When you hear talk of the Barossa, there’s a good chance your mind immediately jumps to the region’s varietal shiraz. Those brooding dark fruit characters, paired with grippy tannins and Christmas cake spice – it’s a truly recognisable and memorable style of wine.
Barossa wines, in particular shiraz, are known for their intensity on the palate, with most spending time in oak and picked a little later for that extra alcohol and punch. But while these bolder styles have firmly stamped the Barossa and Eden valleys on the wine map, that’s not all this South Australian region has to offer.
If peppery shiraz and heavily oaked semillon aren’t your cup of tea (or glass of wine), it’s time to meet some new Barossa winemakers. From using minimal-intervention winemaking methods, seeking organic and biodynamic vineyards, picking grapes earlier to even planting alternative varieties in the region, these winemakers are pursuing wines of elegance and approachability – all the while flaunting, oh so softly, those trademark Barossa characteristics. It’s Barossa wine, but just not as you’ve come to know it.
“There’s a preconception that the Barossa is all big and generous wines,” says Ruby Stobart of Arno Wine Co. “But there are a lot of producers, like us, who want to show off other fruit in the region, as well as highlight that Barossa shiraz doesn’t always have to be heavily oaked. It can have a beautiful purity and finesse about it.”
Stobart and her partner Craig Viney started their label Arno Wine Co in 2017 in the middle of the Barossa, where they craft a portfolio of vibrant wines. The duo are just one of the many producers in the region shifting their focus from the full-bodied, bolder styles to lighter, fresher and more approachable wines.
“We both worked for larger-scale wineries when we moved to the Barossa, where we really learnt the way of the region,” says Stobart. “So what we do now with Arno Wine Co is not a knee-jerk reaction to rebel against tradition or anything like that. It’s just we realised what was really important to us in our wine.”
For Stobart and Viney, that means having a level of approachability to their wines.
“At the end of the day, food and wine brings people together and I want us to be part of that in some way,” says Stobart. “We really want to be quite genuine, like we’re real people and there’s no intimidation with our wines. We’re trying to really pull back the curtain and say: This is what we do to make these wines, and we really hope you enjoy them.”
Stobart and Viney employ a minimal-intervention style of winemaking, using wild barrel ferments, whole bunch and wild yeasts across their range, along with sourcing their grapes from organic and biodynamic vineyards. They also pick a little earlier than what would be typical for the region, resulting in wines with lower alcohol levels and a true freshness on the palate.
The 2019 Arno Wine Co Semillon (A$22) is a great example of the label’s ethos, as it is a big step away from the oak-matured offerings typically found in the region. It’s bright and refreshing, with no oak contact, resulting in citrus and apple notes, and crunchy acidity.
The 2019 Arno Wine Co Mataro (A$30) is a personal favourite. It’s often seen as a blend with grenache and shiraz in the Barossa, but this single variety expression is stunning and a great introduction for those who haven’t tried mataro before. It’s made with 50% whole bunch and holds that beloved textural playground of meatiness meets earthiness, with delicate red and dark fruits and great structure. Stobart and Viney’s takes on grenache, cabernet and shiraz are also worth a look. They have the same much-loved varietal characters but toned down, with a softer feel on the palate, making for incredibly easy-to-drink wines.
David Geyer is another winemaker creating these brighter, Barossan wines. Geyer runs his own label – Geyer Wine Co – while also being one part of the experimental venture Yetti and the Kokonut (he’s the Yetti part, if you were wondering). The two labels have a hands-off, minimal-intervention approach, using organic grapes, natural yeasts and no additions. Geyer uses a little new oak for his Geyer Wine Co portfolio, but ultimately focuses on picking the grapes at optimal ripeness to achieve crunchy acidity and freshness. Meanwhile at Yetti and the Kokonut, this is taken to the next level and as a result, it’s a display of Geyer pushing his winemaking boundaries to the max – think ceramic eggs and carbonic maceration.
From the age of 15, Geyer was out among the old vines in the Barossa, working at Torbreck. It was there he learnt about the region’s viticulture. Then, as is customary, he spent a few vintages overseas – South Africa, France, the US and New Zealand – before returning home and working with Peter Schell of Spinifex Wines, who encouraged him to start his own label.
“I’ve definitely taken parts from the older Barossa styles of wine,” says Geyer. “The intensity and character that you can get from bigger, bolder wines is definitely something that you aspire to as a winemaker.” But to achieve this generosity, Geyer prefers to look to the vines, sometimes picking his grapes earlier, leaving them on whole bunch and using less maceration, resulting in structure and body without losing delicate aromas.
