In Barossa, Robert O'Callaghan has attained icon status. And he's done it by steadfastly holding on to a way of life and a way or making wine that, frankly, is out of step with today's world.
"I'm a link to a world we don't know," he says, leaning over a long wooden table that dominates his office at Rockford. "I was born in the vineyard, grew up here, had the good luck to work for Seppelt and learned from the old winemakers there all the things they don't teach you in enology school. Winemakers then were not like rock stars. They were one up from cabinet makers. It was a trade. I feel like I'm keeping alive the wine trade."
O'Callaghan's beard is more closely cropped than when we first met in the 1990s. His hair is flecked with gray and he looks trim for a man who says he feels today like those guys at Seppelt, "because now I'm transferring it to the next generation, all the younger guys that work here."
Actually, Rockford doesn't do things that much differently from a lot of new-generation wineries that are looking to the past to make wines with a bit more elegance. For example, he uses a basket press, which is slower and more laborious than bladder presses or continuous presses, but doesn't extract tannins from the seeds, and results in smoother wine. Here in the Barossa, Torbreck uses basket presses, and in McLaren Vale, so does d'Arenberg.
"As everybody modernized their wineries, I got all of their old equipment at fire sale prices. I have never bought a new piece of winemaking gear," O'Callaghan says. Consulting winemaker Chris Ringland knows a few things about modern equipment, but he goes along with O'Callaghan's beliefs for Rockford.
Rockford's top Shiraz is even called "Basket Press," and O'Callaghan has the whole past decade of them lined up for me. It is late in the day, so I suggest we just open a few for comparison.
"OK, which ones?" O'Callaghan asks. This is a refreshing change from most vintners, who want to select their favorites, or most instructive. O'Callaghan is confident enough to open any of them.
I pick the 1996 (because it was a great vintage in the Barossa), 1997 (because it was relatively light) and 2000 (because it was an iffy year). The 1996 is deliciously aromatic, with meaty, roasted root vegetable overtones to the beautiful core of plum and cherry fruit that persists on the soft finish. I would rate it 92 points (non-blind, as are all of the following scores). The 1997 is narrower in scope, but it has pretty, dark fruit flavors and a floral note that keeps it interesting (88 points). The 2000 is leathery and gamy, not as sweet and silky as the others (84 points).
"Let's try another," he suggests. I point to the 1994, which is a ripe, underrated vintage. It's bigger, still quite tight in texture, with a leathery edge to the ripe flavors (88 points).
The wines are not of a style that I prefer to drink, but they are of a style and representative of winemaking that has fallen out of favor, that doesn't try to extract too much from the wine so much as present it as a pleasing canvas for the food it goes with.
Clearly, some of the bottles had been affected adversely by their corks. Thought not wretched, they seemed less silky, less warm. I ask O'Callaghan how his traditional approach would square with screw caps.
A pained expression crosses his face. "I do think the wines age differently under screw cap than they do under cork," he says. "I am giving the cork suppliers more time than they deserve, but I'm willing to wait until they get it right."
There's a man who sticks to his beliefs, no matter what. In a world of me-too winemaking, it's refreshing.
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