Today, subdivisions surround Elderton's 70-acre vineyard on the outskirts of Nuriootpa. The Ashmead family, which owns the land in the heart of Barossa Valley and the brand, steadfastly refuses to give in and sell, despite plenty of attractive offers. They simply proceed as if the houses were not even there.
It's not the oldest vineyard in Barossa, not by a long shot, but when they talk about "the older blocks," they mean the ones planted before 1949. The vineyard produces one of Australia's icon wines, the plush, resplendent Command Shiraz. And now, the vineyard is in the process of going biodynamic.
The vineyard was planted by Samuel Elderton Tolley in 1900 and purchased by the Ashmead family in 1970. Historically, the grapes were sold to the big wineries. The Ashmeads started making estate wines in 1982 in contract facilities, and only built a winery on the site in 2003.
On my recent visit, I tasted eight vintages of Command back to 1988 (the first one made), plus a few Ashmead Cabernet Sauvignons back to 1998, and couple of vintages of a new Cabernet-Shiraz-Merlot blend called Ode to Lorraine.
But first, Cameron and Alister Ashmead, the second-generation brothers who run the company now, poured me a taste of the 1982 Hermitage, the first Shiraz the winery made. It was a nice old wine, a bit lean and crisp, not at all like the winery's current offerings, which rely on ripeness and richness for their character.
"It was only in the late 1980s that we realized that we were all individuals and that we didn't have to be like everyone else in the world," Alister says.
That may seem like a strange thing for a Barossa vintner to say, but you have to remember that Barossa Shiraz in those days tried to emulate European reds. Winemakers picked the grapes on the unripe side in hopes of making the wines more ageable, and they dumped in lots of acid to make the wines crisp. Today, Barossa is famous worldwide not for those kinds of wines but for Shiraz that sings with ripe fruit and achieves seductively rich texture.
That pretty well describes Command, which has twice found its way onto our Wine Spectator Top 100 list. By a quirk of timing, the two vintages that made it onto that year-end honor roll were not even the best they made.
Most recently, it was the 2000 vintage. Not a memorable year for Barossa, but it still produced some terrific wines. The Command today is tremendously aromatic and expressive, a wine of uncommon depth, developing an interesting hint of gaminess as the finish lingers. It's not as silky-smooth on the finish as some other vintages, but it's so aromatically intriguing I rated it 95 points, non-blind. (My original rating was 97.)
Before that, it was the 1995, a very good vintage that was sort of caught in the wash between two superior years, 1996 and 1994. Today, the supple, harmonious '95 teems with cherry and ripe currant fruit, which remains beautifully focused through the long, silky finish. (95 points today, same as my earlier rating.)
Originally, I liked that one better than the 1996, which I rated 93 points at the time. But today, the '96 has matured into a beautifully knit wine, with effusive plum and currant fruit at the core, stylishly refined tannins and a long, almost sweet (but not sugary) finish. It hit 97 points on my scorecard this time. And that figures, as 1996 has emerged as one of the great vintages for South Australian Shiraz, less opulent than 1998 or 1990, but more balanced and refined.
Of the other older wines, the 1992 still has good ripe cherry flavors, but the alcohol and acidity are starting to poke out. Still, the cherry and menthol linger enticingly on the smooth finish. It's still worth 90 points, although it started out at 94. The 1988, Command's first vintage, feels rather lean, with a minty note most prominent. It's an old wine but holding well, 88 points today. (It was not exported to the U.S. for review before.)
Command is bottled after two years but released at five years of age. I recently reviewed the 2002 at 93 points, the cool vintage making the wine somewhat less opulent than usual. In tasting the recently bottled 2003 and 2004 vintages at the winery, I can see that Cameron and Alister are backing away from their previous style of maximum opulence to go for something more succulent. The wines are not quite as rich, but they have length and intensity, if seemingly less weight.
The 2005, just bottled, tastes to me like the best Command yet. It has sensational depth, warmth and spice over layers of ripe plum and currant fruit, great breadth without weight, and tremendous freshness and purity of fruit. I can't wait to see what this one becomes in the bottle. For now, I consider it a potential classic.
The short tasting of the Ashmead bottling suggests that the winery is getting a handle on Cabernet Sauvignon. The 1998 and 2002 show ripe fruit and nice balance but lack that extra pizzazz that makes Cabernet outstanding. The 2004 has the ripeness and the supple texture to let it all sail out there untethered. And 2005 seems to have even better texture and length. Very promising, both unreleased vintages are potentially outstanding.
Ode to Lorraine's debut, the 2002, is not as warm and generous as these wines, and it's a tad prickly from acidity. Still it has length and focus, worth about 87 points. The 2005 is much more lithe and supple, with a minty edge to the dark prune and chocolate flavors. This one should easily be outstanding.