German blends down under


Some of the oldest vines are used to make wine in the Barossa Valley, in south Australia, where the descendants of German settlers are keeping up with an old tradition, writes JOHN WILSON

WE TEND TO think of wine from the New World as a recent invention. Yet many parts of the southern hemisphere and the US have been making wine for centuries. Chile had a vibrant industry back in the 19th century and Australia, although not the oldest, has a tradition of winemaking going back to the arrival of governor Arthur Phillips in 1788. In the 1830s, James Busby returned from a tour of Europe with cuttings from more than 350 grape varieties.

Each state in Australia has a very different wine history, depending on the nationality of those who settled there. Often, there were waves of immigrants from different countries, drawn by the promise of religious freedom as well as commercial opportunities. It was the former which first drew German settlers to the Barossa Valley in south Australia, an hour’s drive north of Adelaide. The man responsible was an Englishman George Angas, who owned a vast swathe of land, some 28,000 acres, which he had purchased from the South Australian Company. He paid for a group of Silesian Lutherans, fleeing religious persecution back home, to come over in 1842. They were joined by further groups from Silesia and other parts of Germany, each with their pastor on board. They set about building a unique community which still dominates the Barossa a century and half later. At the time, this was the only place in Australia not dominated by settlers from England, Scotland or Ireland.

The gently undulating Barossa Valley is unique; the villages have a mix of Australian and German names, but the architecture and the names above the shops are most definitely German. There are small bluestone Lutheran churches, bakeries selling German pastries, and pork butchers selling würstchen (sausages) and liver pâté to eat with pickles. It was only when the second World War broke out that many of the inhabitants stopped speaking German. At one stage, the German government came over to the Barossa to study the local dialect, as it was considered one of the oldest and most pure forms of the language.

The mixed farming practised by the Lutherans still exists, but today viticulture dominates. Not surprisingly there is plenty of Riesling planted, although it was the English who first brought it here. Nowadays, the white wines are more likely to come from the cooler neighbouring Eden Valley.

There is also Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, but what really made Barossa famous was Shiraz. It is the same variety, but completely different to Syrah from the Rhône. Classic Barossa Shiraz is big, rich and powerful, a magnificent beast of a wine. It oozes ripe, sweet black fruits and plums overlaid with spice and chocolate. It can age well too; I have tasted vintages of fortified wine (once very popular) going back to the 1930s.

The ownership of the oldest vines in Australia, and probably the world, is a subject of constant dispute. Langmeil in the Barossa and Tahbilk in Victoria both lay claim. What is indisputable is that some of the oldest vines in existence are still used to make wine in the Barossa. Ancient, dry-farmed Shiraz vines, often more than a century old, produce hugely concentrated heady wines. There are equally elderly Grenache vines too, often mixed with Mourvèdre and Shiraz to create Rhône-style GSM blends. The names in the Barossa are still German: Schrapel, Schulz, Glaetzer and Gramp, some of them still small, family-run wineries. The personalities are as big as the wine, always on for a party, but with a steely determination to succeed in business and to make great wine.

The big producers have a presence too. Jacob’s Creek, founded by Bavarian Johan Gramp; Wolf Blass and Penfolds all started here, even if many of the grapes are sourced elsewhere; yields are too low and volumes too small in the Barossa. You will find some of Australia’s greatest wines though. The best-known icon wine is Grange, the legendary Shiraz-based wine invented by Max Schubert (another German). Although made from a cross-regional blend, including grapes from nearby McLaren Vale and elsewhere, the heart of Grange and its little brother St Henri is the Barossa. Equally sought after is Hill of Grace, made by Stephen and Prue Henschke in the nearby Eden Valley, beside a picturesque Lutheran church.

In recent years, there has been a move towards a more elegant style of wine, lead by John Duval, former winemaker at Penfolds/Grange, with his subtle Plexus. Charlie Melton and Glaetzer both fashion some of the most elegant, but still concentrated wines of all. In contrast, producers such as Robert O’Callaghan in Rockford, Dave Powell in Torbreck, Grant Burge and others stick with the power and majesty of traditional Shiraz. There are plenty of other interesting producers too. The Barossa is now on the tourist trail, and is well worth including if you intend visiting recent Irish emigrants to Australia. See barossa.comfor details.

Peter Lehmann Eight Songs 2002 Barossa Shiraz 14.5% €36Peter Lehmann is a legendary figure in the Barossa, having championed the small growers when the big companies pulled out. Stonewall Shiraz is the Lehmann icon wine, but this comes close. Rich, soft and silky, with beautifully concentrated damson plums and vanilla, with a long cool finish. A very stylish, fully-mature wine that is drinking beautifully.

Stockists: Jus de Vines, Portmarnock; O’Donovan’s, Cork; 64 Wines, Glasthule; Redmond’s, Ranelagh; Celtic Whiskey Shop, Dawson St; Red Island, Skerries; Higgins’, Clonskeagh; The Vineyard, Galway.

Turkey Flat Butchers Block, Barossa Valley 14.5% €18.99The Schulz family, originally butchers, started making wine in 1865. I love the Turkey Flat style – fairly full-throttle fruit and plenty of it. The Butchers Block at €19 offers real bangs per buck, with its broad voluptuous jammy strawberry fruits and spicy oak delivered with a real kick.

Stockists: The Grape Vine, Dublin 9; 64 Wine, Glasthule; The Wine Boutique, Dublin 4; On the Grapevine, Dalkey; The Parting Glass, Enniskerry; Red Earth, Mullingar.

Bethany LE Shiraz 2006, Barossa Valley 14.5% €34.99The Schrapel family arrived in the Barossa in 1844. The fifth and sixth generation, in the form of Jeff, Robert and Tanya are currently in charge. I have featured the excellent Bethany G6 Shiraz before, and would recommend trying it. The LE Shiraz is the new premium wine, smooth and svelte with silky dark fruits and spice.

Stockists: O’Briens.

Langmeil Three Gardens 2010 SGM, Barossa Valley 14.5% €15.99Langmeil owns some the world’s oldest vines. Its Three Gardens, from three vineyards in the Barossa, is a stylish, elegant wine with blackcurrant fruits overlaid with dark chocolate and spice, and a smooth finish.

Stockists: Red Nose Wines, Clonmel; Curious Wines, Cork; Cases, Galway; Simply Wines, Ballyogan, Dublin 18.