On a visit to the Yalumba winery on Thursday, after tasting through the next-to-arrive vintages of the winery's familiar wines, chief winemaker Brian Walsh showed me three bottlings I hadn't seen before. "Single-site Shiraz," they were called, one labeled Lyndoch, another Eden Valley, the third Light Pass.
I thought, yes, this is cool. Someone in Barossa is focusing on the distinctions to be made from specific sites in various parts of the valley.
Next day at First Drop, as I tasted through the 2010 and 2011 bottlings (to try to get a handle on the two vintages in Australia, and specifically the Barossa), the winery's Fat of the Land series reminded me that Yalumba's approach was not unique. For several vintages First Drop's single-vineyard Shirazes labeled Ebenezer, Marananga and Greenock represent subappellations within Barossa Valley named after the nearest towns. We even tasted a mini-vertical of the Greenock.
My next visit was to Château Tanunda, where winemaker Stuart Bourne (formerly of Barossa Valley Estate) poured barrel samples of 2010 lots labeled with these and other towns in the valley, such as Stonewell, Lyndoch, Bethany and Tanunda. And then, he opened two bottled 2010 wines, one labeled Vine Vale, the other Bethanian.
These wines have several things in common. They are made in small quantities. They are very good wines. They show specific, distinct character differences. And they are part of a 10-year initiative called Barossa Grounds. Some prominent Barossa wineries have agreed to make these wines every vintage, keeping detailed track of temperatures, rainfall and other vintage factors, to see just how consistently these characteristics present themselves.
Old-timers in Barossa will tell you that Ebenezer, at the warmer north end of the valley, tends to make rich and dark Shiraz, while Lyndoch and Bethany, at the cooler south end, makes perceptibly lighter styles. Eden Valley, higher in altitude, shows more finesse. Traditionally, wineries that purchase grapes blend a Barossa Shiraz from several of these areas to make a consistent, more complex wine. They know what they're getting when they look for diverse sites in the region.
"We think we know what these sites do," said Bourne. "But it doesn't mean anything unless we can show that they do it consistently, in all kinds of vintages. That's why it's for 10 years."
It should come as no surprise that vineyards on different soils, with different aspects and micro- and meso-climates, should show such individual traits. The same idea applies in the Old World, where places such as Bordeaux and Burgundy have had centuries to sort out the distinctions and codify the subappellations. In the New World, Napa Valley has its subregions, such as Yountville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Oregon's Willamette Valley has its subappellations such as Dundee Hills and Yamhill-Carlton. They are not alone.
It's true, too, in every Australian region that makes wines of character. McLaren Vale has a similar project under way. And I have heard winemakers and growers talk about these same kinds of distinctions in Yarra Valley and Margaret River.
Yalumba started making its single-site Shiraz in 2005. Tasting the 2006s, the Lyndoch bottling showed pure, lovely blueberry and raspberry fruit, tannins wrapping around deftly; Eden Valley had a freshness, with walnut and smoke overtones and plenty of spicy aromatics, and LIght Pass (a warmer region between Eden and Barossa valleys) seemed deeper, more mature already, its savory flavors most prominent.
The First Drop 2010s also showed sharp distinctions. The Ebenezer 2010 teemed with dark berry and wet earth flavors, showing black and green olive on the big, elegant finish. The Marananga, from mid-valley, seemed tightly concentrated and less immediately expressive on a less sizable frame, while the Greenock 2010 offered more cherry and tobacco on an open texture.
2010 is looking like a classically-proportioned vintage in Barossa (more on the last couple of vintages in future blogs), and these three wines reflected that balance, neither too rich nor too light. The Greenock 2009, from a warmer, riper vintage, burst with dark berry, tamarind and zingy acidity on the finish. 2008, picked before the March heat waves and thus representing a somewhat cooler year, was open in texture, showing both red and black fruit. 2006, an even-ripening vintage that made many elegant wines, shifted to the red end of the fruit spectrum, finishing with finesse.
As for the two 2010s from Château Tanunda, the Vine Vale 2010 (from sandy soils) showed gritty tannins, but underneath, the wine was spicy and in an elegant style, and the Bethanian (from Bethany, in the southern end of the valley), was focused, brimming with red fruit and a cherry finish. (For the record, this winery was only one to use the dreaded "T" word, bottling these wines under the rubric "Terroirs of the Barossa.")
I don't think these winemakers got together and planned this 1-2-3 punch on me. They don't have to dissuade me from thinking that Australia is one monolothic wine-producing country where everything tastes alike. You don't even have to leave Barossa to bust that myth.
Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — November 15, 2011 4:38am ET
Nicholas Tuosto — Santa Cruz, CA, USA — January 16, 2012 6:39pm ET
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