially palatable wine at a price point which is the “sweet spot” for a broad range of wine consumers.
The conventional approach to winemaking is being challenged in the Barossa by a number of winemakers. And while there will always be a place for good quality Barossa Shiraz, I am sensing that in 10 years’ time, its dominance in the region may not be something which can still be taken for granted.