I've just spent a couple of days in Australia's Barossa Valley, with its rolling hills of ancient rock worn down to nubs by the sands of time. I arrived in the first real rain of Autumn, the moisture a welcome relief for most everyone in the drought stricken region, and doubly so for the fact that almost all the fruit had been harvested.
I came to the Barossa for two reasons. The first was to see some of the classic producers and lay my hands, or at least my eyes, on some of the oldest and some of the most unique grapevines in the world: 150-year-old Shiraz growing on their own roots, untouched by the ravages of Phylloxera. The second was to find out what was new and interesting in a region that has largely become a victim of its own success and stereotypes. There had to be more to the Barossa than huge point-inflated fruit bombs, right?
All of which is how I found myself seated yesterday afternoon on a sunny brick patio with a group of (mostly) young winemakers who have banded together under the name Artisans of Barossa. Formed in 2005, this group of producers consists of 10 different wineries, most of whom have production levels of just a couple hundred to a couple of thousand cases. Each member either owns their own winery or their own vineyard, or both. The group's self described purpose is to maintain and celebrate "the regionality, environmental sustainability, traditions and cultural spirit of our home - The Barossa" while making wines "that excite, inspire and delight our customers and each other."
In talking with a portion of this group, it seems like they are still finding their way in terms of what they aim to achieve, but they seem to be quite clear on what I believe is the most important fact of their existence -- that they represent an important reality of winemaking in the Barossa that should be more visible.
The promotion of small production, independent wineries I believe to be one of the most important priorities in a world of wine where increasingly such players are shut out of the market due to consolidations in the distribution chain, as well as their own lack of marketing resources. While the Artisans' tagline "Custodians of the Future" may slightly overstate their importance, the core of that sentiment is certainly true, and much more so for Australia than some other wine regions.
Most consumers' experience with Australian wine has come at the hands of huge corporate winery operations and "ready-made-for-export" brands that have no real presence in Australia (as the wines are made from bulk wine purchased and then packaged to be sold in the USA). The idea that there are thousands of small independent wineries whose products are available, albeit with a little searching, in America needs to be much better understood. Likewise, the demand for such wines needs to be encouranged in the US, as well as the UK.
Additionally, while some of the wines from the group are a bit over the top, most of them belie the notion that Barossa is about massively extracted, high alcohol wines. I was happy to find many of them making 13.5% to 14% alcohol, elegant and delicious Shiraz (some from very old, microscopic family vineyards , and lean, low-alcohol Rieslings from the Eden valley). The group also takes pains to point out that among their members, they are making wines from 11 distinct sub-regions of the Barossa valley, each with a different character. I'm not entirely sold on how important this further dissection of the Barossa is, but in my travels around the valley, it's clear that regional variations in soil types, exposure, and temperature are quite distinct.
I'm quite pleased that Artisans of Barossa exists as a group, and I hope they grow and other such groups arise to help the smaller producers of Australia get more visibility.
Here are the wines that the group brought to lunch.
2009 Radford Riesling, Eden Valley, Australia
Light yellow gold in the glass this wine has a nose of floral aromas with green apple and bright candied lemon peel scents. In the mouth the wine has a fantastically explosive candied lemon peel quality. Super juicy with excellent acidity, the electric lemon quality stays lingering in the finish keeping the mouth puckered and salivating for nearly a minute. One of the best Eden Valley Rieslings I've tasted. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20. Click to buy.
2007 Radford Shiraz, Eden Valley, Barossa Valley, Australia
Dark garnet in the glass with a cloudy haze, this wine has rich blackberry and blueberry aromas. In the mouth the wine comes across as juicy with lush blackberry and cassis flavors. Great acidity and lightly tacky tannins add complexity while the wine finishes with a sour cherry note and the barest hint of alcoholic heat. Despite the heat this is quite a tasty wine. Score: around 9. Cost: $48 Click to buy.
2007 Hobbs of Barossa "Gregor" Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of chocolate and black cherry with notes of espresso. In the mouth the wine has a fine grained tannic structure and excellent acidity with chocolate, cherry and blackberry flavors. Good acidity lingers in the finish. Tasty. Score: around 9.
2007 Hobbs of Barossa Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich chocolate and cassis aromas. In the mouth the wine has fantastically rich chocolate and espresso flavors with a distinct but well integrated signature of new oak. Bright acidity makes this quite juicy and delicious, but this is a wine for those looking for a slightly riper, more fruit driven style, but wanting to stop well short of a fruit bomb. Quite tasty. Score: around 9. Click to buy.
