It is early morning and the sun shines on the vineyards of South Australia, as it does on 300 days out of the 365. They tell you dismissively that the sort of weather that produced all the great Bordeaux vintages of the noughties can be found in the Barossa Valley every year.
Another hundred years and the Penfolds will be among the most expensive in the world, instead of one third of the price for European fine wines.
We are in the Barossa Valley. This is the throne-room of the Australian wine, and Shiraz is the reigning dynasty.
Where the wines are not growing, there are orchards and cherry trees. The little towns, lie the original inhabitants, look like they wandered over from Saxony. Unobtrusive Lutheran churches dot the crossroads. Village people smile and take the time to share a story or a joke.
“Barossa Shiraz is a bit of a brute. It needs a little time in the dungeon to settled down,” says John Baldwin of Barossa Daimler Tours, who offers the wine taster a chance to sit in the back of a Royal Daimler (he is not joking, it was acquired for the visit of an obscure English princess in the 1960s) he has lovingly restored from its degenerated role as a chicken coop.
Eight wine tastings later, you can see why it is such a wise move to allow John handle the transport arrangements.
So to playtime. At Penfold’s winery (the crown jewels of the throne room) they allow you to create your own blend. They will bring you to the laboratory, place the containers of Grenache, Mourvedre and Shiraz (the Barossa favourite) before you and ask you to calculate how much of each should be in your own personal bottle.
Then when you have tasted, repoured, retasted, repoured, retasted (hic) etc for as long as it takes, and this is a complicated business, they will bottle it and print your own label to show your friends.
The business is rendered less complicated by the fact that you are dealing with just three grape varieties and the process takes on a life of its own.
This is the foundation of South Australia’s best wines, three varieties placed in to a blend called gsms, which need short to medium term cellaring and offer approachable fine wines. Penfolds best bins fetch handsome prices, a bottle of Grange costs AUD550 (Eu325). Bin 707 is the current champion. Bin 407 has a lemony flavour and is matured in old 707 barrels. Bin 28 a Kalimna Shiraz is very fruity. Penfolds Kenunga Hill 76 Shiraz Cabernet is a great takeaway. The oldest genetic material is in Bin 138, grown on vines between 35 and 100 years old.
Back in Angaston they are quick to remind you that there is more to this region than wine. In 1924 scotch oven wood fired oven with a separate fire box the Fechnea family are making Cornish pasties (so called because the ends can be discarded, essential in the mining industry).
There are no preservatives in this flour. The father of the family is now 94 and never quite saw the need for any.
European settlement started here in 1836, fifty years after Australia’s eastern seaboard.
The unlikely champion of the Barossa wine industry was a bumbling Prussian, Frederick William III, the zealously Calvinist Kaiser who sparked a Lutheran panic when he ordered the Lutheran and Calvinist churches in his territory “to unite” in 1817, shorthand for converting them to Calvinism.
Seeing an opportunity, the South Australian Company’s English chairman George Fyfe Angas recruited many of the Old Lutherans to come and farm the 14.8m acres he had been granted in South Australia and from which he was busy clearing the indigenous inhabitants.
Three shiploads of immigrants arrived between November 1838 and January 1839. Angas housed fed and paid the families from Brandenburg, Posen and Silesia which arrived and brought some of their vine stock with them.
The table grapes they grew were so successful that they planted wine grapes, to some local trepitude (the widow of one vineyard owner was so vehemently teetotal she had all the vines torn up on his death).
With the alacrity described by Brendan Behan, the first item on the agenda of the newly arrived Lutherans was a split and a group of dissidents settled in on the floor of the Barossa valley to Tanunda, German Pass and Jacob’s Creek, areas that are well known today because of the bottle labels.
The Gramp family moved to Jacob’s Creek in 1847 bringing a Rhine Reisling with them – they ferment it dry rather than semi sweet as in Europe.
It took more than a century for anyone back in the old continent to take them seriously. Then came a London bus “sunshine in a bottle” campaign in the 1980s and things have not been the same since.
Today there are 100 producers in a small parcel of land that is 40km north to south, 72 operate cellar doors and 30 that deal directly to the trade on the Eden (1800 feet elevation) and Barossa (400 feet) Valleys. The Eden gets the softer ripening conditions that gives its wines the distinctive flavour.
Nobody tends to the grapes more carefully than Charles Cimicky who grows premium wines with his wife Jenny and their dog Dudley in a little piece of Bucolic heaven.
His father, a Czech immigrant Karl Cimicky, founded the Karlsburg Winery in 1973. Charles is one of the most meticulous in the business. He and his colleagues like to call their properties wine gardens not vineyards.
The lengths to which they go in the quest of perfection are astonishing. Vineyard manager Ian Plowman bred his own worm to put between the vines.
He grows broad beans to use as a green fertiliser to enrich the soil over the winter months, maintaining the buds bring plenty of food in soil, giving them vigour,
Vines need to struggle to make the fruit more intense. The old Lutheran growers let a few weeds grow prior to harvest, so it would take the last bit of moisture and concentrate the fruit in the berry.
It is as exact as that.
Charles’s wine garden is among the seven wine estates which do all their own growing, harvesting, fermenting, barrel maturation, racking, bottling, labelling and packaging and also warehouse and distribution.
He calls one of his best known wines Trumps, from the legend that a small group of zealous Barossa pioneers would retreat to an old vineyard cottage for the twin enticements of cards and claret as the fruit slowly ripened on the vine.
Is it true? After a few glasses does it matter?
The Valley’s small bed and breakfast properties have expanded to a full scale hospitality industry. Drinking Barossa wine is no longer enough.
More of us are going to see the magic for ourselves, stopping by at luxury products such as Stonewell Cottages or boutique stops such as Jacob’s Creek Retreat, a historic stone settlement with Barossan Antiques, king size beds, log fires and a luxury two person Romanesque spa ensuite situated on the banks of the surprisingly unimpressive creek.
Amid the tranquillity of the French style raked courtyards a black cat comes to share his concerns as the crickets chirp their ode to the red stuff.
Although Australian wine has barely been known on this side of the planet for thirty years, it is produced from some of the oldest root stock still in production, amongst them the phyloxera free vines of the Barossa valley.
“Here you can have Shiraz from an 85 year old wine stock,” says John, “all twisted and gnarly like Australian humour.”
They go back even further. Viognier’s tercentennial wine is from wine that is 135 years old (spanning three centuries geddit?).
The Aussie wines have their own rules, their own temperament, their own rhythms. South Australia gets winter rains, unlike Queensland, West Australia and New South Wales.
Every year more spin off industries are spinning off the mighty bottle of Shiraz, where organic food additives, tannins and anti-oxidants are extracted and sold as health products.
A gourmet culture has followed the new sense of self-esteem that has grown around Australia’s wine. At places like Salter’s and Vintner’s you can dine under the vines in the courtyard in Angaston, the great local ingredients propping up a new fusion culture as distinctive as the wines.
Even the Reisling is very different. “People see the shape of the bottle and fret” says John. “They needn’t worry.”
No worries indeed. This is Australia, after all, ever more mellow for every tasting.
Penfolds Winery offer the Make Your Own Blend tour, a walking tour of the winery and wine cellars, a structured tasting through a range of Penfolds wines and an invitation to blend to suit your own personal taste
Barossa Valley Way, Nuriootpa SA, Tel: +61 8 8568 9290 www.penfolds.com.au
Charles Cimicky Wines, Gomersal Road, Lyndoch, SA 5351 Tel +61 8 8524 4025
Yalumba, Eden Valley Rd, Angaston SA 5353 Tel: +61 8 8561 3200 www.yalumba.com
Vintner’s Bar & Grill, Nuriootpa Road, Angaston SA 5353, Tel: + 61 8 8564 2488
Salter’s offers international cuisine incorporating fresh seasonal produce and accompanied by award winning wines Nuriootpa Road, Angaston SA 5353, Tel: +61 8 8561 0200
The tour of Barossa Valley was conducted by Barossa Daimler Tours, Tel: +61 8 8524 9047
www.barossadaimlertours.com.au. AUD250 per day They offer three days of wine exploration covering McLaren Vale, Clare Valley and the Barossa Valley, including two nights of fully hosted five star accommodation at Peppers The Louise AUD$1950.00.
Eoghan Corry flew to Adelaide via Heathrow and Singapore with Qantas. The Australian flag carrier flies to the state capitals from Singapore.
He stayed at Jacobs Creek Retreat, Tanunda, Tel: +61 8 8563 1123 www.jacobscreekretreat.com.au
For further information on Barossa and other SA wine regions see www.southaustralia.com
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