Dr Richard Hamilton and Paul Gordon continue to nurture the ’old soldiers’ of the Centurion vines.

Safely tucked away from view, in the centre of a Vine Vale landholding on the floor of South Australia’s Barossa Valley, 820 goblet-shaped bush vines are quietly producing a beautifully fragrant and delicious red wine. Yalumba’s impressive Tri-Centenary Grenache has been made from this single site for the past two decades.

It is incredible that this small, 17-row vineyard, located in ‘Section 89, Hundred of Moorooroo, County of Light’ has spanned three centuries. Despite the odds being stacked against them, including enduring drought, changes of ownership and the vine pull scheme of the 1980s, the vines have survived for more than 130 years. After a long custodianship by multiple generations of the Graetz family, Yalumba purchased the land in 1999.

History

Section 89 was first traded as a 31ha lot in 1854 when land agent Christian Schilling purchased it from the Crown for £93. Schilling owned the property for many years, but his estate was handed over to liquidators when he was found guilty of false pretences in 1871. After this, the land was put on the market, for lease or sale. Land title records show that “gardener” Johann Heinrich Graetz, aged 31, purchased the block in 1888, and it is thought that the Tri-Centenary grenache block was planted near the centre of this land in 1889.

Grape growing was already in Johann’s family. His father, Johann Friedrich ‘August’ Graetz, owned a number of nearby properties. And August’s name was recorded in a list published by the Leader newspaper in Angaston of pioneer grape growers compiled from the 1891 census. In 1905, however, hard times must have struck as Section 89 was put up for sale by order of the mortgagee. The advertisement read: “30 acres have been planted with vines of which 25 acres are in full strength.”

Adolph Schulz purchased the property a year later, subdividing it and selling off an 18ha portion. He retained 13ha, complete with the grenache vines. Johann bought back these 13ha in 1914. It’s not clear whether he stayed on the land in the interim – although on his death in 1920, the Leader reported, “He was the son of the late A Graetz, and he has lived all his life in this district, where he has a small vineyard.”

The block was divided over time and the portion left to son Oscar was eventually sold outside of the family. The land with the Tri-Centenary grenache vines passed first to son Carl and then was acquired by grandson Ron Graetz, who ran the property as a mixed farm, selling the grapes, and later leasing out the vineyard. In an interesting twist of history, the 18ha plot that Ron’s grandfather had sold 64 years earlier came on the market. Ron purchased the land, returning most of the original Section 89 plot to Graetz family ownership. “The fact it was his grandfather’s, and that some of these vines had that sort of history, I am sure deep down he was pretty proud of it,” says Ron’s son Brian Graetz.

In 1999, the guardianship of this historic property, including the Tri-Centenary vines, passed to Yalumba.

The block was first purchased from the Crown in 1854.
The block was first purchased from the Crown in 1854.

Viticulture

The 1.12ha 1889 grenache block, known in-house as VG05, is nestled within Yalumba’s wider Tri-Centenary Vineyard, which has a total of 18.33ha under vine, now almost exclusively planted with grenache. The stately old bush vines have wide spacing and are largely self-regulating with naturally low yields. Despite the low fertility and reflective nature of the deep sandy loam soil, making it extra hot in summer, the underlying clay layer ensures that the deep-rooted vines have access to water and nutrients. This enables the vines to survive the harshest of conditions. When rainfall allows, cover crops are sown to protect the soil from wind erosion, and increase its organic matter and nutrient-holding capacity.

Brooke Howell, Yalumba’s Barossa vineyard manager and viticulturist, says the utmost attention is given to the old vineyard, including mapping via plane flyovers to identify differences in vigour. Only the best bunches on the best vines make it into the Tri-Centenary Grenache. Particular attention is given to pruning, ensuring the spurs are in the correct position to maintain the open canopy during the growing season, promoting even ripening and fostering grapes of the highest quality. She says former long-term vineyard manager Darrell Kruger was passionate about a succession plan for this historic vineyard, being aware of the reality that vines don’t last forever. For that reason, many of the newer plantings on the wider vineyard have come from cuttings off the VG05 block, preserving the precious genetic material for the future.

Viticulturist Brooke  Howell focuses  on pruning.
Viticulturist Brooke Howell focuses on pruning.

Winemaking

Senior red winemaker Kevin Glastonbury has been on the Tri-Centenary Grenache journey from the start, joining Yalumba in the same year the vineyard was purchased. Wine of purity, finesse and balance within a medium-bodied frame are what the vineyard produces. Taking a left-field approach to the wine, he aimed for a more savoury style from the beginning, eschewing prominent oak and excessive ripeness. He chose open-top fermenters, designed for pinot noir, for the fermentation, and utilised skin contact to improve the texture, integration and suppleness of the palate. The length of this post-ferment maceration has been steadily increasing over the years from 40-odd days in 2004 to more than 100 in 2017. After pressing, the wine goes into old French oak hogsheads from a single cooper, before bottling in December of the same year.

In 2019, the wine looked so good during the maceration phase that it remained in the presence of skins for eight months and saw no oak maturation. This is intuitive winemaking at its best, based on what the season dictates, allowing the wine to reflect the terroir as well as the vintage specific conditions.

Yalumba’s strong belief in grenache and their desire to produce expressive, single-site wines is no more evident than in the Tri-Centenary Grenache. Their holistic approach to the production of premium grenache, combining tailored viticulture with respectful winemaking, has seen the true potential of this magnificent vineyard come to the fore.

And perhaps most importantly, the preservation of the genetic material from one of the
oldest grenache blocks in the country will ensure the history of the vines, and the stories of the people who ensured their survival, will live on for future generations.

Winemaker Kevin Glastonbury takes a different approach to his reds.
Winemaker Kevin Glastonbury takes a different approach to his reds.

Tasting Notes

It’s the ethereal nature of the Tri-Centenary Grenache that sets it apart. The wine has alluring perfume, savouriness and fruit restraint, similar in colour and structure to pinot noir. The concentration and length is impressive, as is the tannin framework and seemingly endless palate.

2011 – An aromatically complex, dark-fruited wine with flecks of pepper, exotic spices and sandalwood. The medium-weight palate has poise and grace, with remarkable fruit composure and a silky finish. It is ageing beautifully and is one of the hidden gems from the cool 2011 vintage.

2013 – Deeper in colour, with expressive dark fruit in the plum and cherry sphere underpinned by gentle earthiness. The palate is more structural, with a slight dryness on the finish.

2015 (Current release, A$65) – Ripe pomegranate and perfumed red rose aromas introduce a savoury palate accented by crushed raspberries and fresh lemons. The colour is pale, the flavours long, and the palate intense and textural. The wine is drinking beautifully now, though it will develop further complexity with age.

2016 – Sweet-scented and gorgeous with cherry juice and fruit leather aromatics. The flavours are simply superb, with excellent freshness, fruit concentration and flow. Utterly charming wine, open-textured and soft, and an exposé of the heights the vineyard can reach. Not yet released.

2018 – Another strong year in the Barossa, with the wine showing great depth and energy. The flavours have outstanding poise and clarity, and a fine tannin frame supports the palate. It is a youthful wine with great freshness that will open up beautifully in the medium term. Not yet released.

Production of Tri-Centenary Grenache is limited: 1999 was the first vintage, and there was no release from years 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2014 and 2020.