2007 Kalleske "Clarry's" Red Blend, Barossa Valley, Australia
Dark ruby in color with a distinct cloudy haze, this blend of Grenache and Shiraz has a nose of cherry, leather, and hints of dried flowers and chocolate. In the mouth it is juicy with cherry and raspberry fruit that has a spicy note to it. Faint tannins and a citric quality lingers in the finish. Juicy and ready to drink. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $30 Click to buy.
2003 John Duval Wines "Plexus" Rhone Blend, Barossa Valley, Australia
Dark garnet in the glass, this blend of Shiraz, Grenache, and Mourvedre has a nose of chocolate covered cherries and leather. In the mouth the wine has a wonderfully velvet texture with flavors of stewed cherries, prunes and a chocolatey leather quality. Wonderfully soft tannins and the texture that some fine sediment provides give this wine an extra dimension of pleasure. This is the first commercial vintage of this wine. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. Click to buy.
2008 John Duval Plexus Rhone Blend, Barossa Valley, Australia
A blend of Shiraz, Grenache, and Mourvedre, this wine has a dark garnet color in the glass. It smells of black cherry, cassis, and cedar. In the mouth the wine offers a nice suede-like texture with fine grained but aggressive tannins, and flavors of cassis, blackberry and black cherry. Very nice acidity. With a couple of years the tannins will mellow and make this a very well put together package. Score: around 9. Cost: $40Click to buy.
2006 Massena "The Moonlight Run" Red Bled, Barossa Valley, Australia
Medium ruby in the glass with a cloudy haze, this blend of Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvedre, and Cinsault smells fantastically of violets and cassis aromas with an undercurrent of fresh herbs. In the mouth the wine has a juicy cherry and raspberry fruit core with a spicy sandalwood and incense haze that hangs around the edges of the fruit. Excellent acidity and faint powdery tannins. Outstanding. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cos: $25. Click to buy.
2007 Schwartz "Thiele Road" Grenache, Barossa Valley, Australia
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of sweet cherry and black raspberry fruit. In the mouth the wine is quite ripe with black cherry and raspberry fruit mixed with cedar and black tea flavors. Moderately aggressive, muscular tannins linger with a cedar note into the finish. Good acidity and quite aromatic in the mouth. Quite dark fruit for a Grenache. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $37. Click to buy.
2008 Spinifex "Indigene" Red Blend, Barossa Valley, Australia
A Shiraz dominated blend with bits of Mataro and Grenache, this wine has a dark garnet color to it. It smells of bright cassis, black cherry, and violets. In the mouth it is wonderfully juicy with powerful tannins that wrap around a core of cassis and blackberry flavors tinged with leather and wet dirt. Very nice violets and cassis aromas linger on the finish. Excellent. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. Click to buy.
2009 Teusner "Joshua" Rhone Blend, Barossa Valley, Australia
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this blend of 65% Grenache, 25% Mataro, and 10% Shiraz smells of sweet cassis and mulberry flavors. On the palate the wine is velvety, with thick, sweet tannins that wrap around flavors of cassis, blueberries, and mulberries. A slight bit of alcoholic heat emerges on the finish, the only adverse quality of this otherwise delicious wine. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $19. Click to buy.
2006 Teusner "Albert" Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of chocolate, stewed prunes and black cherries. In the mouth the wine tastes of cherry and sandalwood with cassis notes. Sandpapery tannins and juicy acidity take the cherry flavors and launch them onto the palate in a quite tasty way. The finish is juicy and mouth puckering. Score: around 9. Cost: $55. Click to buy.
2006 Dutschke "Oscar Semmler Single Vineyard Reserve" Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia
Dark garnet in the glass, the wine has a nose of cocoa powder and blackberry fruit. In the mouth the wine packs an alcoholic heat that lifts flavors of blackberry chocolate and cassis into the top of the mouth and drives them through the finish while an earthy and leathery tannic structure lingers in the mouth. Some heat continues in the finish. Score: around 8. Cost: $40. Click to buy.
2004 Tin Shed "Single Wire" Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of stewed prunes and blackberry jam. In the mouth the wine has an interesting savory/sweet character that is a combination of roasted figs, kalamata olives, and dried black cherries. This wine is quite jammy with its cooked fruit characters, and a bit heavy on the palate. Good acids keep it from being overpowering, but it is definitely a bit overdone. Score: around 7.5. Cost: $42. Click to buy.
2004 Tin Shed "Three Vines" Rhone Blend, Barossa Valley, Australia
A blend of Mourvedre, Shiraz, and Grenache, this wine is a cloudy dark garnet in the glass, with a nose of chocolate, mulberry, and blueberry aromas. In the mouth the wine tastes quite alcoholic, with high toned alcohol lifted flavors of cassis, mulberry, and incense. An aromatic finish of violet aromas has a good deal of alcoholic heat to it. Somewhat unbalanced. Score: around 8.
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