The new face of Barossa wine


The new face of Barossa wine

Tyson Stelzer, a multi-award winning wine writer, television host and producer recently visited the Barossa Valley to taste a sample of Barossa wines now available from recent vintages. His informative report highlights the state of play and how the evolving climate fluctuations continue to effect wine varietals grown in our local soils.
PHOTOGRAPHY sam kroepsch
>> Multi-award winning wine writer, television host and producer, Tyson Stelzer

Barossa wine is in a dynamic state of flux in response to dramatic changes in the climate and the market.

When I returned to The Barossa Cellar for an intense day of tasting at the close of harvest 2024, I was especially excited and intrigued about the line-up.

A huge oak table burgeoning with more than 120 wines from 33 producers is always going to be a fantastic insight into the state of play in any region, and in this era of increasingly hot and dry vintages, the refreshingly cool 2021, 2022 and 2023 seasons proved to present a trilogy like I cannot recall in the Barossa.

The result was Rieslings more classically structured, pure in their citrus finesse and more enduring in their potential, Grenache more fragrant, more spice-infused and more elegant and Shiraz and cabernet more vibrant, fine-boned and lively.

Acidity is the ingredient that infuses wine with freshness, life, endurance and food-matching dexterity, and I love the way in which the cool nights of these three seasons blessed even the most generous of wine styles with refreshing poise. These are wines flattering in their youth and charged with incredible potential for long-distance endurance.

Riesling confidently holds the throne as king of affordable wine in this country, and in 2021 the Eden Valley was blessed with my favourite vintage since 2002, with 2022 and 2023 following confidently. Of 14 Rieslings in my tasting, I singled out 10 as standouts, an incredible hit rate that any variety in any region would be challenged to equal!

Grenache has been a stalwart of the Barossa for centuries, but only in recent years has it risen to wide-spread popular fame. Barossa Grenache has truly come of age and I love the way in which parishes, sites and makers are more emphatically distinguishing styles, from elegantly juicy, floral and refreshing, to profoundly dark-fruited, structured and enduring.

The blessing of long ripening in these cool seasons serves to heighten stylistic distinction, as makers are blessed with the freedom to wait and pick to suit their style, rather than having their hand forced by the extremes of the elements.

Grenache’s favourite blending partners of Shiraz and Mataro bring layers of opportunity to build fruit profile and structure to accentuate this diversity of style. The result is that Grenache and its blends have come further than any other wine in the Barossa in recent decades, and now represent the most enthralling, food-friendly and dynamic category in the region.

Price is a pertinent conversation in this challenging era of economic downturn, colliding with wine oversupply. When it comes to affordable Barossa reds, Grenache and its blends now completely trump Shiraz and its blends.

When I lined up all my favourite Grenaches at the end of the tasting, the median price was $37. When I did the same with Shiraz it was $75 – more than double! Of the 16 Shirazes I tasted under $45 I found only two highlights (Teusner Riebke 2021 and Hentley Farm Villain & Vixen 2022).

Of 18 Grenaches under $45 I shortlisted eight! The message is that if you’re spending under $50 in a retail store, Grenache is your best friend (unless it’s Teusner or Hentley!). And if you’re serious about Barossa Shiraz, it’s worth spending a bit more.

Shiraz has long been the Barossa’s trump card and it still makes the finest and most sought-after wines in the region. But there is a vast disparity of calibre across the expansive diversity of the Barossa’s most famous grape. Perhaps there was once a time when Barossa Shiraz was an easy sell at a premium price, simply because it was Barossa Shiraz. But we live in changing times.

The biggest challenge that I perceive for Barossa Shiraz (and cabernet) in the modern era is in achieving consistency of ripeness – flavour, tannin and acid maturity in tune with sugar ripeness.

When these elements are out of sync, the effect is variously manifest as underripe or overripe flavours, or both at the same time (in a kind of sweet-and-sour effect), astringent acidity, gluey tannins and/or excessive alcohol.

The increasingly dramatic extremes of climate change in recent years have served to exacerbate these imbalances, with hot and dry seasons accelerating sugar ripeness (and potentially alcohol levels) and cool and wet seasons like 2021, 2022 and 2023 retarding maturation development, which can result in underripe flavours, acidity and tannins.

The beautifully refined and balanced wines achieved by makers particularly attentive to balance in their vineyards is more pronounced in the modern era than ever, a contrast equally dramatic in cool and wet seasons as it is in hot and dry. In both extremes, it seems moderate yields are more paramount than ever, because the inability of overcropped vines to achieve balanced and consistent ripeness, is increasingly pronounced in the Barossa.

The second factor that most clearly sets apart the finest red wines of the modern Barossa is in the careful application of high-class oak. This is no longer simply a question of American oak barrels or French, old oak or new, large format or small, high toast or low, long maturation or short, local cooper or international.

There is no single recipe for success, but the finest wines of the Barossa today show well-gauged use of oak to heighten structure and longevity without imposing dominant oak flavours.

Will 2021 be the next vintage to join the ranks of the likes of 2010, 2002 and 1996? I have a good feeling!

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