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Searching for the New Australia in Shiraz Country

Just what should Barossa and McLaren Vale’s wines offer the world? In the second part of a journey through the New Australia, Jon Bonné looks at the regions that built their reputations on big shiraz, and asks: What’s next?

Every now and then
I get a little bit nervous
That the best of all the years have gone by.
Bonnie Tyler, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (1983)

Bonnie Tyler comes on the radio one Sunday afternoon while I’m at a car wash in Nuriootpa, waiting to rinse a thick layer of mud off my rented SUV. Google Maps had thought a dirt road outside the nearby town of Kapunda, or what had been a dirt road before the winter rain, was a good shortcut. Not so much.

I am halfway into my back-to-the-future tour of Australian wine amidst a constant blast of hits from the 1980s—a decade that still seems to hold Australia in its thrall. Much of the attention for the New Australia focuses on formerly unknown regions like the Adelaide Hills, where you find all the elements of today’s contemporary wine world: nuanced flavors, naturalist winemaking, previously unheralded grapes.

But I had thought it important during my recent travels to immerse myself in some of the country’s more established corners for wine. And the Barossa Valley is as established as they come Down Under: Founded mostly by German settlers, its fertile plains have hosted grapes since 1843. Astonishingly, many vines from that century or the early part of the 20th century remain—untouched by phylloxera.

Fifteen years ago, if anyone asked me to define Australian wine in a blink, “Barossa shiraz” would have been the instant answer. But the style of Barossa shiraz that rallied back then—jammy, huge, marked by the pungent herbal notes of American oak—is also what brought on a sort of global fatigue with Australia. As often happened in that flying-winemaker era, it was a case of gilding the lily until the lily fell apart. As winemaker Dan Standish, whose grandfather landed in the Barossa in 1848, suggests: “Putting American oak on Barossa shiraz is like putting sugar on top of your ice cream.”

To provide a road map to the Barossa’s new wave, I’ve got Fraser McKinley, who has volunteered to be my tour guide. A New Zealander who worked at Turley Wine Cellars in California and at Torbreck in the Barossa—one of the wineries essentially synonymous with that era of shiraz—McKinley settled in the town of Angaston. In 2007, he began making Sami-Odi, a syrah-based wine made in tiny quantities from vineyards dating to 1888 and bottled with pop-art labels; it immediately drew reasonable comparisons to Manfred Krankl’s Sine Qua Non in California. (McKinley, like many in Australia, prefers the French term for the grape, syrah, to distinguish from the style “shiraz” often denotes.)

We begin our rounds with a quick drive over the low hills of the Barossa Ranges to visit Abel Gibson, whose Ruggabellus winery is tucked into Flaxman Valley area of the cooler Eden Valley subregion, right next to land owned by Chris Ringland, whose massive shiraz bottlings—“truly monumental,” raved one 100-point review—became the icons of Australia’s more-is-more phase. (You can also thank Ringland, in part, for creating the wines known as “Bitch.”)

Gibson, unlike McKinley, was raised in and around the Barossa—his father Rob Gibson worked at Penfolds—and after witnessing the rise and fall of the more-is-more approach, he’s turned his attention in part to light red blends and to dry-farmed white grapes (semillon, muscat, riesling and so on) found in patches scattered throughout the Barossa. The deliberate weirdness of wines like his Solumodo, mostly made of skin-fermented semillon, is matched only by the finesse Gibson has with the sort of winemaking you’d be more likely to find in Friuli or the Loire: wines guided by intensely mineral and floral aspects rather than weighty fruit, sometimes even by skin maceration. “Basically,” he tells me, “I make the whites the way most people make their reds, and make our reds the way most people make their whites.”

Babe, you know
You’re growing up so fast 
And mama’s worrying 
That you won’t last.
Night Ranger, “Sister Christian” (1984)

Soon enough, we’re back in McKinley’s Land Rover, heading back to the central Barossa to see Tom Shobbrook, whose family farms a parcel down the road from Seppeltsfield, the famous fortified-wine estate with casks of wine dating to 1878. Shobbrook greets us with one of his favorite lunches: cured fish, fermented chili sauce and sticky rice, precisely what his Laotian harvest workers prefer.

In the past two years, Shobbrook has become one of the most visible symbols of the alt-Barossa, making things like cinsault and muscat in concrete rainwater tanks and eggs formed from pure white clay, and a sherry-style nebbiolo. For all the curios, though, Shobbrook’s most important wine might be Poolside. Think of it as Barossa shiraz reimagined as poulsard: fresh, pomegranate-flavored and macerated so briefly it’s basically dark rosé.

Back in the car, that unusual interpretation of shiraz prompts a larger conversation that McKinley and I continue over the course of two days, about just what the Barossa should offer the world. Quite clearly, what it does well now—grow a lot of very ripe and uninteresting shiraz and cabernet, much of it going to Australia’s wine conglomerates—is neither sustainable nor particularly relevant as tastes evolve. At the same time, any wine region has to work with what it has, and in the case of the Barossa, that’s a lot of vines planted a century or more ago. While there’s a good countervailing notion that other grapes like mourvèdre might be a better choice, it’s equally foolhardy to just rip out 100 years’ worth of work.

In a larger sense, Australia, like California, is finally grappling with one of its quintessential problems: Technical skill has, since the 1950s, been largely valued over individuality. Adjusting wine chemistry with acid, tannin powder and other additives was a way of life for decades. And while the soils in many regions are extraordinary, they have largely been an afterthought—no different than the midcentury Californian view that dirt was just a vehicle to hold water.

Australia’s woes are, in part, the result of a 50-year reliance on building its wine industry by relying on scale and reputation rather than Old World notions like terroir. The country’s top wine, Penfolds Grange, has always been a blend not just from multiple vineyards but from multiple regions. The gravity of that choice becomes clear to me when I drive two hours north of the Barossa to Clare Valley, to see Jeffrey Grosset, who makes Australia’s best riesling, Polish Hill. As we sit in his office, Grosset recalls that when he started in 1981, the notion of place simply wasn’t talked about. “I think Australians have trouble with terroir,” he tells me.

It’s for precisely that reason that Grosset, who is hardly the New Australia, now sees the need not only to diversify—his new wine, Apiana, is made from the Italian grape fiano—but also to push the notion of terroir into the picture. Increasingly, he talks about pangkarra, an aboriginal word that effectively translates into the same idea. The pangkarra of Polish Hill, a poor-soil parcel of shale and blue slate nestled below a grove of gum trees, yields a very different riesling than his nearby Springvale Vineyard, grown on red loam and limestone. The message is clear: New Australia can’t just be about quirkiness and individuality. Place will matter.

These shifts in philosophy aren’t unique to Adelaide’s Basket Range or the Barossa, or even South Australia in general. They’re occurring everywhere, including places I didn’t get the chance to visit. In Western Australia, the previous penchant for lean, acidic chardonnay is giving way to labels like L.A.S. Vino, run by Nic Peterkin, the son of two Margaret River pioneers. In the wine regions of Victoria, there’s not only the subtle pinot noir from producers like Mac Forbes and Arfion in the Yarra Valley, but also the rise of gamay noir and wines like Patrick Sullivan’s Haggis Wine, a skin-fermented kitchen-sink blend. Even the Riverland, near the border of South Australia and Victoria and home to grapes for large producers like Banrock Station and Lindeman’s, is reviving grapes, like vermentino, that would be familiar to the area’s Italian settlers.

And in McLaren Vale, south of Adelaide, the longtime presumption of shiraz is rapidly giving way to more interesting choices. McLaren is even warmer than the Barossa, but it’s also just a few miles from the ocean, and so there are reasonable arguments that Italianate varieties might be right there, too. This case has been made quite well by plantings of vermentino and nero d’avola, the latter of which is amphora-fermented by Brash Higgins’ Brad Hickey in a version that surpasses most of what I’ve had from Sicily. (Hickey also made a splash with Bloom, a chardonnay made in the Jura style under a yeast veil.) Also in McLaren: the Jurassic grape savagnin, thanks to a rather big fuck-up Australia made when it imported and distributed what it thought was albariño. Tempranillo has also proved a smart idea, as has the Galician grape mencia, which surreptitiously made its way to McLaren, too.

But perhaps the greatest untapped potential there is in grenache, which thrives in that hot-day-cool-night climate. I float my hunch to Stephen Pannell, who came to renown as the winemaker for Hardy’s Tintara, one of the Aussie giants, before founding his own winery in 2004. He spends a lot of time being diplomatic about things like shiraz (“I want to strip all that crap away from shiraz and see what’s left”), but eventually I pry out his semi-cached love of grenache, which he calls one of “the most profound things” he works with.

Sometimes you tell the day
By the bottle that you drink
And times when you’re all alone, all you do is think.
Bon Jovi, “Wanted Dead or Alive” (1986)

Back in Sydney, at a Darlinghurst bar called Love, Tilly Devine, I polish off a plate of house-cured bresaola and look over the wine list, which is full of things like sangiovese from the Ravensworth winery near the Australian capital of Canberra, and an Adelaide Hills moscato giallo from Vinteloper. I keep returning to my conversation with Pannell. Having endured for more than two decades in the heart of Old Australia, Pannell has a good sense of what drove things off the rails: not just technocracy, but the Australian obsession with trophies and wine shows, plus the relentlessly commercial mindset of public companies, and the blandness that results.

But there’s something else. Even after 170 years, Australia hasn’t really figured out what its wines should be. Some of that, Pannell had said, is because of the original Australian identity as a rogue people, expelled from Europe “for doing naughty things,” with a tendency to drink away the woes of displacement.

“Look at how we painted Australia for 100 years,” he’d told me. “We painted it like Dorset or Sussex.”

In terms of wine, that sense of displacement ultimately needs to be resolved. The Old Australia’s wines barely made sense when weighed by European tastes—although the British still drink plenty of supermarket shiraz—but Australia today, like California, has to face the coming task of defining itself outside of the European context. Europeans may have founded Australia, and its wine industry, but the country’s culture derives just as much influence today from another hemisphere, specifically from China, Japan and Southeast Asia. You can taste it in the work of modern Australian chefs, for instance.

This, I think, is what Pannell was ultimately getting at. Today’s Australian winemakers are driven to change, perhaps even more than their counterparts in California, because the country itself seems to be in a moment of trying to carve out its current identity—not just in wine, but equally in the contemporary art galleries of Sydney and the restaurants of Melbourne. That might be why the world seems to be falling in love with Australian culture again, as it did in the 1980s. The challenge is for the nation, in wine as other things, to decide what it wants to present to the rest of us. 

Or as Pannell summed it up: “I think the most difficult thing for us now as Australians is to figure out where we fit.”

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