The growers and winemakers of Barossa are on a perpetual mission of innovation – rediscovering old varieties and making them into new fine wine styles or importing Italian and Spanish varieties that meet the challenge of future climate change. This commitment to self-improvement is only what you expect from a region that is 175 years old…and counting.
“In old, established winegrowing regions such as the Barossa Valley, red grapes such as Mataro, Carignan and Cinsault, long considered second-rate varieties, are now sought after both for their savoury flavours and their suitability to hot, dry growing conditions. This resonates strongly with the rediscovery and promotion of heritage fruits and vegetables and rare breed animals championed by the Slow Food and farmers’ market movements…”
Max Allen, The Future Makers
“Discovery for our generation is not so much about reinventing the wheel or trying to start again…it’s about about polishing it, maintaining it and making it work better.”
Complacency is not something Barossa has ever struggled with. It could have easily rested on its laurels at points during its 175-year timeline, contented with its own pre-eminence in Shiraz and Cabernet, Eden Valley Riesling and ancient fortifieds. But like old European regions that continue to grow and develop, Barossa has never been satisfied with the status quo – its growers and winemakers and food producers are always on a quest for self-improvement and reinvention.
Through the 1990s and early 2000s there was a renaissance of respect for old varieties: certainly Shiraz, but also Grenache and Mataro (Mourvédre) and Semillon. This rediscovery was a long overdue acknowledgement that these workhorses of the fortified era could indeed make fine varietal table wines of character, richness and length and they are now a well-established part of the Barossa wine list.
That rediscovery from within has continued as growers offer up small patches of old varieties that were once so worthless that they didn’t even waste the money to pull them out. The cows and sheep pruned them and the weeds grew around their feet until a new generation of winemakers asked the question.
Now Carignan, Touriga Nacional, Cinsault, Durif, Marsanne, Petit Verdot, Muscat-à-Petits Grains – exotic European varieties left over from an earlier fortified era – make fresh, textural white wines and medium to full bodied reds when deftly handled by innovative young winemakers.
But as well as this rediscovery of the past there has been the impetuous discovery of the new.
In many cases the drivers of this revolution have been winemakers, a curious bunch who work overseas vintages as a rite of passage and bring that international vigour back home to their wineries.
So Viognier from the south of France has emerged as a variety that revels in Barossa’s warm Mediterranean climate, producing a rich textural white wine that fits between Riesling and Chardonnay – or when blended in tiny quantities provides an aromatic lift and palate sweetness in Shiraz.
Growers, on the other hand, are driven by more earthly concerns. Climate change is real to these men and women of the soil and they know that for the eight or ninth generation to continue they will need vines that can grow with lower winter rainfall and higher summer temperatures.
So to them a Mediterranean theme makes sense for more practical reasons such as drought tolerance and fungal disease resistance, which is why varieties from Italy and Spain and Portugal – Sagrantino and Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Zinfandel and Savagnin and Roussane – are finding their way into Barossa vineyards.
The result of this experimentation is not a confused fruit salad, but rather a constantly evolving palette of flavours and textures and a mature realisation that time – and consumer taste – doesn’t stand still.