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About an hour's drive northeast of Adelaide is one of the most historically important wine regions in the whole of Australia: the Barossa Valley. The undulating and picturesque hills are home to some of the oldest winemaking families in Australia, not to mention custodians of some of the oldest grapevines in the world.
The region was established in the 1840s by Silesian immigrants (now modern day Poland), who found the warm, fertile soils of the valley to be perfect for viticulture. Many of the vineyards that were planted at this time are still there today, making them the oldest continuously growing vines in Australia. In fact, Barossa is one of the few regions in Australia that has a classification system for vine age - the Barossa Old Vine Charter - such is the history of the vineyards here.
Success can often be followed by complacency, but this is certainly not the case for the Barossa Valley. Despite its long and rich history, or perhaps because of it, the Barossa Valley is one of the most innovative and forward-thinking regions, and indeed one of the best modern wine regions in Australia.
The Barossa Valley is classified as a warmer region, with a Mediterranean climate. This is perfect for the bolder, richer reds that have made the region famous. Whilst it is considered warm overall, there are cooler sites situated at higher altitudes in the hills surrounding the valley floor. The altitudes are generally low, ranging from 100m to about 400m above sea level, but the area's system of valleys and twisting hills results in a variety of slopes, aspects and sites creating an array of microclimates and diverse sites for growers and producers.
While Barossa Valley’s soils vary widely, they mostly fall within a family of relatively low fertility clay loam through to more sandy soils, ranging through grey to brown to red. The subsoils tend to have quite high acidity levels which help to inhibit extensive root growth and vine vigour.
During the growing season, the Barossa Valley is typified by warm, sunny days, with a cool shift overnight. The extensive sunlight hours and warmer temperatures result in very good ripeness, with usually high sugar levels and lower acidity in the grapes. These go to produce full-bodied, structural reds, and winemakers need to be mindful of harvest times, so as not to let the grapes get over ripe.
The high levels of heat during spring and summer can also lead to drought, so irrigation is sometimes necessary. However, most of the old vine plantings on the cooler, western side of the valley are dry grown. This practice, coupled with the age of the vines, naturally produces very low yields of incredibly concentrated fruit.
It's also important to note that through careful management and a proactive approach, Barossa growers and vignerons were able to protect their vines from the phylloxera plague that decimated Victoria. This means that today, the Barossa is home to the largest planting of pre-phylloxera vines in the world.
When we think of the Barossa Valley, we almost automatically think of Shiraz. And for good reason. Barossa Shiraz has become world famous and synonymous with Australian wine in general. The wine writer, critic, and Master of Wine, Jancis Robinson, says of Shiraz that the Barossa Valley is "arguably its spiritual home."
But alongside this stalwart variety, the Barossa is also home to ancient plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre (Mataro), Grenache and Riesling. In fact, these varieties were all planted alongside Shiraz when the first Silesian families arrived in the 1840s.
However, it's not just old-guard varieties that get people excited about the Barossa Valley. Many growers and producers are now looking at the next stage in Barossa's viticultural journey, and this includes the planting and production of many alternate varieties such as Malbec, Barbera, Tempranillo, Cinsault, Marsanne, Roussanne - to name just a few. One thing's for sure - while the Barossa Valley has an incredibly rich viticultural heritage, the future of the region is looking very bright.
Penfold's, Head Wines, Eperosa, Standish Wine Co., Michael Hall, Travis Earth, Rockford, Torbreck, Kaesler, Kalleske, Ruggabellus, Charles Melton, Grant Burge, Elderton, Izway Wines, John Duval, Magpie Estate, Massena, Spinifex, Seppeltsfield, Smallfry, Tim Smith, Tomfoolery, Schwarz Wine Co., Tom Shobbrook, Frederick Stevenson, Woods Crampton, Sons of Eden, Dandelion Vineyards.