Barossa Shiraz

Decanter Masterclass

21st November 2004

Speaker: Bob McLean

This was a really interesting tasting with some excellent wines, but best of the lot was Bob McLean’s insider views on Barossa shiraz and its producers, and his ‘full and frank’ views that peppered the tasting throughout like the spice in the shiraz.

“Good wine has to be something that you can finish the whole bottle without your tongue ripping out.”

Barossa Shiraz dates back some 140 years to the settlement of the region by Prussian settlers: there has been a commercial wine industry of sorts since the 1850s, and many growers are now sixth generation. Bob observed that this means winemaking in the Barossa can be a bit slow to change, a bit slow to pick up on new farming methods etc. With shiraz having been planted, Bob believes that it doesn’t matter whether shiraz originally comes from Iran or whether the vines came from the Rhone Valley: Barossa Shiraz is Barossa Shiraz, and the relatively small number of clones planted in the Barossa backs this up.

Although some growers made wine, mainly for personal consumption, the vast majority sold their grapes to big wineries. In the 1960s and 1970s, the big companies used grapes from the Barossa to bolster up their cheap wines from more heavily irrigated regions, and the prevailing farming mentality in the Barossa was one of apathy: there was enough land for young productive vines and the growers simply couldn’t be bothered to rip out the old unproductive 100-year old vines: they could just ignore them or just water them occasionally and make fortified wines. Which is very lucky for us as it’s meant that there are lots of old blocks of the oldest shiraz vines in the world.

But first the vines had to survive the great vine pull of 1985, when the Australian government offered growers money to grub up their vines: Bob reckons about a hundred top sites were lost and have yet to be replaced.There were, however, around 800 growers, so there were still plenty of plots left (there are now around 600 growers, selling in excess of 65,000 tonnes of grapes to around 60 wineries). The revolution came when Peter Lehmann, the “bishop of Barossa” and “Defender of the Barossa Faith,” led the resurrection of winemaking in the Barossa in 85-86-87, bringing the growers together in an almost co-operative venture. Bob joined St Hallett in 1988, essentially as the receiver-shareholder, bringing business experience from his time at Orlando and Petaluma. At the time St Hallett was an ailing winery making mainly retsina and fortified wines. Throughout the tasting, Bob paid tribute to Peter Lehmann and his influence on the success of Barossa wines; and, just as importantly, the man who still leads Bob and other growers on drinking expeditions in his seventies.

Bob talked a little bit about the geography and geology of the Barossa, but the most memorable thing was his comment on those who claim a cooler climate for the hills at the edge of the Barossa Valley: “Some people talk about mountains in Barossa but they’re playing with themselves.”

The wines:

All wines were closed with cork: for Bob McLean, the jury is out – although he did go on to tell the story of one of his wines which they’d managed to bottle with a touch too much CO2: fixing that revealed what sounded a rather large number of corked bottles. It’s not convinced him to move to screwcap though.

We started with two Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvèdre> blends on the grounds that “grenache and mourvèdre are part of Barossa shiraz”, though in both, the shiraz is the dominant grape:

2002 Burge Family Winemakers Olive Hill
A young dark purple that is noticeably very glass coating. The nose has very deep dark black plums and chocolate. On the palate there is interesting upfront fruit, but immediately with good texture and lovely balance. Soft tannins appear towards the finish with a gentle spice on the finish and after.

2001 Charles Melton Nine Popes
An attractive, though slightly dull, dark youngish purple. A very soft fruity nose: quite forward, and it seems a bit simple. Very plummy with some green undergrowth and a bit of spirit. Quite lean fruit on the palate, but also a really good structure. Much more elegant than the nose would suggest. Greater length than the Olive Hill.

2002 St Hallett Faith Shiraz
A dark, dark, dark appearance with a pinkish violet rim. A deep chocolatey spicy nose with slightly sour plums: damsons says Bob, accurately. Lots of sweet fruit on the attack, which then gives way to a huge tannic structure. Very chewy on the finish and after.

The next wine was supposed to be 2002 Ross Estate Wines Estate Shiraz, but that was being reserved for the Christmas party at HMCE. Instead we made do with the following, of which fortunately Bob McLean happened to have four bottles in his suitcase – though this meant the pours had to be careful to make the four bottles go round:

2001 McLean’s Farm Shiraz
Bob McLean’s own wine (naturally), though from the same vineyard as the Ross Estate we didn’t get to try: the fruit is bought in from Ross Estate.
A bright, very dark ruby. The nose is developing nicely, offering stewed plums, backed up by very gentle oak and a bitter chocolate note. On the palate, there is very attractive fruit, which fills into a deep, well structured wine with very firm tannins, especially on the finish. Needs another 3-4 years.

2002 McLean’s Farm Shiraz
A dark colour again: black fading to a dark purple rim. Very chocolatey youthful nose with deep plums and some style. Lovely soft fruit on the palate. It is very young though with lots of grippy tannins. Very impressive.

The last three wines were aged in second use American oak; the next wines are probably moving into newer more toasty French and American oak.

1998 Thorn-Clarke William Randell Shiraz
A relatively mature dark plummy colour. The nose is very integrated with slightly scented plums, a hint of cinammon and a very clear mocha streak. Very soft on the palate and immediately attractive. Full and round with excellent structure. Strong white pepper on finish with lots of chocolate. Very very peppery. Incredible length.

2001 Penfold’s RWT
The colour is nothing more than black Quink. Less giving on the nose with some very firm fruit and in a much more old world Hermitagey style. Very ripe, but not jammy. Good structure. This is a very fine wine. Lighter, cleaner than the Thorn-Clarke and softer tannins. Great length.

1998 Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz
An attractive very dark colour, but also very bright. Very much a sour plum nose: soft and easy with cracked coffee beans. A very interesting nose. Very attractive on the palate – but quite unidimensional, countering the attractiveness of the initial attack. Only right on the finish does some interest and complexity appear, with a tannic structure and high roast coffee and high roast black pepper flavours coming through; and a rummy bittersweet dark chocolate finish.

1998 Rockford Basket Press Shiraz
The colour is a bright very very dark ruby. A light plummy fragrant nose with a touch of hot spirit. In the mouth, this is a very soft, round elegant wine in a quite European style. Excellent structure which really develops on the finish.

1991 St Hallett Old Block Shiraz
The vines of St Hallett’s Old Block yield only around half a ton an acre. This looks rather nice: a very attractive, very dark ruby. Very deep extract of ripe plums on the nose: very complex with a clear note of violets. Very integrated and seems nicely mature. On the palate, it’s very round, very soft, very integrated. Lovely mature flavours and very complex. Lovely understated power and intensity. Massive length.

Bob was asked about his views on other regions in Australia. He mentioned cabernet sauvignon from the Margaret River, but then descended into excellent soundbites:

“I don’t want to talk about pinot noir in Australia – let’s just drink Burgundy and forget about it”

“If God was going to give the world an enema, he’d start at Coonawarra railway station”

“The Hunter Valley is not a very nice place to grow grapes, but once a decade when it’s good, it’s fantastic.”