2010s | 2000s | 1990s | 1980s | 1970s | 1960s | 1950s | 1940s | 1840s – 1940s
A new decade emerges and there is a new sense of hope and optimism. Winemakers and growers looking forward to a turnaround in the oversupplied world wine industry, find positive signs in the breaking of the drought and a “normal” 2010 vintage. However, much of this positivity comes from Asia and its rapidly Westernising middle class, which is exploring European (and Australian) wine. As Australia’s most famous international wine region the Barossa expects to benefit the most from this interest and it is clear that this decade will be characterised by profile raising tastings, dinners and launches from Shanghai to Seoul, a new generation of winemakers start wearing out boot leather much as their forebears did in London and Los Angeles – but this time on The Bund and in the restaurants of Beijing.
Maturity – 2000s
As the new millennium dawns the Barossa is at the crest of an unsustainable wine collector-driven tsunami. Some of the rarest Barossa wines sourced from low-yielding old vineyards fetch as much as $1000/bottle at US auction houses, fuelled by reviews from influential critic Robert Parker, and some grape-growers are receiving a hitherto undreamed of $10,000/tonne for old vine fruit. Then September 11, 2001 re-focuses the world’s attention back to home and hearth, and American wine collectors start drinking rather than expanding their cellars. Not only do inflated wine and grape prices crash but the large publicly listed global corporates, which have been growing market share by gobbling up historic wine labels through the 1990s, now start a discounting frenzy. Coupled with a global oversupply of wine caused by non-strategic planting and changing consumption trends, and a monopolised retail sector, the national industry is plunged into unprofitability. As the Barossa concludes the first decade of the 21st century the wheel has turned full circle – fifth and sixth generation growers tighten their belts and large corporate wineries look to leave the industry as shareholders scream for dividends. Despite this downturn, the small to medium wineries who have built a brand in the last two decades, who have evolved their wine styles – perhaps using more subtle French oak or experimenting with varietal blends – and who have remained loyal to their growers continue to be successful. The public companies are going, the speculators are gone, all replaced by a new breed of 30 and 40 somethings – sons and daughters of the “revolutionaries” of the 1980s – who are committed to wines of integrity and provenance. And so the Barossa is reborn again.
The Revolution – 1990
From this “revolution” of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new style of full-bodied Barossa red wine emerges. Rather than being apologists to the wine media and show judges who have been encouraging cool climate elegance in the 1980s, there is now a confident return to traditional winemaking techniques such as basket presses and open fermenters, a focus on the provenance and rarity of old vines, a more European understanding of the influence of soil type, geology and micro-climate and a renewed appreciation of the pioneering achievements of Colin Gramp, Max Schubert, Cyril Henschke and Peter Lehmann. The UK Masters of Wine and drinks media have discovered the Barossa and suddenly chronic oversupply is replaced by a voracious export boom. The Barossa has evolved a style all of its own and consumers from Sydney and Melbourne to London and Los Angeles fall in love with the flavour of ripe Shiraz matured in American oak – but they also learn about the Barossa’s other heritage varieties such as Grenache, Mataro, Riesling and Semillon. At last growers are being paid profitable prices for their grapes, so they can afford to heed the advice of wineries to manage their vine canopies more carefully, reduce yields and control irrigation to produce premium fruit.
Out of the Dark – 1980
In a knee-jerk bureaucratic response to the grape oversupply, the South Australian Government introduces a Vine Pull Scheme, paying growers to remove unproductive vines and exit the industry. The unintended consequence is the destruction of a treasure trove of 100 year old pioneer-planted Shiraz and Grenache vines and the heightened risk that this historic agricultural region will be swallowed up by housing developers and sub-dividers. Doomsayers predict that the Barossa will be only fit for vegetable growing by the end of the century and the regional grape crush starts to decline. Fortunately a small band of experienced winemakers (and in some cases frustrated grape-growers turned winemakers) follow Peter Lehmann’s lead and start their own small wineries – St Hallett, Rockford, Bethany, Grant Burge, Charles Melton, Heritage, Willows Vineyard, Elderton are a few of the names which open cellar doors during this crisis. This is a massive structural change which has a long-term impact on grape and wine prices. Once a region historically dominated by a few large, slow moving national and international companies, there is now a vibrant mix of dozens of small entrepreneurs. They initiate demand for old vine fruit that has been undervalued for years, create exciting new labels and products and re-kindle tourist interest in the region’s food and lifestyle.
