Friday Focus; The Barossa Valley, Part 2

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, the region is almost precisely split into northern and southern parts by the famous Seppeltsfield Road. Today I’ll be covering the northern half as the region stretches north-east from Seppeltsfield Rd, and asking why is this region so popular across the globe? What makes the Barossa so special?

The Northern Barossa centres on the town of Nuriootpa (known to the locals as ‘Nuri’), and is the workhorse of not only the Barossa, but the entire South Australian wine industry. The landscape of the northern Barossa is much flatter than the south, and the table-top terrain makes viticulture a fairly straightforward process. When looking across this scene, for kilometers in every direction all that can be seen is row upon row of vines. Combine this with a lot of hours of sunshine every year and a huge amount of irrigation water, and the result is some of the biggest wine companies in Australia, such as Penfolds, Yalumba, Wolf Blass and Saltram- all of whom have their home base in the northern Barossa, and own huge tracts of land surrounding their factory-like wineries. In addition to this, and alluded to last week, many of these big companies make a fair living out of making wines for other companies. The sheer size of these wineries means they can easily process thousands of tons of grapes from all over South Australia every week, and this economy of scale in these large wineries means for many small and middle-sized wineries, it is cheaper to use the big guys that pay for all the equipment to make it themselves! They simply send through the information on their grapes (PH, sugar levels etc), and inform the big winery what they would like done with it i.e. what style of wine they would like to have upon completion of winemaking, and hey presto! They can even send through what type of bottle shape they would prefer and how they’d like the labels to look and the big winery bottles and labels all their wines!

This makes so much sense for a small scale winery that cannot afford all the equipment, as well as the staff to man, maintain and clean it, involved in making and bottling wine. Experience matters in most industries, however especially in the wine industry! The integration of small scale winemaking into the large-scale winery’s repertoire has allowed these smaller artisan producers to thrive in this part of the Barossa, whilst never really threatening the big guys due to them making very different styles of wine, and keeping consumer interest in this diverse region. If you’re ever in the Barossa, make sure you have a look at the Artisans of the Barossa cellar door, which is actually 4 cellar doors in one! 4 small-scale producers doing some fascinating things with their wines have pooled their resources to create this unique space- great for a feed also!

So what is it about the northern Barossa that makes it this epicentre of wine production in Australia? Well, part of it is the history of the region which I went through last week, with the arrival of central European Silesian migrants bringing with them winemaking know-how. This established the wine industry in the Barossa over 150 years ago, hence the reason why so many large-scale wineries are so well established- they’ve had a really long time to do so! There is however another factor, which ties into the well-established roots of the Silesian community; vine age. The northern section of the Barossa Valley has some of the oldest vines not only in Australia, but the world. I had the great honour of visiting some of the ‘Centenarian’ vines at Kaesler a few months ago. They have a handful of old vineyards that were established in 1891, meaning the vines that still give forth grapes every year, albeit very small bunches, are 124 years old. Some vineyards are even a few years older, established in 1847, making them the oldest vines on planet Earth. As I said before, these vines don’t give much, but the quality of what they do give is impressive; the tiny berries have a high skin to juice ratio, meaning these bunches will have more tannin, more colour, more concentration and more phenolic weight when made into wine. The tiny berries are also high in acid, which means the best wines are never heavy and weighty, but have a fresh finish, like the best wines of Europe. 

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager