Barossa rides again

WINE In the Seventies, the best grapes were milked for their mass- market brands, and historic blends became shadows of their former selves Illustration by Spike Gerrell
"It's good to see the pride back in Barossa. I'm delighted with what's happening," says Australian wine maker Peter Lehmann, in the UK for London's first Barossa Valley wine tasting before rolling up his sleeves for his 49th consecutive vintage. The big man, Jo Brand without the hair or make-up, is one of the few links remaining between the Barossa Valley's heritage and today's unexpected renaissance.

Until the slump of the Seventies, the Barossa, untroubled by the phylloxera problems of neighbouring Victoria, had been the engine room of the Australian wine industry for a hundred years. All the big addresses - Orlando, Penfolds, Saltram, Seppelt, Yalumba - reside in this picturesque valley in southern Australia, colonised in the mid-19th century by British and Silesian settlers. Its stone buildings, farms, spires and neat little towns all add to the valley's appeal for day-trippers from Adelaide.

But in the Seventies, big wine companies muscled in on a surge in demand for red wine and ripped the delicate fabric of the valley apart, treating it with as much respect as a discarded wine box. The best grapes were milked for their mass-market brands, and historic blends became shadows of their former selves. Consumer disillusionment led to a slump; the public turned to whites, and the Barossa began to be seen as a hot-climate has-been.

When growers could no longer sell their grapes to the big wineries, Peter Lehmann was one of the few to hand them a lifeline. He bought the surplus grapes of 200 growers in two successive vintages.

This act of faith, later to be rewarded by an export boom, did not prevent a third of the Barossa's vineyards from being torn out in the early Eighties. The valley's image as a producer of big, heart-warming wines made from fortified wine grape varieties was at variance with the new demand for white wines and cool-climate elegance. As the export boom took off, it was a swashbuckling band of characters from outside the valley who reconciled the apparent contradictions.

These newcomers made the Barossa aware of the valuable resources under its own nose: Rhone-style red grapes and quality semillon and riesling. Roughly a quarter of the vineyards consist of 40-year-old-plus vines, a small percentage of which are ancient, gnarled bush vines capable of producing wines of exceptional richness and intensity of flavour. Shiraz, the syrah of the Rhone, is king of the Barossa's reds, but the revival has spotlighted the grenache and mourvedre too, and there are some good Barossa cabernets. Semillon makes more interesting whites than chardonnay, and the riesling in neighbouring Eden Valley can be exceptional.

With Penfolds' legendary Grange Hermitage, Max Schubert had been the first to capitalise on the unique, big, Barossa red wine style. Henschke too consistently produced brilliantly elegant shiraz with its Hill of Grace, made from 130-year-old vines, and Mount Edelstone. But the link between grape variety and the Barossa was not celebrated on the label until Robert "Rocky" O'Callaghan made the first Old Block Shiraz at St Hallett in 1980. O'Callaghan built Rockford, a working museum of a winery, and in 1984 created the first Rockford Basket Press Shiraz, which, he claims, "changed people's perception of the value of old shiraz."

The bandwagon started to roll: Grant Burge's Meschach, Jim Barry's The Armagh, Barossa Estate's E & E Black Pepper Shiraz. Old Block Shiraz, a blend of shiraz from old vines, caught the public imagination from the 1986 vintage onwards; Charlie Melton's Nine Popes, a southern-Rhone-style blend of grenache, shiraz and mourvedre, is another new-wave cult wine.

Previously the wines had been kept in stainless steel, and bottled as required. Now wine makers have started to pay greater attention to detail, selecting the best vineyards, trellising for full exposure to sunlight, extracting more gentle tannins and in some cases barrel-fermenting and maturing the wines in new, mostly American, oak.

The hot sunshine of the Barossa Valley creates generous alcohol levels and potentially dry tannins, with a corresponding danger of clumsiness and a hot, dry aftertaste. Sweet American oak, with its seductive flavours of coconut, vanilla and charred oak, has become a distinguishing feature of Barossa Valley reds, but has to be carefully controlled to avoid coarseness. At the head-banging end of the spectrum, Rocky O'Callaghan makes the wine lover's Special Brew. "I want earthy, ripe, farmyardy flavours, not floral ones," he says. "Sauvignon blanc makes me feel ill."

The modern approach enables the Barossa's wine makers to obtain richness without crossing the line into "portiness". Charlie Melton, for example, is against the Gotterdammerung style of Barossa shiraz. "One of the joys of Barossa is not having to worry too much about ripeness. I'm looking for richness, which is different from bigness." Melton, and Barossa lads Rocky, "Big" Bob McLean, Grant Burge, Steve Hoff, Peter Scholz and Peter Lehmann himself, are typical of the premium producers who will be significant in the coming regional focus on Australian wine styles

The best of Barossa

1994 Peter Lehmann Barossa Valley Semillon pounds 4.99, Asda. Peter Lehmann's wines set the bench mark for value, and this lively, dry semillon, with its fresh, citrus sweetness and lemon-curdy flavour, is no exception

1995 Yalumba Pewsey Vale Riesling pounds 5.49, Tesco. Perfumed, refreshing, lemon and lime essence of delicate riesling, culled from cool hillside vineyards

1995 Grant Burge Old Vine Semillon about pounds 8.99, London Wine Emporium, SW11 (0171-587 1302); Selfridges; Playford Ros, Thirsk (01845-526777). Zippily fresh and rich, with fine, youthful, lemony fruit and attractively honeyed undertones, set to mature nicely

1993 Saltram Pinnacle Cabernet Sauvignon pounds 6.99-pounds 7.99, Oddbins; House of Fraser group; Villeneuve Wines, Peebles (01721-722500). Inkily deep-hued, this is one of the more generously endowed Barossa cabernets, rich in vibrant, blackcurrant fruitiness

1994 Bethany Pressings Grenache pounds 7.49, Oddbins. Intensely perfumed, old vine grenache, with powerful essence of raspberry fruitiness. Limited supplies

1993 Yalumba Family Reserve Shiraz pounds 6.95-pounds 9.95, The Winery, W9 (0171-286 6475); Harrods. Sweetly blackcurranty, vibrant and sumptuously fruity, with supple tannins and spicy oakiness

1993 Grant Burge Old Vine Shiraz about pounds 8.99, London Wine Emporium; Selfridges. Another shiraz with a sweet-oak, blackcurranty bouquet and fine, old-vine richness and concentration

1994 Nine Popes, Charles Melton about pounds 11.49, Enotria Winecellars, SW18 (0181-971 2668); Martinez Fine Wines, Ilkley (01943-603241). This heretical misappropriation of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Melton's most impressive to date, has a spicy hint of bitters and the subtle power of savoury black fruits.