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Barossa Shiraz put to geo taste test

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Louisa Rose, boss winemaker of the mighty Yalumba, and Julie Ashmead, of Elderton, hosted the annual Vintage Barossa Shiraz Tasting last week.  As usual, we examined unfinished one-year-old barrel samples: wines from many makers, made with minimal sophistry in neutral one-year-old oak.

Very vaguely, these wines are sorted into sub-regions.  These roughly reflect the Barossa’s four basic geologies, which, in turn, can be divided into another 11 sub-regions.  When we started this exercise years ago, Louisa’s predecessor, Brian Walsh, suggested the wines be sorted according to the boundaries of the Lutheran parishes.  I sometimes think that would have made just as much sense, given the Barossa’s reluctance to actually observe its fairly sharp geological boundaries.

Whatever their region, folks in the business are reluctant to admit that some of their number may have planted in less-than-ideal places.  Nobody wants to be on the wrong terroir, and big grape buyers don’t want those growers on obviously better geologies putting their prices up.

If you believe the dogma preached by the white-coats at the University of Adelaide’s Waite winemaking campus, geology has bugger-all influence, anyway.  They seem to believe that vine roots are incapable of transmitting the varying flavours of rocks to their berries.  When the CSIRO reported last year that eucalypts can suck gold from the ground and pump it up 20 or 30 metres to the leaves in their crowns, I confess to committing a quiet snigger.

Of course geology is only part of terroir; altitude, climate, proximity to ocean and human influence all have vital roles to play. It was obvious this year that while the sub-regions always produce fruit of varying distinction, they don’t do the same thing every year. This obviously has as much to do with the way different spots react to different weather patterns throughout the year as it does with the climate differences from one year to another.

A good example is the way the fruit of the young Lyndoch Valley alluviums generally remind me of the pretty florals of northern Beaujolais; think Moulin-à-Vent, Chiroubles and Morgon.  The 2013 vintage put these dainties into the Eden Valley wines instead, where the rocks are 500 million years older.

After each class was tasted, a blend was made of all its components, in equal proportion, regardless of their quality.  This was most telling.

The group called “Foothills” confused 500-million-year-old Cambrian rocks with million-year-old Pleistocene alluvium between Saltram and Bethany.  Regardless, the wines shared a character reminiscent of burnt nightshade greens and Solanine, which mysteriously mellowed in the blend, making a sweet, open and easy wine, smelling like Ditters dried fruit and nut mix.

This confusion of old and very new geologies continued south along the piedmont in the “Krondorf/Rowland Flat” class, which also showed those dark nightshade greens.  Their blend was more hearty, with fermented charcuterie meats and fruitcake complexity.

The “Lyndoch/Williamstown” group shared Guylian milk chocolate and chocolate crême caramel smoothness, with appropriately gentle tannins and a better balance of what looked like natural acidity.  The young Pleistocene alluviums here are at a higher, cooler altitude than the Barossa floor, probably explaining that lovely acidity.

We jumped then to the ancient Cambrian rocks of the Eden Valley, where again some vineyards are in quite youthful alluviums.  The Eden Valley/Craneford wines were pretty to sniff, with confectioner’s sugar, fairy floss and musky tones common among their florals and cherries, blueberries, blackcurrants and mulberries.  Their blend was a stunning, well-formed and balanced wine of great allure and promise.

North of there, the Mt McKenzie/Keyneton wines were more complex, with prunes, dates and figs comprising the fruits division.  Their blend smelled like a pannacotta soaked in fine Nebbiolo; its palate a soft, silk-then-velvet comfort which seemed classically Barossan, if in the older-fashioned manner.

“Light Pass/Nuriootpa” is composed pretty much of young Pleistocene and Holocene alluvium, where the fruit displays bright eucalyptus after floods dump leaves there.  It was fascinating that these wines had little overt eucalypt in this vintage, but their soft leathery aromas, quince paste, and fig and prune conserve fruits nevertheless reminded me of mudflat Langhorne Creek Shiraz, which is recent riverine alluvium often renowned for its eucalypt.  Some had quite bright blackcurrants, mulberries and blackberries, which receded in the composite blend. The master blender of those Larncrk wines was John Glaetzer of Wolf Blass, whose name made its way into several of my notes.  The Kaesler Patel vineyard even had me scratching “Glaetzer Jimmy Watson 1976”.

Next came “North Barossa”, which included wines from the same young alluviums, but extending out across the 600-million-year-old Wilpena Group siltstones underlying St Kitts.  These were breathtaking in their intensity, their carbon, soot and leather, their ripe juniper – and all manner of dark berries – their soft, alluring mid-palates and Cape Fear tannins, which will demand many years of cellar.  This won my second-highest points, squeezing 93-94+++ from the same sensories which had been awarding 80 in previous categories.

“Moppa Greenock” is another collective which covers both very young and extremely old geologies, from the Pleistocene to the 750-million-year-old Burra Group. There’s also a good deal of Rowland Flat Sand, which is the Barossa’s equivalent of McLaren Vale’s beloved Maslin Sand (same age; same source in the ancient Mt Lofty Ranges). The wines nevertheless showed incredible consistency, complexity, and depth. ‘NO OTHER REGION CAN DO THIS!’ my scribble screams delightedly, ‘KALIMNA!’  Tar, prunes, iron, coke, briquettes, gun blue, Parade Gloss bootpolish, aniseed balls, Choo Choo Bars … these descriptors tended to overwhelm the black stone and berry fruits and black olives that reappeared throughout this incredible class.  ‘Supple, luxurious – a glorious, hypnotising WALLOW with perfect balance’ I wrote of the blend, ’94+++ points’.

“Seppeltsfield/Marananga” covers another vast stretch of the Barossa’s oldest and newest geologies, and the wines showed much more variation than the previous lot.  If there is an overall comment, let it be that these individuals had softer, pudgy, fleshy fruits with sweeter, softer, caramel and fudgy tones with furry tannins.  Those tannins were much tighter and more focussed in the composite blend.

“Stonewell/Dorrien” is similarly confused geologically, ranging from ironstone atop Rowland Flat sands (another repeat of McLaren Vale, as in Yangarra/Blewett Springs) to much different and more recent muddled alluvium.  The winemaking and viticulture varied so widely here that I think the class was a fine example of human influence being a very important part of terroir, in the sense that the humans hadn’t done a very precise job of it, so the wines had little chance of reflecting their source.

There were only two wines from Gomersal, from very different geologies.  However while both seemed soft and easy and open-hearted as individuals, their blend was tighter and more intense, just like the “Seppeltsfield/Maranaga” wines.  Interestingly, one of the Gomersal wines came from the same ancient Upper Burra Group which re-emerges between Seppeltsfield and Marananga.

So. What does all this mean?  First, you should expect some stunning Barossa Shiraz from 2013. Second, blending, even within a sub-region, smooths out lots of bits in some cases, and adds focus and precision in others.  Third, I reckon my preference for chunky old rocks and the more granular, coarser sands, rather than young, fine-grained alluvial dusts and clays, is once again justified.

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