Could the secret to the longevity of some of the world’s oldest vineyards be sand? Sand is low in nutrients, so the vines need to struggle, free-draining and moisture-wicking, reducing the incidence of disease. At 168 years of age, the eight rows of mourvèdre vines on the Old Garden Vineyard at Rowland Flat in the southern Barossa Valley have certainly thrived on their sandy plot. These vines have for generations been lovingly owned and cared for by the Koch family.
A chance knock on the door by Dean Hewitson in 1997 progressed to a long-term union between grower and winemaker that has allowed the uniqueness of this site to be realised. The inaugural vintage of the single-site Hewitson Old Garden Mourvèdre was in 1998, and it has been produced every year since. It is a distinctive, special wine made from what are believed to be the oldest mourvèdre vines in the world.
The vineyard is thought to have been planted in 1853 by Johann ‘Friedrich’ Wilhelm Koch, a Prussian immigrant who arrived in South Australia on the Catharina in 1839, age 45, with wife Anna and four children. The family eventually settled at Rowland Flat, and section 2702 was acquired in September 1842. It was on this land that the mourvèdre vines, otherwise known as mataro, were planted.
Vine cutting availability may have determined the choice of variety. However, once established, mataro’s thick-skinned, high-yielding nature, combined with its heat tolerance and ability to produce quality grapes, would have undoubtedly pleased the pioneering farming family.
In the early to mid-1900s, it was common for mataro to be used in fortified wine production. However, its value in table wines was only realised in the latter part of the century with interest in Rhône blends. Nevertheless, it was rare to see it stand alone.
The uniqueness of Australia’s old vineyards became apparent to a young winemaker, Dean Hewitson, in the 1990s while he was studying in California, and travelling and working in Europe. Tasting wines in the cellars of Provence revealed the value of mourvèdre as a straight varietal. Hewitson returned to Australia with a vision to make wine from old vines. He began knocking on doors and – thankfully – one of those doors belonged to Ross Koch, a direct descendant of Friedrich Koch.
The vineyard has continued to be passed through the generations and is today owned and managed by Ross’s son Leon Koch, wife Carlene and their daughters.
Single site expression is the driver behind all vineyard and winemaking decisions for the Old Garden Mourvèdre. Hewitson speaks about traditional management of the low-yielding vineyard as being paramount. There is no infill planting and remnants of history, such as old trellising posts, are left in the vineyard as historical markers of days gone by.
The plot is around a hectare, with vine spacing wide enough to fit a draft horse and cart. Grasses grow between the vines and the site slopes gently towards the North Para River. The soil is deep and sandy and sits over a limestone base.
Mourvèdre, with its Iberian heritage, is a hardy variety, with tough skins that aid resistance to botrytis. The combination of its late-ripening nature and the vineyard’s location in the cooler part of the Barossa means that harvest can be as late as May.
Hewitson is adamant that Old Garden Mourvèdre be an honest showcase of the season. Hence there is no bunch thinning, and the dry-grown, hand-pruned, low-trellised vineyard is always picked in a single pass.
The winemaking has evolved over the years, leading to the creation of perfumed, balanced, expressive wines. Increasing amounts of whole bunches are included in the fermentation. This technique provides a “ribbon of tannin for the colour to adhere to,” says Hewitson. “And from a longevity perspective, this sets the wine up for its journey.”
As the oldest mourvèdre vines on earth, the precious nature of the Old Garden Vineyard genome has global significance.
In 1998, the Baby Bush Vineyard was planted using cuttings from the best vines of the Old Garden. This technique, known as a ‘sélection massale’, enables the genetic diversity of the old vineyard to be passed to the new. And they’re bush vines, without trellising, hence the name.
It is fascinating to note that a solitary shiraz vine is found within the Old Garden Vineyard. Cuttings from this vine have been grafted onto 30-year-old chardonnay roots on the Hewitson property, preserving the genetic material of this pre-phylloxera shiraz. The wine produced from this vineyard is called Monopole Mother Vine Shiraz.
There is something beautiful and evocative about the name Old Garden. It reminds us that we are drinking wine from a treasured patch of land, one that has helped sustain a family through seven generations.
The symbiotic relationship between the Koch family and Hewitson has allowed for the creation of an internationally respected site reflective of contemporary mourvèdre that has travelled the world – just as Friedrich Koch and family did all those years ago.
Although this mourvèdre ages well in the mid-term, it is fabulous on release due to the wine’s completeness, tannin ripeness and measured fruit expression. This is not a wine to tuck away for eternity. Instead, it’s one to buy and enjoy over a decade, topping up the cellar every time there is another good vintage.
Baked cherry pie with a touch of blueberry and a twist of cumquat. There’s an almost imperceptible lemony undercurrent that heightens and supports the wine. Flavours are focused on the front and mid-palate, tightening up on the back. The wine has richness and depth, though it’s not over-fruity. It finishes fresh and clean, with soft ripe tannins and gentle acidity. The wine has a togetherness that is only seen in wines made from well-tendered old vines. It will age, though it’s drinking exceptionally well now. A stunning wine from a great vintage. (New release)
Impressive freshness and vitality, with supple red fruit and gentle lemony acidity, gives a cleansing nature to the finish. It is remarkably similar in profile to the 2018 and demonstrates how well the wine ages in the mid-term.
Fragrant maraschino cherry and dried blueberry aromas with hints of blackberry jam. The palate is rich and concentrated, almost port-like in intensity, with cherry liqueur and plum conserve notes. It is an excellent contrast to the younger wines as it shows how the style has evolved.
2019 Hewitson Baby Bush Mourvèdre, A$28
A youthful wine with vitality and life. Extraordinarily enticing aromas of dark cherries and raspberries accented by a little rhubarb and musk. The palate is bright, nippy, and soft with medium weight. Although it is bursting with red fruit flavours, it is enhanced with flecks of white pepper, green herbs, and spice. The palate is well-balanced and rounded, and the acidity is appropriately gentle. An utterly delicious, unique wine that is terrific value. (Current release)
2018 Hewitson Monopole Mother Vine Shiraz, A$150
Expressive, supple, and densely flavoured with chocolate, plum and raspberry characters. The core is distinctly savoury, and the use of whole bunches adds a mild herbaceous accent. (Current release)