For those with an interest and passion for Australian wine generally and shiraz from South Australia particularly, these are interesting and exciting times. Wineries are taking a deeper interest in the subtle differences that occur within the regions that represent the focus of their work. At the same time, a more focused understanding of the subregions within these appellations are increasingly showcased in new releases that are limited in production and availability but unlimited in education and enjoyment. Some wineries are taking the final step and going even further by bottling wines from single sites to showcase their unique attributes.
This more mature and discerning look at a wine region is an exciting development that mirrors the way Burgundians look at their villages and crus. The ability to show the diversity of wines within many of South Australia’s wine regions is crucial in fighting the stereotype that all Aussie shiraz is big, bold and interchangeable. Plus, it’s just plain fun to explore and understand the differences, some drastic and others more nuanced, that exist within wine regions that we are just beginning to understand.
Rockford Winery is one of the Barossa Valley’s cult wineries known as much for their rather rustic, or some would say romantic, approach to winemaking as for their wines, particularly their Basket Press shiraz. A visit to the winery is required to bear witness to the winemaking methods of the past and see how they are still harnessed to make world class wines today.
The Basket Press shiraz is a tribute to the many growers that owner Robert O’Callaghan believes are the foundation of the winery’s purpose as well as the cultural heritage of the Barossa Valley. As such, the wine is a classic representation of how wines were made in the past, a blend of grapes from growers all over the valley. And he claims that this “provides consistency and reliability that is not possible from a single vineyard.”
While single vineyard shiraz bottlings have a lengthy history in Australia going back to 1952 and the first bottling from the Hill of Grace vineyard by the Henschkes, the focus on wines from various subregions within districts like the Barossa Valley is a fairly recent phenomenon. Wineries like Yalumba (2005), First Drop (2005), and St. Hallett (2009), were among the first to release a range of wines, typically 3-5 different wines, that highlighted the subregional differences of the Barossa much as AVAs like Oakville and Rutherford perform the same function for Napa Valley. Today, most websites increasingly highlight the names of growers that supply fruit from the many small towns that are part of the Barossa’s matrix of vineyards.
A recent visit to Rockford’s cellar door provided a chance to taste a few of the winery’s 2006 single vineyard releases, a shiraz from the Hoffmann vineyard in the Ebenezer region and another bottling from the Flaxman Valley, a small subregion emerging from the diverse microclimates that comprise the Eden Valley. The “SVS” wines are typically available only at the cellar door and are produced in amounts of 100-300 cases and released after 6-8 years in bottle. The vineyards also very from year-to-year but the Hoffman and Flaxman bottlings have been made most frequently.
Both wines showed particularly well with the broad, soft textures and diffused flavors of dried cherries atop soft earth notes that can only come from older Rockford wines. Most importantly, the wines showed their origins clearly. The Hoffmann shiraz was a bit more compact in shape and bolstered by fine tannins as one would expect from Ebenezer. The Flaxman cuvee is based on fruit from the same Chris Ringland vineyard that is the foundation for his acclaimed shiraz and possesses the ripe blackberry core that is the trademark of the site.
For being such staunch traditionalists, it came as a shock to me to find out that Rockford’s first SVS shiraz bottlings came from the 1996 vintage, almost a full decade before other wineries followed their lead. At that time in the US, the debate about Barossa shiraz was more about American vs. French oak. Understanding region and site was way off in the future. It seems that in their quest to honor the traditions of the Barossa Valley, they played a major role in creating a new one. Hat’s off to that!