The Barry family, originally from Cork, are among South Australia’s most prominent and successful winemakers
Peter Barry looked a little different when I met him in the foyer of the Shelbourne Hotel. The previous time we’dd met, it was late at night and he was standing around a campfire in South Australia, can of beer in hand, joking with fellow winemakers.
Barry is the senior member of a famous clan of winemakers, and part of a diminishing group of pioneering wine producers who first put Australia on the world stage.
They work hard and live hard too, happy to party whenever the opportunity arises. They are generally very modest about their wines. In the case of Barry, a little arrogance could be forgiven, as he is now heads up a very successful company that produces some of the finest wines of Australia.
The Barry family moved from Cork to South Australia in the 1880s. It was Jim Barry who started up the wine business. He had wanted to study medicine, but failed his Latin exams. Instead he applied for the job of librarian at Roseworthy University in Adelaide. Looking at his results, the college suggested he study winemaking.
In those days, Roseworthy took in six students every two years, the maximum their tiny laboratory could handle. In 1946 Jim Barry became only the 17th winemaker ever to graduate from there. As most were sons of existing winemakers, any unattached graduate was in demand.
He began working for the co-op in the Clare valley, and then moved to Taylors (known as Wakefield outside Australia). While there, he began the process of creating his own winery. “He was a busy man” says Peter Barry. “He had six kids, bought McRae farm, and set up his own business by the age of 48.” Peter and his brother Mark took over from their father, with Peter becoming sole owner 10 years ago.
The Clare Valley is in fact a series of valleys with a wide range of soils and climates. Vines are generally planted at relatively high altitudes. Daytime temperatures are hot, but it can be very cool at night. “This diurnal fluctuation is key to wine quality,” according to Barry. “It gives us freshness and fruit definition.”
Clare is best-known for Riesling and Shiraz. “The Riesling is quite unique. It is delicate, low in alcohol, very dry, and long in the mouth with a fruit sweetness. It isn’t Alsace, it isn’t German, it is very distinctive stuff,” Barry says.
Clare Valley Shiraz has its own style too. While it has plenty of power and ripe fruit, it usually has a fresh character, and typically some mint or eucalyptus.
Clare Valley is home to a small group of producers, including Tim Adams, Jeff Grosset, Mount Horrocks, Wakefield, Kilikanoon, Skillogalee and Pikes as well as the larger Wakefield and Petaluma. The standard of winemaking is generally high.
As it is an hour’s drive north of Adelaide, it has become a popular tourist attraction, while still retaining a friendly rural atmosphere. The Barry family also own vineyards in Coonawarra, South Australia’s premium Cabernet region.
In the Australian fashion, they blend wines from the two areas. “If Coonawarra has a good year we put in more from there, the opposite if Clare has a good year,” says Barry.
The Armagh is the company flagship wine, made from 45-year-old Shiraz vines. It has a cult followng in Australia and now sells for almost €200 a bottle. It is a massive but complex wine that can compete with the very best Australian Shiraz. The next step down is McRae Wood, another Shiraz. Both wines are deceptively powerful, hiding their alcohol behind a wall of fruit.
The Lodge Hill Riesling 2012 (see below) was recently voted Australia’s best wine in the very competitive tasting circuit, the first time a Clare Valley wine has won.
Barry is impulsive by nature, and inspired by trying out new wines. He mentions two “lightbulb moments”; in 1979, he tasted a fresh young Sauvignon and decided this might be the future of white wine. The company became one of the first to make Sauvignon Blanc in Australia.
More recently, on holiday in Santorini in Greece, he tried a glass of Assyrtiko, a variety unique to the island. Four years later, he has planted 600 vines in the Clare Valley.
“A glass of wine still turns on a light,” he says. “Even after 30 years winemaking.” The future seems assured too with Peter’s son Tom, a qualified winemaker, already working there. He will take over “whenever he feels ready”, says Peter.