Current Issue #488

Wine history lessons


Anniversaries are providing a way for older South Australian wineries to reassert their relevance with a new generation of wine drinkers.

For Saltram’s 160th anniversary, chief winemaker Alex MacKenzie used the occasion to show how he is applying his own fingerprints to the Barossa winery’s rich and decorated vinous history. As the 10th chief winemaker to have overseen the Saltram label, joining a prestigious lineage that includes such luminaries as Peter Lehmann and Brian Dolan, MacKenzie presented exceptional old reds from the cellar – most notably the superb 1977 Mamre Brook Cabernet Shiraz – and then introduced new wines of his own design that dazzled for their vitality and modern approach.

“It’s not all about the past,” says MacKenzie with a coy smile. “There is deep history at Saltram but there is also the platform for making modern wines that stand out from the pack. We have outstanding materials to work with, so I view the wines I make as being part of an ongoing history – of moving forward rather than looking back over my shoulder.”

His rationale is underlined by a new release, Saltram 2017 Grenache, handpicked from 1930s vines and made to emphasise slender, juicy flavours that dance in the glass. Similarly, his fresh take on Barossa shiraz – Saltram 1858 Shiraz, being a youthful, drink-now wine built on early-picked fruit from old vines – shows MacKenzie is determined that Saltram’s current reputation is not suffocated by its history.

“I’m acutely aware of the Saltram legacy, but that doesn’t mean that we only make one style of wine,” he says, pointing to the brand’s raft of alternative varieties (fiano, sangiovese, tempranillo) that most consumers wouldn’t associate with Saltram. “It’s wrong to only view Saltram as a historical label.”

The past year has seen a crowd of winery anniversaries celebrated throughout South Australia – a curious spread of landmarks from 50 to 175 years. Events have showcased phenomenal old wines that validate the kudos attached to these enduring brands, but the anniversaries also have these older wineries asking questions about themselves, striving to make sense of how their history currently defines them, and how looking back can provide perspective on where their journey will lead into the future.

Many of these wineries have realised that anniversaries present rich marketing opportunities – especially when it comes to showing their continued relevance in a rapidly changing Australian and international wine landscape. For European audiences, the landmark anniversaries are a statement about the depth of tradition and history that New World wines are built upon. In Australia, it’s different, being a crucial time for established wine companies to make rejuvenation statements and underline their relevance to a new generation of wine consumers, explaining that they have also embraced fresh, lighter wine styles, more exciting visual identities and focused, on-point marketing.

It’s challenging for any winery to step beyond a legacy. Wirra Wirra, in typically unconventional style, chose a dual 125th/50th anniversary (marking the construction in 1894 of the original, short-lived McLaren Vale winery, and its revival by the late, great visionary Greg Trott in 1969) to not only reflect on the quirky and memorable Trott years, but also signal its transition into another era. “The spirit of adventure that Trott instilled in Wirra Wirra is in this winery’s DNA, and that means we constantly have new wine stories to tell,” explains Wirra Wirra marketing manager Luke Tyler, pointing to the winery’s biodynamic label Amator and Esperanza Mediterranean-inspired wines as proof. “We’re the product of a fabulous history, but not stuck in time.”

Wirra Wirra’s quirks and humour have all been catalogued in a history book penned in the flavour of a boys’ own annual (The Highly Improbably Audacious Adventures of Wirra Wirra: 1894 to 2019), but the winery’s future was signalled with architectural drawings unveiled of five-star accommodation being constructed adjacent to the winery, to be completed by early 2022.

The company’s anniversary festivities also flagged winemaking developments. A generous historical tasting brought together many former Wirra Wirra winemakers who are now running their own wine brands (including Kerri Thompson of Wines By KT, Brendon Keys of BK Wines and Sam Connew of Stargazer), showing how important these alumni have become in defining modern Australian wine – and reinforcing Wirra Wirra as a home of bright ideas, innovation and inspiration.

Jim Barry Wines’ 60th anniversary celebration represented an important milestone for the Barry family, signalling that the third generation of this Clare clan is taking the beloved label to new heights. For managing director Peter Barry (one of the late Jim Barry’s four children, who are all involved in wine), the occasion allowed him to pause and look at how far his father’s humble, self-started venture has come. On launching the winery’s history book , Jim Barry: More Than a Lifetime’s Work , Peter was overcome by emotion as he recounted the journey: from one man’s dream to James Halliday’s 2020 Australian winery of the year.

The award served to underline the sharp contemporary focus of Jim Barry Wines, from its elite riesling suite and smart revision of shiraz/cabernet blends by winemaker Tom Barry (Peter’s eldest son) to releasing Australia’s first assyrtiko, the white Greek grape noted for its lean stonefruit flavours and lick of minerality.

For Stephen and Pru Henschke, the 150th anniversary of their family winery underlines their role as current custodians of a proud and deeply considered wine business. The release of the book Hill of Grace: 150 Years of Henschke Under Southern Skies followed grape growing and winemaking at Henschkes’ Keynton property through the generations. It also underlines history fan Stephen’s belief that we can only truly make sense of the present through understanding the detail of what has been built in the past.

Anniversaries also provide striking snapshots of a region. Within the many sub-regions of McLaren Vale, the Seaview district has intriguing neighbours with long histories that pursue very different vinous goals. Kay Brothers is celebrating the 125the anniversary of its famed vines that produce Block 6 Shiraz, with winemaker Duncan Kennedy showing the 2017 vintage to be a luscious medium-bodied wine of great poise. Although sourced from ancient vines, it’s not weighed down by old-fashioned treatment.

Kay’s western neighbor, Coriole Wines, is celebrating its 50th anniversary, with managing director Mark Lloyd looking back on a lively history of bold experimentation that has travelled a long way from its original 1969 Claret, made from estate-grown shiraz. While shiraz remains a great strength of Coriole’s wine portfolio – recently expanded to include four special site shiraz releases along with a unique shiraz/fiano blend – the winery’s embrace of alternative Mediterranean varieties has set it apart with outstanding sangiovese, fiano, nero d’avola and montepulciano.

With Mark’s sons Peter and Duncan now steering Coriole’s sales and winemaking duties respectively, the thirst for innovation isn’t about to stop, with the recent issuing of negroamaro, montimaro (a bold blend of barbera, sangiovese, montepulciano and negroamaro) and piquepoul (a southern French white grape with lively acidity).

Other wineries have also used anniversaries as promotional vehicles to announce new products. Penfolds is masterful in using this strategy, and for the winery’s 175th anniversary, chief winemaker Peter Gago introduced another Special Bin wine – 2017 Bin 111A Barossa and Clare Shiraz, for a breathtaking $1500 a bottle – along with the new Tribute range, comprising four elite shiraz and cabernets named in honour of Penfolds’ founders and great wine innovators.

Landmark winery anniversaries will continue through this year, although some companies are choosing to downplay their milestones. Yalumba, in its 170th year, has foregone fanfare to instead quietly apply fresh bottle labels and introduce a Wild Ferments range and Samuel’s Collection of Barossa wines.

For others, anniversary celebrations are simply a good excuse for a party. Chateau Tanunda’s 130th anniversary enabled its South African-born proprietor John Geber to indulge his great passion for cricket – by staging a match featuring former international greats on the manicured oval beside his lavishly reappointed Tanunda winery. “Let’s not forget to have a bit of fun around wine,” says Geber. “It’s serious to make, but great fun to enjoy.”

David Sly

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