FeaturesThe Collection

The Caley: origins of a ‘Great Australian Red’

It took Yalumba decades to produce an ‘icon’ wine. Adam Lechmere traces the journey back to its roots, when the South Australian winery's earnest young Fred Caley Smith set out on his travels

Words by Adam Lechmere

yalumba the caley
The Collection

The Grand Tour was an institution for the wealthy young Victorian and Edwardian. An extended trip around the classical sites of Europe, the rite of passage was celebrated in such classics as EM Forster’s A Room with a View. And while Fred Caley Smith’s diaries don’t record whether his own Grand Tour was quite as illuminating as that of Forster’s heroine Lucy Honeychurch, he certainly had an education.

The grandson of Yalumba founder Samuel Smith, and great-uncle of the current owner Robert Hill-Smith, the young horticulturist (he was 29) set off on an 18-month research trip from Angaston in Barossa in 1893. His mission was to open up new markets for Yalumba and Australian wine, and to research the latest horticultural trends in everything from California pears and peaches, to plums and apricots – and wine.

Caley Smith wrote hundreds of letters home and filled four journals with his neat handwriting. He met growers and fruit-canners, tramped the vineyards, dined with importers and officials from Sri Lanka to London. He tasted California wines (‘Good and sound,’ he noted, but ‘they all had the distinctive … must or foxy flavor that the American varieties of grapes have’). He was wary of overindulgence: ‘I positively declined to have another drop,’ he assured his father. But he was very much a young Australian abroad: ‘C & I were both a little upset internally by [Mr McKinley’s] brandy & took the afternoon to square ourselves up, sleeping it out. Not drunk, you know; only diarrhoea.’

fred caley smith yalumba
Fred Caley Smith’s extensive diary entries track his travels all over the world, and chart new knowledge he would bring back to Barossa

Despite such setbacks, he managed to dive deep into his research, meeting such luminaries as Arpad Haraszthy (son of Agoston, one of the founding fathers of California viticulture) and reporting back in copious detail. On his return, he oversaw the introduction of scientific methodology to Yalumba and is credited with having had a profound effect on the entire operation, which in the late 19th century was as much about fruit orchards as vineyards. He died before he was 50, and his eloquent diaries and letters were only recently discovered during renovation work; they have made him something of a cult figure at Yalumba.

I first heard about the wine that was to be named after Caley Smith when I visited Yalumba back in 2013. ‘We’ve got a superb 2012 in barrel – it’s going to be our icon release,’ Robert Hill- Smith told me. ‘But I don’t know what we’re going to call it yet.’ It was another four years before The Caley was unveiled.

During that same visit, Hill-Smith admitted to frustration at how Yalumba was perceived. With an impeccable pedigree and ancient vineyards, it is one of Australia’s most renowned wineries. Its wines include some of Australia’s finest Cabernet/ Shiraz blends: The Signature, The Scribbler, FDR1A and The Reserve; then there are the single-vineyard bottlings, such as The Octavius and The Menzies Coonawarra. Yet Yalumba didn’t have a pinnacle wine – a Grange or a Hill of Grace. ‘It’s a paradox,’ Hill-Smith told me. ‘We are a lot more serious about our winemaking than the wine-drinking public gives us credit for. We haven’t beaten our chests loudly enough.’

yalumba the caley
The Caley (named after Fred Caley Smith) is what Robert Hill-Smith refers to as Yalumba's 'icon release'

That all changed in 2017 when The Caley arrived. Hill- Smith launched it in London with a tasting alongside Mouton Rothschild 1959, Dujac Clos de la Roche 1990 and such recondite rarities as Mount Pleasant’s Mount Henry Light Dry Red 1944 and Yalumba’s Museum Reserve 1908 Muscadelle. Chest-beating, indeed – and it’s testament to the esteem in which Yalumba is held that the reviews were universally positive. ‘Beautiful … the oak judged to perfection,’ the veteran Australian critic James Halliday said. Lisa Perrotti-Brown gave it 96 points in The Wine Advocate; the subsequent bottlings have been no less lauded.

Tasting all five vintages with winemaker Kevin Glastonbury and discussing them with Hill-Smith at the end of last year, it is fascinating to see the evolution of the wine and the thinking behind it. What is most striking is the glacial pace at which the team – including head winemaker Louisa Rose – worked on the wine. How come it took so long? Was the time not right? Hill- Smith chuckles. ‘Yeah, it’s true,’ he says, and he brings up the spectre of Robert Parker, who dominated Australian wine styles for decades. ‘Parkerisation influenced mature and intelligent people to fashion wine to certain specifications. The wines became angular and muscular, overbearing in every sense.’

‘While anyone can make a Cab/Shiraz, only Australians can make the Great Australian Red’ – Robert Hill-Smith

The team at Yalumba weren’t happy to beat their chests over wines like The Octavius, which ‘played to a version of old-vine Barossa Shiraz, highly concentrated and extracted’, Hill-Smith says. ‘I can’t claim that, as a family, our heart was always in the style. I think we thought that one day we’d move on to something a little more presentable, a bit more harmonious, with equal longevity but with a twist.’

