Saturday, May 19, 2012

Touring the Barossa - A Second Day

Before leaving Vancouver, I'd arranged a visit with Langmeil, one of my favourite wineries in the Barossa - in all of Australia for that matter - and it was time for us to hook up. The meeting wasn't until 11.00, however, and we had a bit of time to kill. Since there was no farmer's market to hit today, I figured we might as well try and fit in a quickie visit to Rockford, a winery that I wasn't familiar with but one that I kept hearing about while here in the Barossa.

We arrived at Rockford only to find out that its cellar door didn't open until 11.00 and it was only just after 10. Having passed a familiar name on our way to Rockford, we made an about face and, luckily, discovered that St. Hallett had already opened its doors. Given its production level of approximately 100,000 cases, St. Hallett has a healthy presence in our Vancouver market and we run across it on a fairly regular basis. All those cases include a fairly wide assortment of wines and varietals. As such, we thought we'd concentrate on trying wines that were available only at the winery itself.

We started with a rather unique sparkling Gewurtraminer, called Frivola, that was made in a frizzante or moscato style. It was followed by a single vineyard Grenache and the Matschoss Shiraz, a single vineyard bottling that hailed from Eden Valley rather than the more common Barossa Valley. The former was made in a lighter, almost Pinot-esque style and is only available at the cellar door and the Mattschoss only saw a whopping 230 cases made. We capped those off with tastes of St. Hallett's premium Blackwell Shiraz and Old Block Shiraz. I think both are available back home but who am I to turn down classic winners from a well-known producer?

We had to quickly make our way to Langmeil after that. It turns out we arrived just as an impromptu rave-like brunch was just finishing up in the Langmeil vineyard. Wish we'd known about that. It sounded rather happening. In the end, I don't think we had much to worry about though; we met up with Cellar Door Manager, Jonathan Bitter, and my guess is that we tried more wines and learned a helluva lot more about the winery than the ravers did.

There aren't all that many wines or wineries in my past where I remember exactly when and where I enjoyed my first taste of a particular wine and it became a regular favourite. I do with Langmeil's Valley Floor Shiraz. Almost a decade ago now, Elzee was on the Board of Directors for Vancouver's Ronald MacDonald House and they were having a fundraiser at some lavish West Van waterfront mansion (definitely worthy of any Real Housewife of Vancouver) and James Lindner and their new local rep were pouring Langmeil wines for the first time in Vancouver. Thankfully, Langmeil wines have remained on our bottle shop shelves ever since.

Visiting Langmeil was the fulfilment of a long held desire. I knew from the website that they had a number of wines that never make it to our market and this was to be the opportunity to give them a try - and Jonathan and James made sure that we did their entire list proud. There might have been a couple that we missed because they were sold out but we had a good dozen or more under our belt by the time we moved on.

Langmeil's estate vineyards have quite the storied history and a definite highlight of the trip so far was heading out for a tour of the vineyard together with a rather healthy fill of The Freedom 1843 Shiraz. It may well have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to wander amongst what might be the oldest surviving Shiraz vines in Australia - if not the world - drinking the wine that is the fruit of those vines. At home, in BC, we "ooh and aaah" at old vines that might be hitting 30 years of age. The vines in the Freedom block were producing their 164th vintage. Jonathan advised us that they might get one bottle of finished wine from each vine - not exactly a volume that's going to keep a winery in cash but, as he put it, the vines are still on their original rootstock and they still produce a quality of fruit that cries out of the "splendid isolation" that terroir is meant to epitomize.

Shiraz is, perhaps rightfully, the backbone of Langmeil production; however, I was very intrigued to try their Sparkling Ondenc. Ondenc is not a brand name for the bubbly, rather it is the varietal itself. Apparently a grape that originated in the Toulouse region of France, I've never heard of it before. Brought over to Australia during the 19th Century, it has all but disappeared Down Under. Naturally, I needed to grab a bottle so that I can add the varietal to my Wine Century Club tally.

And that wasn't the last bit of intrigue. I'd previously heard the story of Langmeil's Orphan Bank but it's so much better hearing the details amongst the actual vines. The Orphan Bank is a physical testament to the history of the Barossa. These vines were originally planted prior to 1860 by Christian Auricht, the original vigneron of the Langmeil estate. They were located in a vineyard down the road and that vineyard was slated for redevelopment in the last decade. During 2006 and 2007, knowing that the vines were to be bulldozed, the folks at Langmeil orchestrated a plan to dig up and move ten rows of vines, one by one, and replant them on the estate. Patrons of the winery were provided an opportunity to "adopt" a vine. That adoption gives them the chance to not only participate in the harvest but to also receive some of the resulting wine. If I were a local Aussie, I'd have been frothing at the bit to participate in the program.