Boom and Bust – 1970
Aggressive promotion by the Australian Wine Bureau and its director Len Evans has at last stimulated consumer demand and it is red wine from the Barossa that the newly urbane trendsetters of the 1970s want. Many cash-strapped old family wineries in the Barossa are unable to gear up quickly enough for the boom and reluctantly sell out to foreign multi-national grocery companies such as Reckitt and Colman (Orlando), Dalgety (Krondorf and Saltram) and Tooths (Penfolds). These companies introduce greater efficiency into the industry with mechanised grape harvesting and drip irrigation to guarantee consistent production. There is also less loyalty to the growers of the Barossa and without today’s strict regional integrity laws, cheaper fruit is sourced from the irrigated Riverland but still labelled Barossa. The first ‘bag-in-a-box’ wine container is invented in 1971 by David Wynn (and is popularised by Orlando as the Coolabah Cask in 1974) and Wolf Blass starts his own winery winning the prestigious Jimmy Watson Trophy in 1974, 1975 and 1976. However, the red wine boom ends abruptly in 1975 as consumers swing again, this time to fruity white wines such as “Moselle” and Chardonnay. By 1978 the Barossa faces a serious red wine glut and when multi-national Dalgety tells Saltram winemaker Peter Lehmann not to buy any fruit, he rebels by creating a grower pool, processing the fruit and on-selling it as table wine on their behalf. He repeats this in 1979 then leaves Saltram to start his own Masterson label (later to become Peter Lehmann Wines).
Cool and Elegant – 1960
Even though table wine consumption in Australia still averages just two bottles per head (by 2010 it will be more than 25 bottles per man, woman and child) the Barossa’s winemakers are leading a new – high altitude-fine wine revolution. Yalumba purchases the old Pewsey Vale vineyard in the Barossa Ranges established by Joseph Gilbert in the 1840s and starts experimenting with cool climate Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon; Orlando plants its Steingarten Riesling vineyard on a windy, stony hillside; Thomas Hardy & Sons launches Siegersdorf Riesling and John Vickery makes magic with Riesling from Eden Valley at Leo Buring. Penfolds also releases Bin 60A in 1962, a blend of Barossa Shiraz and Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, which will still be considered Australia’s best wine 50 years later. Wine chemists such as Ray Beckwith and Tony Kluczko play an important role in wine quality control and new technologies such as centrifuge filters and carbon dioxide blanketing, to prevent oxidation in white wines, become common place. Near Angaston a new star is born – Peter Lehmann has finished his apprenticeship at Yalumba and takes over as chief winemaker at Saltram, creating a big, long-lived “hydraulic press” Shiraz. It will be the beginning of a journey that will re-define the Barossa in the 1970s and 1980s.
Optimism and Innovation – 1950s
Australia’s most famous winemaker, a pipe-smoking Penfolds blender Max Schubert packs his suitcase and travels to Bordeaux. He discovers the power and complexity of super-premium table wine, in particular the flavour of Cabernet Sauvignon matured in French oak casks, but when he returns the post-war shortage of these “luxuries”, leads him to make an experimental full-bodied Shiraz and mature it in American oak hogsheads. The 1951 Grange Hermitage is a unique new Australian style of red wine which will go on to chart the direction of this Antipodean wine nation for the next 60 years. Meanwhile up in the chilly Barossa Ranges, Cyril Henschke makes the first single vineyard Mt Edelstone Shiraz in 1952 followed by Hill of Grace Shiraz in 1958. Then, after extensive overseas research into secondary pressure fermentation and cold stabilisation, Colin Gramp launches Orlando Barossa Pearl in 1956. The resounding success of this “wine for the masses” encourages many copies: Sparkling Rhinegolde, Pineapple Pearl, Starwine, Cold Duck, all of which make wine more accessible to the general public, in particular young women. Demographers later believe this is the real cause of the 1950s Baby Boom!
Post-War Reconstruction – 1940
World War II has devastated the globe, with more than 60 million lives lost. In the Barossa there is suspicion and distrust between fourth generation English descendants and their fellow Barossans of German heritage. While the region’s first Vintage Festival heals these wounds and a new co-operative movement take over retail outlets and hotels, there is also a move to modernise the local wine industry. Colin Gramp, a descendant of Johann Gramp, returns from World War II via the Napa Valley in the USA where he has observed modern winemaking practices and in 1947 makes the Barossa’s first dry red table wines since the 1860s – a Special Reserve Claret, predominantly made of Shiraz with the addition of some Cabernet Sauvignon. Colin becomes the father of the new Barossa and one of its most prominent innovators.
The First Century 1840 to 1940
Barossa is founded by a wealthy, philanthropic English shipping merchant, George Fife Angas, soon after South Australia is settled in 1836. The free colony’s first Surveyor General, Colonel William Light names the fertile valley after the Barrosa Ridge in the Spanish region of Andalusia where he fought a famous battle in the Peninsula Wars of 1811. However there is an error in the registration process and a new Australian name is born, Barossa.
Back in London, Angas welcomes a proposition by a dissenting Lutheran leader, Pastor August Kavel, who wants to re-settle his flock of Silesian peasant farmers and tradesmen to the New World and they arrive in 1842 in Bethany. The Silesian settlers find fruit growing -– especially grapes -– ideally suited to the Mediterranean climate and by the 1890s dozens of wineries have been established including: Oscar Seppelt’s Seppeltsfield, Johann Gramp’s Orlando, Samuel Smith’s Yalumba, William Salter’s Saltram and Johann Henschke’s Henschke Wines.
Fortified wines such as Port, Sherry, Muscat and Tokay became popular overseas due to the Mother Country’s policy of Imperial Preference and by 1929, 25% of Australia’s total wine production comes from Barossa. However, the Great Depression and World War II slash demand for wine and wineries and growers struggle to sell their fruit.