GRAPEVINE: SHIRAZ FROM VETERAN VINES

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ONE OF my favourite wine styles in the world is old vine Shiraz from Australia's Barossa Valley. Old vine? Well, the age at which a vine draws its pension is open to discussion. A vine's productivity declines from about 25 years old, and vineyard accountants would certainly advise ripping up and replanting before vines turn 40. But vines can go on producing for well over 100 years, their trunks becoming ever more thickly gnarled, the bunches fewer as the years go on. And the grapes taste richer and more intense.

The Barossa Valley is a haven for over-sixties vines because this is a uniquely conservative part of Aust-ralia. It was in the wide, rolling Barossa Valley floor and the hilly Barossa Ranges a century-and-a-half ago that German emigrants to Aust-ralia settled. They formed a tight, religious community. Today, brass bands umpah away under the gum trees. Butchers sell all kinds of Wurst, bakeries sell Strudels and Torten, and bread for which people drive an hour up from Adelaide. Most place-names were translated to English during the First World War, but many names of families, vineyards and wineries are still German. "Lots of people in my parents' generation had never been to Adelaide, and they spoke Barossa Deutsch," says Prue Henschke, who looks after the vines on the Henschke farm in the Barossa Ranges while her husband Steve makes the wine.

The old settlers had planted plots of their farms with Shiraz, plus some Grenache, Mourvedre and Spanish grapes, all to make fortified, port-type wines in the Barossa's very hot, dry climate. They were proud of their vines, and never thought to replant with young ones. Even when in the Eighties the government funded a "vine pull", to encourage growers to plant modern, viable vineyards, many Barossa farmers stuck by their old Shiraz. According to Bob McLean of the St Hallet winery in the Barossa, famous for its Old Block Shiraz, "There are maybe 30 80-year-old vineyards left in the Barossa, all belonging to old Barossa families going back four or five generations." St Hallet blended grapes from 14 vineyards for the dark, soft, raspberry-rich 1992 St Hallet Old Block Shiraz (pounds 9.99 Australian Wine Club), including three old "blocks" of vineyard at the back of the winery. "All the old vineyards we use in Old Block are between 75 and 140 years old."

From the start, the Barossa farming families had tended to sell their grapes to central Barossa wineries, rather than making wine themselves. There came a time in the late Seventies when the big Barossa wine companies could find enough cheaper grapes produced more industrially elsewhere. That was when Peter Lehmann, winemaker for one of the large companies, set up his winery. Now 66, Lehmann is a champion of small-scale Barossa growers and old vines, and his son Doug has followed in the cause. The inky-dark 1990 Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz (pounds 14.99 Fullers and Oddbins Fine Wine Shops) will be delicious in a few years, though too tannic for now.

The most famous of the Barossa old vine wines is Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz. Most Barossa old vine wines are blended from a number of different vineyards, sometimes miles apart. But Prue and Steve Henschke make this superlative wine from their 130-year-old vines, planted in an upland valley. You could drink the 1991 (pounds 28.49 Lay & Wheeler of Colches-ter) now, or at some time over the next 20 years. It has complex flavours, voluptuous fruit and rich tannin. Also superb is 1992 Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz (pounds l5.75 Lay & Wheeler). It, too, comes from a single vineyard, one with 70-year-old vines.

Not all the remaining old vines are Shiraz. Bethany, also in the Barossa Ranges, is another family vineyard and winery belonging to the Schrapel family, and their 1994 Bethany Pressings Grenache (pounds 7.45 The Wine Schoppen of Sheffield, pounds 7.49 Oddbins, pounds 7.93 Peter Osborne & Co Fine Wines of Watlington by the case only) contains grapes from vines planted five generations back. It has soft raspberry fruit. 1994 Nine Popes, Charles Melton (pounds 11.99 now in Oddbins Fine Wines and pounds 9.99 Australian Wine Club and Enotria Winecellars of London SW18, arriving early April) blends old Gren-ache, Shiraz and Mourvedre, also with raspberry perfume. There's a similar blend in the fruity 1992 Penfolds Old Vine Shiraz-Grenache-Mourvedre (pounds 7.99 Oddbins, EH Booth, Eldridge Pope, Victoria Wine, Wine Cellar and selected Berkeley Wines).

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