Perhaps the saddest reality of our trip is that the current vintage was pretty much over prior to our arrival. We did, however, get to see a bit of the final stages during our Langmeil tour. Seeing the deep purple of the basket press in action was a rarity for us.

I don't know that I'd ever seen the resulting marc before either. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to see how the leftover skins, pulp, seeds and grape stems can be a valuable addition to the vineyard compost. Using that same marc to distill alcohol or make grape seed oil isn't quite as easy to envision. I just wish I had a couple shovels full to add to our compost back home.

I could have - and would have - stayed even longer. Everything was all so interesting, but, by now, we'd occupied Jonathan's time for a couple of hours. And we actually still hoped to visit another winery or two since our stay in the Barossa was quickly coming to an end.

Another stop that I'd hoped to fit in was Château Tanunda. This was another new winery for me but it's where Stuey Bourne chose to relocate after he'd decided to move on from winemaking at Barossa Valley Estate. Since 2012 is going to be Stuey's first vintage at Tanunda, we didn't get an opportunity to try any wines that saw his deft touch, but we did enjoy checking out the impressive facility that has a history of its own. Although I'd exchanged a number of e-mails with Stuey prior to our arrival, we unfortunately had to time our visit on a Sunday and Stuey wasn't going to be at the winery. As exciting a guest as I might be, even I can grasp that spending a rare Sunday with a man's young family is a priority when you've basically worked for two months straight with the vintage. Hopefully, there'll be another opportunity to cross paths with one of the biggest characters I've ever run across in the wine business.

Stuey's new home, the Château, is Australia's largest and it lays claim to being "the birthplace of the Barossan wine industry." The first winery was established in 1848; however, the Château was built in 1888-1890, largely to help meet European demand for Aussie wines during the years when phylloxera was reeking havoc with the European wine industry. At the time the Château was built, it was the largest building in South Australia - even bigger that the Parliament building - and was the biggest winery in the Southern Hemisphere. It still has storage capacity of 5 million litres of wine - some 24,000 barrels worth of wine.

As you might expect with a storage capacity like that, the winery has quite an extensive list. The tasting room was quite busy and Boo was taking a bit of a coffee break; so, I limited my samples to a handful of wines that caught my attention. Perhaps the wines that stood out the most were the threesome of wines making up "Terroirs of the Barossa" line. Wanting to highlight the different flavour profiles that can be coaxed from Barossan soils and sub-regional micro-climates, the three wines feature grapes from three distinct districts in the Barossa - Ebenezer, Lyndoch and Greenock. The winery helped visualize the different soil types by showing the varying make-up of soils as you tried each of the three wines. I can't say that I'll be able to ascertain the impact of distinct soil types in wines I try down the road, but it was very interesting all the same.

Our last stop of the day was Artisans of the Barossa. Like our visit to Bibu Barossa the other day, Artisans offers the opportunity to taste wines from a variety of boutique producers that don't have cellar doors at the wineries. As their website promotes, "We are seven individual wineries, with different winemaking styles, representing the breadth and diversity of our home - the Barossa Valley. What binds us together is a commitment to making inspirational wines that uphold the culture and traditions of the Barossa."
The collective effort had only been around for a little over a year but it was quite a stunning facility and a wonderful means of showcasing a broad assortment of producers.

Every month, two wines are made available for tasting from each of the seven wineries. Since the biggest producer of the seven is Tuesner - and they make a whopping 15,000 cases - it's likely the only chance most people have at trying a wine from one of the wineries without simply buying a bottle in a restaurant or shop - if you could find one. In addition to Teusner, the remaining wineries are Hobbs of Barossa Ranges, Massena, Schwarz, Sons of Eden, Spinifex and John Duval - Mr. Duval pretty much being best known as the winemaker behind perhaps Australia's most famous wine, Penfold's Grange, for 30 years.

It was a tad surprising that Artisans served up two takes of Durif (Australian for Petite Sirah). I don't think we'd seen a 100% varietal Durif wine so far on our trip and here we get two in a row. The most interesting wine might have been the Hobbs Gregor Shiraz, however, in that it was made in an Amarone style. I don't think I've ever seen that attempted before.

Once again, our inability to buy a whole assortment of wines was challenge and a disappointment. I had to settle on two half bottles of dessert wine since they'd only count as one bottle at the Canadian Customs desk.

The sun was going down though and our final day in the Barossa was coming to an end - at least as far as tasting rooms go. It was a great day and I'd happily sign up for another dozen or so.

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