Whenever I hear the term Chartered Accountant, I can’t help but think of Monty Python:
Counselor: Well I now have the results here of the interviews and the aptitude tests that you took last week, and from them we’ve built up a pretty clear picture of the sort of person that you are. And I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that the ideal job for you is chartered accountancy.
Mr. Anchovy: But I’ve been a chartered accountant for the last twenty years! I want a new job. Something exciting that will let me live.
Counselor: Well, do you have any idea of what you want to do?
Mr. Anchovy: Yes, yes I have.
Anchovy: (boldly) Lion taming.
“I’m about as dispassionate about economics as I am passionate about wine” says winemaker Dave Powell between cigarettes and some good natured sniping at any and all in the wine world he disagrees with. The son of a chartered accountant, Powell grew up in Adelaide and eventually managed to find his way to Adelaide University where he began a study of Economics. But like many who seem destined to be winemakers, Powell eventually found his true calling thanks to an uncle who introduced him to wine for the first time.
Powell quickly realized that there might be more marginal utility in pursuing his growing passion for wine than the lifetime of boredom that Chartered Accountancy seemed to hold. Occasional weekend trips to the Barossa Valley became extended absences, and Powell began spending his holidays as a traveling cellar rat, working harvests in California and Italy, with a brief but impression-filled stint as a lumberjack in Scotland.
After the requisite set of global wanderings, having acquired the basic understanding of the trade, Powell returned to the Barossa to find full time work at Rockford Winery in the little town of Tanunda. While relatively small, Rockford winery, under the guiding hand of winemaker Robert O’Callaghan, has been a proving ground for a number of top Australian winemakers. In the 1980’s as the country was taking a turn towards larger, corporatized production, O’Callaghan was dedicated to working with dozens of small growers in the Barossa Valley, many of whom owned plots of ancient vines.
Tutored from O’Callaghan’s experience and inspired by his focus on preserving the old vineyards of the Barossa (many of which were being ripped out in favor of higher production plantings) Powell began dreaming of his own wine label, dedicated to making wine from some of the valley’s oldest vines.
Powell had become quite handy in the vineyard, and soon concocted a scheme that only a young, aspiring (and broke) winemaker might devise. He approached a number of old farmers, whose vineyard plots ranged from poorly kept to completely neglected, and offered to nurse them back to health in exchange for some of the fruit. By 1992 Powell had several farmers convinced to participate, and in 1995 he made his first miniscule quantities of Shiraz, Grenache, and Mataro (what Australians call Mourvedre) under the label he called Torbreck for the forest where he worked in Scotland.
Powell’s vision for his winemaking efforts was influenced heavily by his tastings in France’s Rhone Valley. Inspired by the power, grace, and ageability of those wines, Powell set himself the modest goal of honoring the rich viticultural heritage of the Barossa Valley with wines that could hold their own against any of the world’s best wines. Powell’s barrel-chested frame carries his convictions well, and he confidently claims that, fifteen years later, he has met his goal. The only thing he needs he says, “is another twenty years to prove it to everyone else.”
Even without the benefit of being able to taste a thirty-year-old bottle of his Shiraz, It’s hard to argue with him. Torbreck’s wines are without question some of the best made in Australia, and in my experience, they age beautifully (see my notes on a couple of 1998 vintage wines below).
Torbreck launched to almost instant acclaim from many wine critics, but especially from American critic Robert Parker, who became one of Powell’s chief advocates on the global stage. Over fifteen years the winery has grown to its current size of about 55,000 cases, which is down roughly 30% from its height in 2005. In the current economic climate, Powell is making less wine mostly, he says, as a result of no longer making or selling excess juice to others.
His deep love of the Rhone also prompted Powell to buy land quite early in the evolution of Torbreck, where he planted white grape varieties, with the logic that if the red Rhone varieties did well, so would Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne. The winery’s portfolio includes these as well as the reds for which it is much better known.
These days, Powell is more an executive chef than a line cook. He rarely punches anything down personally, and has to ask his winemaking crew which tanks contain which wines, but the wines continue to display the unerring confidence that has characterized them for years. In some ways, this may be as great an accomplishment as the leap to winemaking stardom that the brash, younger Powell made a decade and a half ago. He jokes “they just trot me out for dinners and tastings these days” with a glint in his eye, but it’s clear that Powell would never be content as a simple figurehead. In addition to running his business, he continues to experiment as a winemaker, most recently with a wine he calls “The Natural Wine Project” made without sulfur, as well as with a wine called The Laird, made from what Powell says is the single best Shiraz vineyard in the world (which he’s been trying to get his hands on for years). He is just about to release the first vintage (mostly in Asia) at the jaw dropping price of $400 a bottle.
