Gnarly but Nice – Barossa’s Ancestor Vines Still Producing the Goods

South Australia’s rolling Barossa Valley is, to some, the elder statesman in the definitive wine region of Australia. Sitting just 35 miles from the state capital, Adelaide, Barossa was originally a settlement founded by German speaking immigrants from the region of Silesia (what is now Poland). It follows the North Para River for nearly 20 miles and spreads eastwards into the Eden Valley and stretches towards the Adeliade Hills wine region to the south. Streaked with an abundancy of purple Salvation Jane, that pretty scourge of the pastures, and heady Eucalyptus, the sun-streaked Barossa Valley is the home to sixth-generation winegrowing families with a wealth of wine experience.

Despite its reputation, it has experienced torrid times though. From 1860 to 1880, over-production was a big problem, with un-irrigated bush vines as the norm and in fact even today it is an issue many producers still struggle with. After the Great Depression of the 1930s hit, the winemaking trend in the area was geared towards fortified wine production which was lucrative but which did not help to cement a reputation for high quality wine.

Vineyards at Schild Estate, Barossa Valley. All images: Schild Estate.

During the 1970s a combination of consumer tastes beginning to lean towards red and white table wines and the formerly buoyant fortified market of ports and sherries dwindling since the 1950s meant that some family-owned businesses sold up to multinationals. In order to rescue the ailing region the government helped fund the ‘Vine Pull Scheme’ to remove old, low-yielding vines and improve efficiency. Those that survived the cull (and thank God some did!) are now priceless.

Although it might be a young region (in a relatively young country) in comparison to European winemaking regions such as Alto Douro, the Loire Valley in France, or Cordorníu in Spain, Barossa Valley is known and rightly celebrated for its old vines, particularly Shiraz, Grenache and Riesling. In 2009 the Barossa Old Vine charter was set up to register vineyards by age so that old vines could be preserved and maintained. Centenarian vines (equal or greater than 100 years of age) are still producing fruit and wines with highly intense flavours well into advanced age. Thankfully, Barossa has always remained phylloxera-free which has allowed the vines to mature into their recognisably wizened forms with signature thick, gnarly trunks and are harvested for top-end reds of amazing complexity. Some sites in Barossa with Centenarian vines include Henschke, Mount Edelstein Shiraz, Yalumba ‘The Steeple’ Shiraz and Jacob’s Creek Block 2 Riesling. So called ‘Ancestor’ vines are vines of at least 125 years old believed to be among the oldest grape producing vines in the world and they tend to be dry-grown and low yielding. Examples of these include Langmeil’s The Freedom 1843 Shiraz, Penfolds Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon and Schild Estate’s Moorooroo Shiraz.

Grapes ripen quickly in the hot Barossa sunshine and there is a danger of acidity plummeting before the grapes can be picked, meaning action has to be taken in the winery (such as the addition of tannin and a shorter post–fermentation maceration.) The resultant wines, however (after maturation in American oak barrels) can be spectacularly rich, chocolatey, spicy and forthright. Old Semillon vines in the form of Barossa’s own pink-skinned clone can also make intriguingly complex full- bodied white wines, as can Chardonnay, but Shiraz is the real dependable player here. The most sought after and expensive wines from this region include the famous Penfolds Grange, Grosset’s Polish Hill and Peter Lehmann’s Stonewell Barossa Shiraz amongst others and today, Barossa Valley is stronger than ever and highly respected.

More than 75% of area planted is under red grape vines, and this is rising. Fortified production is small but the quality is exceptional and includes the 2023 best fortified wine of the year in Australia, Seppelsfield 100 year old Para Vintage Tawny 1922 which won 100 points from esteemed wine critic James Halliday. The region is now rightly asserting not only its importance to the Australian wine industry but the inestimable value of its storehouse of century-old vines and historic wineries.


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