So it was with a growing sense of delight that they realised the 2012 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Menzies estate in Coonawarra (the ‘Ming D’ block) and Shiraz from two Barossa sites was showing the ‘vibrancy, elegance and harmony’ they’d been looking for. Hill-Smith likes to stress the organic nature of the wine’s evolution: ‘We put it together hoping it would evolve into something that we could turn into something meaningful. It’s not that we sat down and thought, “We’ve got a gap at the top of the price tree, how do we fill it?”’ Glastonbury still regards the wine as a work in progress, towards the ideal of a fusion of the old-style Aussie clarets – ‘full-bodied with a firm finish’ – and the style of the Great Australian Red: ‘a wine that conjures up more fruit and generosity and precision’.

hall-smith yalumba the caley
Yalumba chief Robert Hill-Smith: 'We are a lot more serious about our winemaking than the wine-drinking public gives us credit for. We haven’t beaten our chests loudly enough’

The Caley is part of an Australian tradition that goes back more than a century. In the 1880s, Yalumba pioneered the claret style, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz that was much favoured by Australian winemakers at the time. (And indeed in Bordeaux – until new appellation laws put an end to it, the addition of Rhône Syrah to claret was known as ‘Hermitaging’.) Yalumba’s bottles were shipped around the world; when Caley Smith visited his relatives in India, they opened a bottle.

Over the decades, the blend came to be associated with Australia. It’s perfectly possible to fashion elsewhere, but in most of the Old World, appellation rules forbid it, and elsewhere in the New World, Cabernet Franc is often preferred to Shiraz, to mitigate the ripe fruit of Cabernet Sauvignon.

In 2006, critics Matthew Jukes and Tyson Stelzer started a competition they called The Great Australian Red, to champion the ‘unique … definitively Australian’ Cabernet/Shiraz blend that had inspired some of the greatest wines the country had ever produced yet had been eclipsed in the great Australian boom of the 1980s and ’90s. The list of winners over the years includes every serious winemaking name in Australia; The Caley has been overall winner twice, FDR1A once.

hill smith family yalumba the caley
The Smith family, including Fred Caley Smith, in the 1890s

This most iconic of blends is typified by wines such as the ultra-rare Penfolds Bin 60A (only made twice, in 1962 and 2004), Penfolds Bin 389 and Yalumba’s classic blends; it inspires huge producers like Hardys, Wolf Blass and Jacob’s Creek to excel (via the 165th Anniversary Cabernet/Shiraz, the Black Label and Johann respectively).

One of the conventions that has grown up around the blend is that it should be bi-regional. Barossa veteran Grant Burge, for example, has long had a Barossa Cabernet/Shiraz – the Nebu – but is only now working on the classic duo of Coonawarra Cabernet and Barossa Shiraz. This as-yet-unnamed wine will be released in early 2023, chief winemaker Craig Stansborough says. ‘To work, it has to be Coonawarra/Barossa. Some of the greatest wines in history, like the Bin 60A, came from the two regions.’

Hill-Smith tries to play down the GAR but recognises that it’s a way for Australia to assert its authority. ‘It’s about Australia doing something unique. Sure, it’s a bit of fun, but while anyone can make a Cab/Shiraz, only Australians can make the Great Australian Red.’

yalumba winery map
Yalumba produced a map documenting Fred Caley Smith's travels

While The Caley is part of a long tradition, Yalumba has landed on a new iteration of an old style. I found it instructive to look back through my tasting notes for some of the big-name Australian reds. A few years ago, I was using descriptors like ‘massive’, ‘muscular’, ‘hulking’, ‘monster’. Cut to November last year, and I’m noting the ‘fine texture’ of the 2012 Caley, the ‘cool, fresh and lean’ 2013, herbal notes in the 2014 and ’15; washes of juice; precision as well as opulence.

Generosity is still an essential feature, Hill-Smith says. ‘You can’t live in denial of the region. Opulence with savouriness is a beautiful thing; it plays to a vibrancy and a lift in tone that differentiates it from the philosophy of the early ’90s.’ Precision is another vital stylistic building block: Glastonbury likes to describe the tannins as ‘like railway tracks’: defined, straight as an arrow, keeping the fruit and the acidity perfectly in order.

yalumba winery
The Yalumba winery in the 1890s, around the time the family operation was given over from fruit orchards to winemaking

Still, it’s clear that this is a work in progress. It’s notable how different the wines are from one another. The long, steady ripening season of 2012 might have set the tone, Hill-Smith says, but then the 2013 turned out very different, with ‘more mid-palate drive and juiciness’. The Caley won’t be made every year – there will be no 2017, for example. ‘We didn’t have the tone and finesse or the typicity that gave us the confidence to release. It took us a long time to get here, and we could be quickly unwound if we brought something to market that didn’t stand up. Hopefully it shows that we’re serious about the craft.’

Fred Caley Smith would surely approve; his earnestness shines through in his letters and journals, whether he’s visiting a California canning factory (‘the method & precision of the work is astonishing’) or seeing Romeo & Juliet at the Paris opera: ‘Oh, the singing was lovely, but the building was beyond all description. It seemed as if ingenuity and art had been exhausted to produce something that the world had never seen before.’ There’s ingenuity and art in winemaking, though I imagine the laconic Hill-Smith would run a mile before making such a claim. But he’s got ambitions for it. ‘We’ve been hiding our light under a bushel for too long. We need to take one big giant stride – it’s about bloody time we did it. And hopefully the rest of the world comes with us.’