The Barossa Valley is properly known for its red wines with shiraz, grenache and Rhone-inspired red blends now recognized around the world. White wines are decidedly less known as relatively small amounts of riesling, chardonnay and semillon make up only about 15% of the Barossa Valley’s planted acreage.

The Barossa Valley appellation has two distinct subregions with the warmer valley floor ripening fruit some two weeks earlier than the Eden Valley, a higher altitude subregion that would logically be more suited to white grapes. And indeed that is so as almost half of the Barossa Valley chardonnay is grown in Eden Valley with ¾ of the riesling planted there as well. Just about all of the heat loving Barossa semillon is grown on the valley floor.

Consequently, rieslings from the Barossa Valley floor are fairly scarce as well and that follows a certain logic given that the finer style of riesling that is preferred today results from the cooler hills of Eden Valley. And as vineyards come and go, the treasured old vines that make the Barossa famous are mostly red, there are only 14 acres of riesling planted between 1916 and 1946, less than 1% of all the riesling grown in the Barossa.

Vertical of Pikes “Merle” Riesling

Old Aussie riesling wines are a treasure that few folks on this side of the pond get to experience. Not that many Aussies do either. A masterclass on how Pikes rieslings age revealed that the winery’s museum stash is so depleted that they are buying back older vintages from their customers and at auctions. Our tasting required opening up the last of two cases of one vintage giving the event even more specialness.

During a recent visit to the Barossa, I noticed a cork finished riesling and flipped it about to discover its origins. Recalling that screwcaps began appearing in 2000, this meant that this one had to be an oldie. And indeed it was. After a bit of cajoling, the bottle of 1996 Rockford “Vine Vale” Riesling was soon mine and on its way home where I planned to share with someone who might appreciate it.

An old Barossa Pearl label

Rockford is one of Australia’s most revered wineries.  Founded in 1984, old vine Barossa shiraz was so out of fashion at the time that grapes were harvested at 8% Baume, stripped of its color and made into a cheap sparkling wine called Barossa Pearl. At the same time, the South Australian state government created the “Vine Pull Scheme” which paid growers to replace old vine red varities with white grapes which were gaining popularity at the time. Winery founder Robert O’Callaghan gained immense respect in the Barossa wine community by purchasing vineyards from growers that were considering replacing their old shiraz and grenache vines, helping to preserve them for future generations.

1996 Rockford “1886 Vine Vale” Riesling

The riesling I carefully smuggled home provided was a heritage wine that typified Rockford’s dedication to preserving the old vines of the valley. A different cuvee than their more popular Eden Valley bottling, the grapes for my bottle were sourced from a two acre plot of riesling vines planted in 1886 in the Vine Vale subregion on the eastern side of the valley. 100 years later—think about that—100 years later in 1986 in the middle of the Vine Pull Scheme, Rockford purchased the vineyard and saved it for the years to come.

As Robert O’Callaghan said:

“I saw it first as a sentimental vigneron’s responsibility and second as an opportunity to make a flavoursome full bodied Riesling in a style that is hardly seen anymore.”

Learning about older Aussie vineyards is difficult from this side of the pond. While these vineyards are treasured, the move towards the selection and vinification of single site wines is in its earliest stages. We are now just beginning to see more producers bottle individual cuvees highlighting the differences of various vineyards, much as is done in Burgundy or with Sonoma County zinfandels and pinots. Detailed maps should start to appear to help both the trade and consumers locate where the grapes of a specific bottling are grown. Lists of vineyards will hopefully be created by viticultural preservation organizations to prevent what later happened to the Klix vineyard.

The famous Rockford truck with picking bins

It turns out that the success of Rockford’s Vine Vale Riesling prompted the Marschall family to reach out to O’Callaghan and mention that they also had some riesling vines planted at the same time and on similar soils. Robert bought some grapes and found the two vineyards offered identical flavors and from that point, the Vine Vale Riesling was a blend of the two vineyards. But the decline in the quantity and quality of the fruit from the original Klix vineyard was too hard to reverse and the new owners pulled out the remaining vines.

So what did it taste like? Well, that cork surely affected the wine as notable traces of TCA wafted out of the glass as soon as the bottle was opened. It’s hard to blame the winemaker as screwcaps had yet to make their presence known. But through the taint, one could easily see the richer textures that came from the site, the old vines, and the bottle age. There was certainly much to appreciate and enjoy, that’s for sure.

Interestingly, today’s Vine Vale Rieslings, still quite scarce with only 200 or so cases made each year and only available to a few regular clients, continue to reflect Rockford’s preference for honoring winemaking traditions of the past… They are still bottled with corks.

Thanks to Chris Ringland and Nathan Burley for this special bottle….

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