Because of the high scores Powell receives from Parker, many wine drinkers lump his wines in with Mollydooker and other such brands that rode a wave of consumer obsession with huge, often sweet, fruit-driven wines. While Powell’s wines are undeniably powerful, they are simply in a different league than these other jammy fruit bombs. Torbreck wines, like the Cornas, Condrieu, and Hermitage that Powell holds up as inspiration, are muscular but not beefy, pleasurable even as they lean towards profound. They betray a confidence that compels attention even as it transports the drinker.
2009 Torbreck “Woodcutters” Semillon, Barossa Valley
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of waxy lemon peel aromas combined with a light floral note. In the mouth it is bright, with a stony mineral quality, lemon peel and floral notes and a really nice, long lemony finish. Quite tasty. Score: around 9. Cost: $16. Click to buy.
2009 Torbreck “Roussanne Marsanne Viognier” White Blend, Barossa Valley
Light gold in the glass with a distinct greenish cast, this wine has rich aromas of apples and peaches with hints of white flowers. In the mouth the wine has a gorgeously silky texture with apple and peach flavors tinged by a bright lemon curd juicyness that lingers through the finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $32. Click to buy.
2009 Torbreck Viognier, Barossa Valley
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a perfumed nose of candied lemon and ripe peach skin aromas. In the mouth it is wonderfully juicy, with excellent acidity and a nice balance of lemon curd and peach flavor — the latter being nice and subtle. A silky texture along with these nicely balanced flavors makes this a pleasure to drink. Not available in the US. About 75-100 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2009 Torbreck “Saignee Mourvedre” Rosé, Barossa Valley
Light coppery red in the glass, this wine has a nose of rosehips and sour cherry fruit aromas with hints of orange peel. In the mouth the wine is quite silky with the faintest hint of tannin and flavors of raspberry, rosehips, and cherry that leave a citrus oil tartness in the finish along with a stony edge. Produced from a single vineyard of Mourvedre, 60 years old, barrel fermented with native yeasts, with six months of barrel aging. 600 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $22. Click to buy.
2009 Torbreck “Cuvee Juvenile” Rhone Blend, Barossa Valley
Medium to dark purple in the glass, this wine has a nose of grapey cassis and blueberry aromas. In the mouth it is bright with blueberry and cassis fruit that has a note of concord grapes. Faint tannins, and a nice sweet aroma on the finish. Made entirely in stainless, or as the winemaker Dave Powell says “never seen a splinter of wood.” Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $21. Click to buy.
2006 Torbreck “The Steading” Rhone Blend, Barossa Valley
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of richly oiled leather, cherry and raspberry aromas. In the mouth it is incredibly juicy with cherry, raspberry and incense flavors. Lovely supple tannins balanced by fantastic acidity make this a complex wine, with a finish that sails on for minutes. The wine spends two years in old oak barrels, with a mix of American and French oak. Fantastic. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $32. Click to buy.
2006 Torbreck “Les Amis” Grenache, Barossa Valley
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of cherry and raspberry fruit aromas that have a gorgeous spicy chocolateyness. In the mouth a lovely suede-like texture and fantastic acidity make flavors of leather, cherry, raspberry and mixed spices seem utterly sexy. This medley lingers with notes of cassis and cherry in the finish. No trace of the two years this wine spent in new French oak. Made from a single vineyard of 110 year-old grenache. Outstanding. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $150. Click to buy.
2006 Torbreck “The Pict” Mourvedre, Barossa Valley
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose of cassis and mulberry aromas with a lovely spicy chocolate quality. In the mouth it is fantastically balanced with an incredible texture made up of both a silky quality and supple mouthcoating tannins. Flavors of cassis, mulberry, and blueberry with a juicy bounce to them all linger through a really nice finish. Fantastic. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $130. Click to buy.
