The wine park

My Love Affair with Shiraz, Part II

Sep 06, 2013 12:06:38 PM

After leaving Roseworthy College, it was time to put all this knowledge to use. The emphasis of studies at Roseworthy was that grapes should be harvested at their maximum size because it was believed that they would be at their maximum flavour.  I soon learned that this was not the case.  We were also taught to pick the grapes at 12.5 Beaume which, would give you the highest possible yield.

Rolf

As I went straight back to work for the family company I had to experiment as I had no teacher or senior winemaker to guide me.  I was still learning and I know I was asking a lot of questions of other winemakers, but to me the best way to learn was to learn in-house through various small batches of grapes. I was very fortunate that we had small, one-time fermenters in the winery in which I could make smaller batches and have just two barrels of wine. This was a great advantage to me as I immediately learnt what different sugar levels, oak and fermentation techniques could do to the grapes when making wine and also it enabled me to immediately study different soil types as to their influence on wines.

The main two vineyards that we were sourcing our own fruit from were called the Hanisch and Heysen vineyards.  It was the early 1980s and to be honest, it was very hard to sell Barossa Shiraz in all domestic markets as cool climate, low alcohol Cabernet Sauvignon was the trend.Our main sales channel was our cellar door and we were still selling wines mainly to direct customers.

Hanisch Grapes

The first vintage I feel that I really came to grips with Shiraz was the 1985 vintage. It was during this vintage that I remember, due to weather conditions, receiving the grapes somewhat riper than expected. From memory, the resultant wine was close to 15% alcohol. I was also fortunate that this was the year that we managed to buy an amount of new oak and I practised the technique of fermenting the wine to dryness in this new oak. The first thing that struck me about the wine was the depth of flavour, the weight and the balance that the wine had. It appeared to be totally different from previous wines I had made, which tended to be somewhat angular due to picking at lower sugar levels.  I then realised that there was a direct correlation between alcohol, flavour and balance.  The other factor to remember was that lashings of new oak, was not a common style in wine at that time.

This wine developed nicely in oak, but as the market then was not a great fan of the Shiraz varietal, we bottled the wine after blending it with Cabernet and Malbec.  The next two vintages ‘86 and ‘87 were good and solid but did not produce any wines that could be called outstanding.  A hallmark vintage for me was the 1988 vintage, where crops were abundant and rich in flavour.  The vintage saw the birth of the ‘Hanisch’ Shiraz, our super premium wine.  Maturing this wine in new American oak for two years was against the trend as low alcohol red wines were still very much in vogue.

In the mid 1990s the Government of South Australia introduced a ‘Vine Pull’ scheme.  At the time the wine industry was in a terrible slump with a huge surplus of wine and many unsold grapes.  There was a major restructure and change of focus in what was being consumed.  The Barossa had always been famous for its fortified wines and many of these were still planted.  Whilst the ‘Vine Pull’ was good in enabling growers to pull out unwanted varieties such as Pedro and Doradillo, a few beautiful old vineyards of Shiraz, along with Mataro and Grenache were also pulled out.  This was a travesty but in hindsight, with the advent of new irrigation technology, closer planting density and better viticultural management, the Barossa is a better place as a result.

Ploughing the Fields

Some break throughs were starting to happen and along with a close friend at another winery who was doing the same thing, we were confident that wines we were making would lead the way for the Barossa which was still in a slump andnot a popular wine region.  The year 1990 and 1991 bought a surplus of red wines in the market and it was still hard to sell the Barossa brand.

The other revolution at this time relates to some major changes in the approach to irrigation in the Barossa.  Up until the mid-1980s the Barossa was essentially a dry grown region where virtually no irrigation was used.  In the early ‘90s, our whole approach to when we irrigated and how much changed.  The ideas came about with knowledge that we had a limited water supply along with learning the best times to irrigate vines.  The early teaching was that flavour was enhanced if the vines were stressed around the time of Veraison, (the first colouring of the grapes).  This was found to have a negative effect on the vine, as stress bought on a rapid maturation of the grapes, not allowing the flavours to develop, along with the loss of lower leaves on the vine, which are vital to the maturation of grapes.

An approach was now taken by those who had irrigation, to measure the moisture in the soil, showing them when to start applying irrigation.  Rainfall in the Barossa is in the vicinity of 450 to 550 mm per year.  If this falls at correct times, then the water profile will be filled to about 1.2 metres, giving sufficient soil moisture until about mid-January.  The trick that was learnt was to start to irrigate earlier than previously thought necessary so that this moisture profile did not dry out.  This kept the vine happy and only after the Veraison was the water supply tapered off.

Wine Making

This then slowed the ripening somewhat and also allowed bigger flavours to develop as the grapes ripened, without the stressed character that was seen previously.  Armed with this knowledge, the full-bodied Barossa style was truly born.  The other factor we noticed was that we were achieving much better phonological ripeness.  The grape and seed were fully ripening, hence we were making wines that were balanced and had soft, round, ripe tannins.

Pruning techniques also changed slightly to ensure the vine had enough leaf cover to mature the vine along with not over cropping the vine.

So the new Barossa Shiraz revolution was born and will be the focus of my next story.