Friday Focus; The Barossa Valley, Part 1

“The Barossa Valley is the heart of the Australian wine industry, the most famous wine region in Australia and the one in which most wine is produced” The Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th ed. Jancis Robinson.

A region too famous and too large to fit into one Friday Focus, I’ve decided to split the region geographically. Conveniently for me, the region is almost precisely split into northern and southern parts by the famous Seppeltsfield Road. Today I’ll be covering the southern half from Seppeltsfield Rd down towards Adelaide, with the northern half next week, and asking why is this region so popular across the globe? What makes the Barossa so special?

The southern part is roughly centred on the town of Tanunda, with many globally-recognised wineries located just on its outskirts- Langmeil, St Hallett, Turkey Flat, Peter Lehmann, Rockford, the list goes on. The south is considered the ‘higher’ of the two halves, with several undulating hills appearing as you move south through the region towards Mount Kaiserstuhl. This allows vines to be planted on slopes of up to 180m above sea level- which may not seem like much, but in a hot, dry region like the Barossa, which hits 40 degrees in summer, these little hills can make a massive difference to the overall wine profile of these southern wines. The hills receive any breezes, and, depending on where the slope is facing, the vines can be protected from the harsh, hot afternoon sun.

The Barossa, as you may have already established from the several Germanic-sounding winery names (Kaesler, Lehmann, Langmeil, Schild etc), has a strong Eastern European history. Migrants from Silesia, an ancient region located where modern Poland, Czech Republic and German meet, fled to far flung countries after decades of religious persecution after the region was conquered by Prussia in the mid to late 18th century. The Barossa was a major outpost for these immigrants, who brought with them their language, religion, food and of course knowledge of viticulture. Due to the religious nature of their arrival, today the winemaking regions are split into Parishes, which basically serve the same purpose as Appellations in France, teasing out the nuances and individual flavours gained by slight differences in orientation, soil makeup and altitude. You can tell the difference between the wines from the parishes, and several wineries have attempted to show this by bottling several ‘Single Parish’ wines with names you might be familiar with such as Marananga, Seppeltsfield, Krondorf, Stonewell and Lyndoch. This was summarized in 2008 with the institution of the “Barossa Grounds” project, which aims to find out why wines from each Parish taste different, discovering that there are significant differences in soils, water availability and sun exposure, all of which have a major effect on final wine style.

The winemaking skills of the Silesians did not go unnoticed by the surrounding regions, and the Barossa became famous not only as a great grower of grapes, but also the place to take your grapes to get them made into the best wine. This is why today the Barossa is the biggest wine producer in the country; this tradition of not just growing but making allowed the construction of several large-scale wineries, many of whom (Yalumba, Penfolds, Jacob’s Creek) are household names today.

But what is it that made Barossa our most famous region? That can be answered in one word; Shiraz. Barossa Valley Shiraz grabbed international attention in the 1980’s as a cheap, downright enjoyable and easy to understand wine style- the epitome of “Sunshine in a bottle”. Even today when I think of Barossa Shiraz in my mind’s eye I see dry, red earth and a blue sky over gnarled old vines. Couple this sunny landscape with decades of winemaking know-how and the facilities to produce enough wine to slake the thirst of the globe, and its small wonder you can find this style of wine on the shelf of wine stores and supermarkets across the planet. The style; full-bodied, rich, ripe and generous, usually with a generous lick of alcohol, was something the Old World was not familiar with, and in the 80’s where bigger was better (along with a very attractive price due to criminally low exchange rates) the wine was lapped up. These wines speak of sun and summer- maybe this served as solace for our British cousins in the heart of winter with snow falling outside!

Today the southern part of the Barossa leads the charge into the future. The hillier landscape and several slightly cooler pockets mean new varieties are being trialed as the consumer tastes move away from fruit power to subtlety and elegance. St Hallett for example, located right in the south of this region are trialling at their cellar door several varieties well-suited to warm climates including Grenache, Tempranillo and Portuguese native Touriga Nacional, just as Turkey Flat, just up the road try their hands at Marsanne and Mataro!

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager