Not too long ago, when I met Peter Gago, 2012 Winemaker's Winemaker of the Year (awarded by the venerable Institute of Masters of Wine), during a visit to Penfolds' movie set-esque Magill Estate outside Adelaide, he said to me: “Wine isn't just a beverage. You remember how you came to have the bottle, its price, who you shared it with, how it made you feel. Wine is about the stories. A bottle is a 750ml time capsule.”
When he uttered those very sagely words, I was transported back a decade, to my last week as an international student in Sydney. I knew nothing about wine, but as a memento of my years in Australia, I wanted to bring home a good bottle. So a friend — a bar manager who had grown up in the New South Wales region of Bathurst — took me to a local bottle shop, pointed one out with an elegant black label and said: “Henschke.” The bottle, a Mount Edelstone (if memory serves me right), was happily opened at a family dinner five years later.
I doubt Gago, or any wine lover for that matter, would have been slighted by the selection. Alongside Penfolds, Henschke is, after all, one of the most highly regarded wineries in the country. Both also hail from South Australia's Barossa region — home to the world's oldest vineyards. But whereas the former is public owned, Henschke, which has been making wine since 1862, still remains in family hands. Its flagship wine, the organically grown and reverentially named Hill of Grace, comes from vines that are 150 years old, and was served at the table of the Queen when she was last Down Under in 2011.
Taking all this into account, I was absolutely chuffed to kick off a visit of the Barossa with Stephen Henschke at his storied estate tucked away at Keyneton, in the rolling hills of Eden Valley.
Stephen's “grandfather's grandfather”, a chap named Johann Christian, was one of the many Silesians who had arrived in the Barossa to escape religious persecution from the then Prussian King. (Barossa was founded by German settlers, unlike most of the Australian wine industry, which was influenced by the British.) Stephen's earliest memories are not just of shadowing dad Cyril in the winery and sneaking a taste of the wine, but also of going out with grandfather Paul Alfred on a horse and buggy to tend the sheep.
Now, Stephen and his wife Prue, a viticulturist, passionately uphold the family name. A dynamite team, they were inducted into the Family Business Australia Hall of Fame in 2011. Their children, Johann, a winemaker, Justine, a marketing specialist, and Andreas, who is studying to be an engineer, are increasingly involved in the winery. “We've got lots of bases covered there,” says Stephen of the kids as we chat over glasses of the latest releases. “We're into the consolidation programme. We'd like to see the Henschke winery go on for at least another five generations.”
To do that, the Henschkes have been succession planning in the vineyards too. We see it for ourselves out in the Hill of Grace vineyard after a quick dip in a shoe bath (a phylloxera precaution). Sited just across a lovely old Lutheran church, the gnarly old shiraz planted in the 1860s have been supplemented with clones in the 1980s. Still deemed too young to be made into the elegantly seductive Hill of Grace, Stephen releases them as Hill of Roses, which, at less than half the price of its pricey older sibling, is a veritable steal. (Collector types, take note: In 20 years, the Hill of Roses grapes will go in the bottle as Hill of Grace.)
“People approach the Hill of Grace with religious fervour,” I muse. “It's interesting. The label says Hill of Grace and people think it's magic,” Stephen acknowledges. “But at the end of the day if you take the label off, it's just a bottle of red wine isn't it? A beautiful one obviously, and that's because it is a photograph of this particular place, this particular terroir, and the wine that comes from it is quite unique.”
A short drive away in Tanunda, I call on Peter Lehmann — the first winemaker to be conferred the Order of Australia — and his wife Margaret. Like Stephen, Lehmann is fifth generation Barossan and a champion of the land. Now age 82, he is in well-deserved retirement. “There comes a time when you just have to stand back and let the younger fellas take over,” he tells us as we congregate around a long jarrah table in his kitchen overlooking the vineyards and gardens of Peter Lehmann Wines.
It was sheer good fortune that he became a winemaker at all. “I would have taken any job to get out of school. And it happened that my mother had heard from the secretary at Yalumba that they were looking to train an apprentice. I applied, and went back to tell the headmaster that I was leaving school.”
After 13 years at Yalumba — the country's oldest family-owned winery — working under the great Rudi Kronberger (who set the standard for South Australian riesling), Lehmann was appointed winemaker at Saltram, where the shiraz wines he made in the 1960s are regarded among Barossa's finest. In 1978, realising that many growers would face financial ruin during the nation-wide grape surplus, he established a consortium, bought their grapes and built the Peter Lehmann winery.
“We all looked up to Peter and revered him,” says Andrew Wigan, Peter Lehmann Wines' chief winemaker who had followed Lehmann from Saltram. “It was how he treated people. He knew everyone, had time for everyone and ran a family-oriented company. When he started [Peter Lehmann Wines], we thought this was a big chance to take. Today, we're a world brand, but it came with a lot of hard work.”
“Peter's absolutely Barossa, true and true,” Margaret adds, as she takes the cap off a 2006 Margaret Barossa Semillon, a white named after her, with youthful lemongrass aromas and citrus acidity. “Me, I came here 42 years ago, and I can't imagine living anywhere else.” (Side note: How can you not have a Margaret with Margaret?)
Respected for her work as the founding chairperson of Food South Australia Cooperative and Food Barossa, as well as for her long time campaign to protect the region from urban sprawl, she adds: “There's a real camaraderie here. We have big companies and tiny ones, and we all get along well. Everyone is ready to give advice or help when needed. You want all your Barossa winemakers to make good wine because that is only helpful to you.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Reid Bosward, co-owner of Kaesler Wines at Nuriootpa, when we visit. “We have more friends than associates in the business. That's the good thing about the industry,” he says. “Just yesterday I rang up Peter Gago, who I went to winemaking college with, and said I had a guest who was really interested in Penfolds, would he have some time for us. He's a busy guy, and he said yes. If he were to call me about anything, I would do the same.”
Famed for its single-vineyard Old Bastard Shiraz (yes, the bottle with the funny looking old guy with a big nose, protruding chin and a cigar in his hand), Kaesler only came to be because Bosward and his wife Bindy caught up with friends Edourd and Julie Peter in a Bordeaux restaurant in the mid-90s. The two men, fuelled by three bottles of 1985 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, started talk of setting up a winery. That thought stayed with Reid — then a flying winemaker — even as he returned to Australia to make wine for Cellarmaster, a huge business that produces 1.3 million cases a year.
“At Cellarmaster we used to buy our grapes from [what was the Kaesler property], and they were always better than everything else. Not only were they better, but the grapes we bought were the least quality from the property. So if the bad stuff was good, just imagine how good the good stuff could be,” he says.
So captivated was Bosward by the vines that he and his partners made a successful bid to purchase the 92ha property in 1999. Their flagship Old Bastard — which received 98 Parker points for the 2005 vintage — is made from grapes hand-picked from an 1893 block of shiraz that yields less than two tonnes to the acre. Other parcels date to 1899, 1930 and the 1960s. Under the previous owner, some of these grapes were also supplied to Penfolds.
Working alongside Bosward is winemaker Stephen Dew, a Matthew McConaughey lookalike in work boots and purple-stained casuals who takes us into the inner depths of the cellars and out to the gnarly old vines. “We do get dirty and we want to get hands-on with the wine. That's the only way you will fully understand it,” he tells us. “The people who work in the cellar will have greater respect for you because they know that you know what you are doing. As they say, ‘you should have purple hands at vintage time'.”
Penfolds' connections reveal themselves at every turn. At the Artisans of Barossa cellar door at the base of Mengler Hill (a contemporary building with superb views across the region) we meet up with John Duval. These days he makes small-production, hand-crafted wines from rare vineyards under the John Duval Wines label, but for almost 30 years until 2002, Duval was custodian of the iconic Grange. As Penfolds' chief winemaker, he also created the Bins 407 and 138 and the RWT.
“Although I don't have the same vineyards now, in many respects, what I'm doing is a refinement of some of the new wines I developed at Penfolds,” he explains as he sets up a tasting table with his new babies: Plexus (white and red), Entity and Eligo. “My shiraz winemaking is an elegant expression of old vineyards in the Barossa. We're so lucky as winemakers here to have access to the oldest shiraz, grenache and mourvedre in the world and I don't take that for granted,” he adds. (His 2006 Eligo was, in fact, given 96 points by Nick Stock who noted: “The very best shiraz to pass through Duval's experienced hands, this has a superb sense of depth and grace, relying on soulful, rich regional depth.”)
Wine is in his blood. Duval's family has lived south of Adelaide (Barossa is 60km northeast of Adelaide) for four generations. Both his father and grandfather ran a sheep stud farm and grew grapes on their farm at Morphett Vale. Penfolds so loved the family's shiraz that they took cuttings of it to replant part of their historic Magill Estate. “My father didn't even know this at the time, but I found original records of the first vintage of the Penfolds Grange made in 1951 and it stated that the grapes were 50 percent from Magill and 50 percent from Morphett Vale. It's a small world!”
At Marananga, on a rocky hill with commanding views of the Marananga Valley, which is in turn framed by the Barossa Ranges, another Penfolds alum, Peter Taylor, has also gone the artisanal way. His winery, Hare's Chase (named for the long-eared bunny that once sent the dogs tearing through the property on a fruitless chase), is a joint endeavour with Michael de la Haye and their respective families.
It all began in 1996, when the two Adelaide neighbours packed their families in the car for a day trip to the wine country. “We came up with all the kids, picked some grapes, jumped up and down on them, and made what we thought was a ‘play' wine. But because Peter was involved, it turned out to be a very good wine. That got us talking about opening up our own winery,” shares de la Haye. The following year, they found themselves the perfect plot when “the family who owned it previously decided the wine bubble was going to pop and wanted out”.
Because Taylor and de la Haye both juggle day jobs — Taylor is Treasury Wine Estates' Director of Australian Wine Production while de la Haye is a businessman — they aren't actually reliant on their wine adventure to pay the bills. (“Thank goodness,” they both say.) That doesn't mean they aren't focused on making serious wines with a serious following. In fact, uninhibited by stylistic requirements of a big-brand winery, Taylor's reds are a personal expression in the style of Côte-Rôtie in the Hermitage region of France “but with the distinctive Barossa shiraz imprint”.
“Vintage is a very busy time for us,” admits Taylor. “It's a family affair. And you will see quite a few embarrassing photos of all of us on the website, including a few of the kids, when they were much younger, throwing buckets of grapes into the crushers. It can be tiring, but we do it because we want to. It's fun.”
Fond memories like these remind me of Gago's observation that a 750ml bottle is more than wine — it's a time capsule. So from now on, whenever I open a Henschke, I will think of my Barossa sojourn and recall my first dip in a shoe bath. With a glass of Peter Lehmann, I will be magically transported to Peter and Margaret's kitchen table. With a Kaesler, I will think of purple-stained hands. A John Duval will remind me that we're living in a small world after all, and with a sip of Hare's Chase, I'll remember that wine, whether making or drinking it, is all about having fun.
Other Barossa Institutions well worth a visit:
Lined by majestic palms, Seppeltsfield is a magnificent heritage-listed property founded in 1851 by Joseph Seppelt, an immigrant from Silesia. Once a glorified museum, it has been rejuvenated as a fully functional village where wine is made, barrels are crafted, and people come to eat great food and chit-chat with the owners. Seppeltsfield is also famous for its Centenary Cellars — home to an unbroken lineage of tawny from 1878 to this year. For a fee, you can embark on a Centenary Tour and taste your birth year directly from the barrel.
No history of the Barossa is complete without the mention of Saltram. Founded by the Salter family in 1859, many of Australia's most influential and celebrated winemakers have passed through its doors including Brian and Nigel Dolan and Peter Lehmann. At the cellar door you can find our new favourite — The Journal Centenarian Shiraz by current winemaker Shavaughn Wells — as well as dine in Salter's Kitchen, a restaurant serving modern regional cuisine.