Is 2019 the turning point in South Australian wine?

30 July, 2019 by Deborah Jackson

By Andrew Graham for the July issue of National Liquor News

South Australia is in a new wine era – one where Shiraz, Cabernet and Chardonnay are not the only answers, and where climate change is not the future, it’s now, as Andrew Graham discovers.

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It’s a photo to make any grapegrower weep. Earlier this year, a contentious picture landed in wine industry inboxes that perfectly demonstrated the challenge of the 2019 South Australian vintage.

It was a snap of Torbreck’s $2.2 million Laird vineyard looking very dry and brown, at a time when everything should be lush and green. Leaves had fallen off, the vines struggling, the grapes non-existent.

While Torbreck were quick to point out that this was just an unflattering picture, and the vineyard still produced a crop, it’s a fair illustration of what Seppeltsfield’s General Manager Sales and Marketing Chad Elson, described as “a year where Mother Nature flexed her muscles”.

For the Barossa, McLaren Vale and the Clare Valley, in particular, 2019 will go down as one of the lowest yielding vintages in decades. It’s a harvest marked by devastating late spring frosts, hail and – and famously – almost no rain (just 18mm fell in Adelaide from the beginning of January to the end of April). How dry was it? Dudley Brown from Inkwell Wines puts it eloquently “numerous times I shook my fist at the sky and screamed: ‘is that all ya got?’. In the future, I won’t ask this question again”.

But this was also a vintage that may serve as a line in the sand. Where the cooler climate of Coonawarra (again) shone, the smartest grapegrowers delivered healthy grapes despite all the odds, and heat tolerant varieties like Nero d’Avola performed better than traditional stalwarts like Shiraz.

Further, these newer (for Australia) varieties are proving popular beyond viticulturists too, with grapes like Fiano and Touriga enjoying growing commercial appeal. Suddenly, in 2019 South Australia is in a new wine era – one where Shiraz, Cabernet and Chardonnay are not the only answers, and where climate change is not the future, it’s now.

Brown puts it well: “2019 has changed our mindset to anticipating and actively planning for more 2019s. A lot more 2019s. The game has changed fundamentally. The inflection point is undeniable now.”

Barossa heats up

Aside from 2011, it’s difficult to find many vintages over the last 20 years which you’d call genuinely poor in the Barossa. As a region, it’s enjoyed a charmed run, with even tricky years like 2008 delivering great wines.

Indeed for many of the better prepared (or just fortunate) producers, 2019 will be another solid, if low yielding, year, as Louisa Rose the Chief Winemaker at Yalumba believes.

“We were lucky that our vineyards and those of our Barossa growers mostly had good protection from the late season frosts, were well managed through the season (particularly through January) and had access to adequate water for irrigation. The wines look amazing.”

Elson believes that the miserable yields might have bumped up quality too.

“Even though climatic records were broken, the lower yields resulted in excellent grape quality,” he said. “(The wines) have good depth of flavour and colour with firm tannins.”

Despite the positivity, the facts paint a picture of a season of extremes. At Henschke, they took in just five tonnes of grapes off the entire 14ha Mount Edelstone Vineyard. Brett Hayes from Hayes Family Wines noted the “incredibly harsh conditions” with yields down by “perhaps 50 per cent or more on average”.

Still, Hayes is upbeat: “The positive side? The quality looks extremely good at this early stage,” he said.

“A vintage for the small winemaker (but) a tough one for the soul of the Barossa – the growers.”

Interestingly, one of the heroes of this ‘challenging’ vintage is not one of the aforementioned alternative varieties, but a Barossa stalwart – Grenache.

Despite some of the oldest Grenache plantings in the world, and the grape’s resistance to heat stress, Grenache has been cast over in recent years, with fruit prices often less than half that of Shiraz and Cabernet.

But As Kym Farley from Kaesler Wines explains, this is a variety now enjoying a renewed appeal for Barossan producers and consumers.

“Shiraz will always be king in the Barossa, but Grenache is what people are now starting to talk about,” he said.