The 2018 Geyer Wine Co Let’s Be Friends (A$36) is a blend of montepulciano and petit verdot, and is a prime example of the depth to Geyer’s wines. “It’s got everything you want in a Barossa wine,” says Geyer. “It’s got density and structure, but it’s also so elegant, silky and just plain pretty as well.” The 2017 Geyer Wine Co Semillon (A$27) is also another wine worth getting your hands on to experience Geyer’s flair. Sourced from three old-vine sites in the Barossa and Eden Valleys, the grapes are a combination of direct pressed, whole bunch and destemmed fruit that spend time on skins and in 1950s Foudre.
Phil Lehmann is a winemaker who has grown up surrounded by Barossan wines – yes, his dad is the Peter Lehmann. When Lehmann the younger started his wine career it was at a time of the Robert Parker style wines, ripe shiraz with a generous dose of oak. After working in a few wineries and connecting with other winemakers chasing those larger bunched, earlier picked grapes – like Peter Schell of Spinifex Wines, Brett Grocke of Eperosa and Abel Gibson of Ruggabellus – Lehmann started his own label, Max & Me.
He purchased his Boongarrie Estate in the Eden Valley in 2002, planting shiraz and cabernet which he has now converted into organic vineyards. Lehmann focuses on characteristics of site, variety and a crispness in the flavour profile of his wines while never trying to replicate a vintage.
“Working in a bigger winery, you’re often looking at the previous year and wondering ‘how can I make this one taste more like that one’,” he says. “I want to do the opposite of that. I really let the wine be a reflection of what the vines saw. I don’t regard wine as a continuous sort of thing but as a batch each year.”
Lehmann says his Max & Me Boongarrie Estate Shiraz best sums up his approach. The 2015 (A$65) and 2017 (A$60) are both available. The shiraz spends a small amount of time in oak, with refreshing minerality reflecting the estate soils and notes of earthiness, saltbush and sage.
It’s clear that a common thread between these producers is the focus on vineyard selection and picking fruit at optimal ripeness. For Charlie Black of The Mysterious Mr Black, viticulture is at the heart of his winemaking. Black grew up with Barossa wines, with his father, Stephen, also in the winemaking gig. But it took a vintage in Margaret River for Black to realise his passion for viticulture. Now his mantra is ‘to always think like a grape – no matter how weird it gets’.
“I like to call myself a grape facilitator rather than a winemaker; it’s more about facilitating the grape through fermentation instead of trying to own fermentation,” says Black. “Allowing them to go through that process naturally without manipulation allows more seasonality to showcase more of that original fruit.”
Black has moved away from the methods used by his father’s generation, he admits every wine is crafted with thoughts of him.
“I might make the wines using Dad’s winery but I do indigenous yeasts, natural ferments and stuff. But in reality, the yeasts that land on my fruit would be some sort of mutated yeast that was used to ferment Dad’s wines,” he says. “It all comes from Dad… it just go sideways from where his wines would go!”
“I love that opportunity to do something different,” says Black. “I approach winemaking with an artistic point of view, I’m never trying to recreate another piece. It’s just the more varieties I can play with, the more colours on your palette, it adds fun to what I’m doing.”
Geyer agrees. “If I’m not trying something new every year in how I select my grapes, or processes in the vineyard side of things or trying to tweak this or that to get a better product, then I’m just standing still. And if you’re standing still, you’re just going backwards.”
But while they may be leaning away from the styles that defined the region, they also understand how those wines have paved the way for them.
“My biggest takeaway from the traditional wines is that they’ve given me the ability and freedom to do what I want because they’ve been making wines that are so successful for the region,” says Geyer. “As as far as the industry goes, the Barossa wouldn’t be surviving as a region without those sorts of wines giving us a clean slate and name to do so. They started the Barossa and we benefit from them being there.”
The challenge is breaking down these preconceptions about the Barossa and highlighting the new.
“There’s something here for everybody in the Barossa, but I think we just need to let those looking for those lighter styles or just something different know it’s here too,” says Black. “I encourage people to come to the Barossa and just step off the beaten track.”
The future looks bright for the Barossa. It’s not a region lost in time, but one where winemakers are embracing their history while also evolving to bring new drinkers to the area. So next time you’re in that part of the country, take time to learn the history, but don’t forget to step off the usual wine trail and get a taste of what’s to come.