Features 4 March 2019

The root of all Shiraz

The oldest vines on the oldest soils - Jo Burzynska tells the extraordinary story of Australian Shiraz

Words by Jo Burzynska

Photography by Lisa Linder

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When he first saw the property that became Langmeil, back in 1996, Richard Lindner immediately spotted some old vines. ‘But we didn’t realise how many there were, because everything was so run down,’ recalls the Langmeil co-founder of his initial sighting of the Freedom Vineyard. What he went on to discover were the oldest Shiraz vines not only in Australia but very possibly the world. ‘We were incredibly excited by this. It formed the basis of our belief that we had inherited something truly extraordinary.’

These gnarly 176-year-olds, along with their venerable relatives across the Barossa and Australian regions beyond, are indicative of just how deeply rooted Shiraz is in the country’s vinous history. They are descendants of the first vine collection brought to Australia by James Busby in 1832; their origins lie in cuttings taken from the Syrah heartland of France’s Rhône Valley. Given their French ancestors were completely wiped out when phylloxera decimated the vineyards of Europe less than half a century later, these early Australian plantings are also internationally significant.

Langmeil wine bottle
Langmeil wine bottle
Loal fauna at Langmeil and Paul and James Lindner
Loal fauna at Langmeil and Paul and James Lindner

We see these vineyards as vinous treasures for the wine lover and an incredible opportunity for them to enjoy wines from vines planted seven generations ago,’ says Richard’s son James, who runs Langmeil with his winemaker brother Paul. ‘For any country, New or Old World, to make wines from the oldest vines growing in the oldest soils surely counts for something.’

Over the lifetime of Langmeil’s ancient specimens, Shiraz has flourished across Australia, becoming the country’s flagship grape, the best wines increasingly highly prized – and priced. As early as 1855, as a Hunter table wine, Shiraz was turning heads around the world – allegedly including those of Emperor Napoleon III and Queen Victoria at the Universal Exhibition in Paris – before winemakers starting using it as a base for fortified wines. Then, in the 1950s, Max Schubert at Penfolds created Grange, ushering in Shiraz’s modern era and establishing the country’s first internationally collectable icon wine.

Many of the country’s greatest wines are not only Shiraz-based but are made with fruit from very old vines: Hill of Grace uses vines dating from 1860; Best’s Great Western Thomson Family Shiraz, from 1868; Chris Ringland Dry Grown Barossa Ranges, 1910; and Wendouree Shiraz, 1893. Exactly what old vines bring to wine is still debated, but as James Lindner observes, ‘Vineyards that consistently produce good wine are more likely allowed to become old vines.’

Many great old vines in Australia were lost to the government’s vine-pull scheme in the 1980s. The fact that Lindner’s father found the world’s oldest Shiraz vines in a state of dereliction is testament to the fact that their value was not always recognised. But perspectives have changed. Now there are initiatives such as the Barossa Old Vine Charter, which registers vineyards by age, from “Old Vines” of 35 years up to “Ancestor Vines” of 125 years old or more. And most of them are Shiraz, which, by the 1990s, had overtaken Cabernet in both plantings and prestige.

Through the 1990s, with the boutique wine scene and the narrative around that, you started to see Shiraz taking on a new importance,’ says Andrew Caillard MW, who set up the Langton’s Classification of Australian wine in 1990 to support the country’s fledgling ultra-finewine market. ‘Barossa Shiraz started to make a big impact. Part of that was Robert Parker, and other outsiders starting to take notice of Australian wine.’

These gnarly 176-year-olds … are indicative of just how deeply rooted Shiraz is in the history of the country’s wine

Langton’s Classification – which lists wines according to their record at auction, among other criteria – offers a snapshot of the evolution of Australian Shiraz as a fine wine. In the first classification of 34 wines in 1990, Shiraz made up around 20% of the list, while in the latest classification of 136 in 2018, it accounts for close to half. The classification also charts – with the notable exception of the singlesite wines of Henschke – the move from the country’s top Shiraz being largely multi-district blends to single-vineyard wines. It’s a direction supported by research such as the Barossa Grounds Project, which over the past decade has revealed myriad subregional differences that have an impact on Shiraz flavour profiles in the Barossa alone.

As the focus in Shiraz has shifted towards showcasing the flavours of individual vineyards, styles have transformed. There is now less oak influence, with the powerful vanillin flavours of American barrels replaced by the more subtle spice of French oak. Grapes tend to be picked earlier to avoid ultra-ripe and alcoholic characters, producing more fresh and pure-fruited wines. The emergence of top Shiraz from cooler climates such as Canberra and Victoria has added lighter and more aromatic styles to the mix. There’s a trend for such wines to be labelled Syrah, to reflect their cooler more Rhône-like personality.

Around Langmeil
Around Langmeil

‘Australian Shiraz now stands confidently alongside the best of the Rhône Valley and the first growths of France and the world,’ says Peter Gago, head winemaker of Penfolds, the label that has been at the vanguard of Australia’s fine-wine evolution. ‘International wine lovers seeking diversity, approachability, cellarability, fully expressed fruit and bold new approaches’ are now paying serious prices for the best Australian wines.

Gago should know. As the man behind g3, a very limited, £1,784 ($2,290) release of a super-blend of three Grange vintages, he is no stranger to bold – and expensive – new launches. The fact that collectors have snapped it up is a further indicator that Australian Shiraz now sits alongside the world’s most renowned wine, its winemakers taking the praise of international critics as their deserved right. And behind it all, their roots spreading ever deeper into the world’s oldest soils, is an ark of ancient vines. As Richard Lindner said, it is something truly extraordinary.

Old machinery at Wendouree
Old machinery at Wendouree
Tony Baker, winemaker at Wendouree.
Tony Brady, winemaker at Wendouree

Four great Shiraz producers

HENSCHKE

With their commitment to single-vineyard Shiraz, Eden Valley’s Henschke family were ahead of their time. Shiraz from the Hill of Grace and Mount Edelstone vineyards made since the 1950s remain pinnacles of varietal excellence, now farmed biodynamically with the gentle touch of fifth-generation winemaker Stephen Henschke and his viticulturist wife Prue.

ROCKFORD

In 1984, when other wineries were modernising, Robert (Rocky) O’Callaghan started Rockford with the old winemaking equipment that was being thrown out. This included the slow-moving basket press that gave its name to his flagship Shiraz. Traditional hands-on winemaking and handtended old vines became Rockford’s trademark and force behind its consistently great Shiraz.

Wendouree property
Bottles of Henschke Hill of Grace

PENFOLDS

Penfolds has played a key and ongoing role in building the global reputation of Australian Shiraz through the development of the country’s first international icon wine, Grange. Even now that it’s part of the global behemoth Treasury Wine Estates, its impressive range of Shiraz has lost none of its shine.

THE STANDISH WINE COMPANY

After making wines in California, Spain, the Rhône and in Australia at Torbreck, sixth-generation Barossan Dan Standish started his own exclusively Shiraz venture, making outstanding examples from a number of old-vine sites. The Standish, made from a family vineyard, was recognised in the 2018 Langton’s Classification.

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