“We are seeing a shift from the big jammy styles of the 90’s to wines that are utilising the generous fruit that naturally happens in the Barossa (like) the Kaesler Fave Grenache.

“From vineyards planted back in 1930, it is whole-bunch fermented and comes in at 13.5 per cent ABV. It is not your stereotypical Barossa wine.”

That sentiment is echoed at Australian Vintage Limited (AVL), where the newish Barossa Valley Wine Company brand will also have a Grenache focus.

AVL’s General Manager – Marketing, Scott Burton, explains: “Shiraz still dominates in the Barossa and we certainly expect it to be our top-selling varietal by some margin. However, Grenache and Grenache-based blends are also flourishing… we see that varietal mix as an emerging trend.”

Winemakers love it too, as Saltram’s Alex MacKenzie notes: “(We’re) extremely excited to see Grenache get some focus as we love making the wines from these old vines. They have so much expression.

“We release a Single Vineyard Survivor Vine Grenache from vines planted over 70 years ago. Utilising stalks and whole bunch fruit in the ferments, we can make a style that is approachable for early release, displaying lifted fruit, and complexity.”

There is another forgotten Barossa style well suited to warmer, drier vintages too – fortified wine.

Classic tawny was once the most famous wine in the region, but with tastes shifting towards table wines, this most traditional wine category has been cast aside.

Fascinatingly, some Barossan fortifieds are enjoying a comeback. Seppetsfield’s fortifieds, for example, are enjoying a spike in popularity.

“Our Para Tawny Collection is at allocation level in most markets,” Elson explains.

“The patience required to make these wines, and their rarity, seems to now be better understood than ever – even to younger generations. The ‘Taste Your Birth Year’ Tawny experience, or standing next to an 1878 barrel at Sepppeltsfield, for example, has become an Instagram selfie moment.”

That sense of fortified nostalgia isn’t lost at Saltram either, with MacKenzie about to release another new, Colheita-style single vintage Special Rare Tawny in the same mode as the 1959 Special Rare bottled in 2009.

Celebrating birthdays with ancient fortified is not confined to Saltram, with Yalumba also unveiling a cellar-door-only range of aged tawny to mark 170 years.

Still, while these mega-fortifieds might occupy a special niche, the stark reality is that they still lack mainstream appeal. The omnipotence of Barossan table wines like Shiraz and Cabernet can’t be denied, and even Grenache remains a nascent trend for retailers.

Bert Werden of online merchant Winestar explains: “If there is hype surrounding an increase in Grenache sales I think I have missed it, ditto red blends.

“I will admit to a spike post-Turkey Flat winning the Jimmy, but by and large with consumers (quite rightfully) being asked to pay a bit more for genuine old vine Grenache, sales are never going to match those of ‘mainstream’ varieties.

“Of course, when we are able to bring to market a bargain, sub-$20 option, emanating from old vines, then there is certainly great interest but these are few and far between.”

Grape evolution in McLaren Vale

While these ‘mainstream’ varieties might be dominating sales, many McLaren Vale winemakers are exploring both alternative and conventional options.

Brad Hickey, of Brash Higgins, explains: “We’re all doing both now, it seems. The traditional varieties are so ingrained in the culture here and abroad, they will always be wildly popular. (But) there’s also interest in new things, and we’ll always be exploring those (alternative) channels.”

Dudley Brown agrees: “Shiraz won’t disappear anytime soon. (But) if you told McLaren Vale growers in 1999 that Chardonnay would go from 10-20 per cent of production to near zero in 10 years, they would have howled you out of the room.

“While (some) critics will pat themselves on the backs as alternative/climate appropriate varieties increase dramatically, the reality is that the variety mix will change because the aggregate water supply isn’t going to increase and growers need to survive.

“The beneficiary will be the consumer. Big time. Lots of new things will happen because they have to.”

This is an excerpt from the South Australian Wine article in the July issue of National Liquor News. Read the full article here.