2009 Torbreck “The Natural Wine Project” Grenache, Barossa Valley
A recent experiment in winemaking without added sulfur, this wine is dark purple in the glass. The wine smells of cassis and red miso and some sort of electric blueberry thing that is quite compelling. In the mouth the wine has an absolutely amazing texture — think of velvet times ten — with fine powdery tannins and fantastic acidity. Rich cassis and blackberry and blueberry fruit swirl in a lovely bouquet with that fabulous texture through a very, very long finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2008 Torbreck “Woodcutter’s” Shiraz, Barossa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of blackberry pie, cassis, and a hint of kalamata olive. In the mouth the wine possesses a nice weight and a velvety texture wrapped around blackberry and cassis flavors. A saline, kalamata olive character stays nicely in the background under the fruit. A nice earthiness and woody quality linger in the finish with cassis aromas. Here’s a secret: this vintage has declassified Runrig Shiraz in it (the winery’s top bottling) since the 2008 vintage was not to winemaker David Powell’s standards. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. Click to buy.
2007 Torbreck “The Struie” Shiraz, Barossa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of blackberry and cassis aromas with a hint of kalamata olive aromas. In the mouth the wine has a fantastic suede-like texture and supple tannins that wrap around flavors of cassis and blackberry fruit. Nicely balanced with great acidity, the wine soars through a blackberry scented finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50. Click to buy.
2007 Torbreck “The Celts” Shiraz, Barossa Valley
Dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose of rich dried black cherry aroma and a hint of prunes. In the mouth it offers dried cherry and black cherry fruit with notes of blackberry briar. Nice persistent tannins linger with the juicy prune quality in the finish along with a light savory umami note. A small production wine not for sale in the US that winemaker David Powell makes with his kids, who prune and pick and help with the winemaking. Score: around 9.
2006 Torbreck “The Factor” Shiraz, Barossa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of earthy blackberry and black cherry fruit. In the mouth the wine has a rich aromatically sweet blackberry and cassis character with a beautiful earthiness and light umami note that lingers with the brawny, muscular tannins through the finish. Made from 60 to 90-year-old vines. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90. Click to buy.
2007 Torbreck “Descendant” Shiraz, Barossa Valley
Dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose of cool cassis and blackberry aromas with a gorgeous white flower note over the top. On the palate the wine is smooth and silky with a bright cassis and lightly peachy quality that is backed up by a wall of burly tannin and woody-briary flavors that sits at the side and front of the mouth. Aromatic peach and white flowers float through the finish. Excellent, but this wine needs a year or two to come together a little better. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $100. Click to buy.
2006 Torbreck “Runrig” Shiraz, Barossa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich chocolate, black cherry, and cassis aromas. In the mouth, the wine has a fantastic seamlessness about it, a merging of the earthiness and velvet of the tannins with the boysenberry and chocolate of its soul. A lovely chocolate covered raisin and muddy earth note linger in a very long finish. Made from vines with an average age of 127 years. A tiny bit of Viognier is added to the final blend. Outstanding. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $200. Click to buy.
2005 Torbreck “The Laird” Shiraz, Barossa Valley
Dark garnet in color, this wine has an incredible nose of blackberries, cassis, and violet aromas. In the mouth the wine is explosively juicy with an incredible melange of cassis and blackberry and black cherry flavors. A fantastic aromatic sweetness suffuses the wine and is welded to incredibly supple muscular tannins that are themselves lifted and tightened by fantastic acid balance. The finish is minutes long and stunning. A note of espresso and vanilla that is clearly oak driven can be traced through the wine, but it is subtle and appropriate. Fantastic wine. 400 cases made, perhaps none of which will make it to the USA. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
1998 Torbreck “The Steading” Rhone Blend, Barossa Valley
Medium ruby in the glass, with a hint of orange on the rim, this wine smells of bacon fat, cherry and raspberry aromas. In the mouth the wine has a piercing brightness to it, with really juicy cherry and raspberry fruit and fantastic garrigue and lightly savory characteristics that make it easily mistakable for a Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The tannins have become smooth and polished and the acidity still makes it gulpable. The finish is long and gorgeous. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $90. Click to buy.
1998 Torbreck “Runrig” Shiraz, Barossa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass with NO hint of its age, this wine would, by sight, easily be mistakable for a current vintage. The wine smells unbelievably of chocolate and black cherry and hints of dried herbs. In the mouth the wine is explosively juicy with slightly tangy black cherry mixed with forest floor and a fabulous floral note that hangs almost at the edge of perception in the finish. Closing your eyes it has the sleekness of wild cat in the dark. This is an absolutely stunning, knock you on your ass good wine, that is clearly aging beautifully and will for another 10 years without question. Score: around 10. Cost: $200. Click to buy.