Down Under’s Deep Roots: A Journey Through Australia’s Old Vines
Dragan Radocaj, Henschke Hill of Grace Vineyard, Eden Valley, Barossa; portions planted 1860
When it comes to the world of wine, Australia stands tall among the vines. Its rich history, unique terroir, and the legacy of old vines contribute significantly to the country’s prominence in the global wine scene. With flavors as vibrant as the Outback sun, Australian wines are taking the spotlight among wine lovers. Let’s embark on a fascinating journey exploring Australia’s old wine vines, understanding their origins, the impact of phylloxera, the significance of vine age on wine quantity and quality, and the key wine production areas that still cherish and nourish these ancient vines and the glorious Australian wine heritage.
Australia’s Unique Place in the World of Wine
Australia’s wine industry has carved a unique niche in the world of wine, thanks to the country’s diverse climates and vast array of terroirs. From the cooler regions of Tasmania to the warm, sun-kissed vineyards of Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, the country boasts a plethora of microclimates ideal for grape cultivation. This diversity allows for the cultivation of various grape varieties, showcasing a wide spectrum of flavors and styles in Australian wines.
History of Australia’s Old Vines and Impact of Phylloxera
Australia’s wine industry has evolved into a global force. However, wine grapes are not native to Australia. The history of Australia’s old vines dates back to the early days of European settlement – and the arrival of the First Fleet – in 1788. The 1830s and 1840s were a pivotal period of development, as several pioneers, most notably James Busby – known as “The Father of Australian Wine” – brought cuttings of European vines back to Australia. Many of Australia’s old vines can be traced back to Busby’s original cuttings.
The devastation caused by the phylloxera outbreak in the late 19th century significantly impacted Australia’s vineyards and Australian winemaking history. Phylloxera, a grapevine pest, ravaged vineyards across Europe and eventually made its way to Australia, causing widespread destruction. To combat this pest, vineyards had to be replanted using phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks. Thankfully, some of the Australian wine regions remained unaffected by the pest, preserving pockets of old vines that survived this catastrophic event.
Impact of Vine Age on Wine Production and Quality
The age of vines profoundly influences the quality and character of the wine produced. Older vines tend to have deeper root systems, accessing nutrients and minerals from deeper soil layers. This results in grapes with more complexity, intensity, and concentration of flavors. They also tend to develop greater resistance to stress from draught or excessive rains.
Furthermore, older vines tend to yield lower quantities of grapes but with higher quality, as they naturally regulate their production, leading to more balanced and nuanced wines. The resulting wines from old vines often exhibit depth, richness, and a unique expression of terroir that is difficult to replicate.
Kay Brothers, McLaren Vale Block 6 Shiraz, planted 1892
Definition of Old Vines
In the world of winemaking, the term “old vines” encompasses various classifications that can vary around the world. The terms used here are those defined by the Barossa Old Vine Charter.
This generally refers to vines that are over 35 years old. These vines have established deep root systems, bringing complexity and concentration to the grapes.
These vines are at least 70 years old and indicate the growers’ and wine makers’ commitment to maintaining these lower-yielding vines, valuing the quality and structure of the wines they produce.
As the name suggests, centenarian vines are at least 100 years old. Planted generations ago, they survived phylloxera. These venerable vines, with thick, gnarly trunks, produce limited yields of intensely flavored grapes, resulting in deep, concentrated wines.
These are the oldest of the old vines, typically over 125 years old. Ancestor vines are a testament to history, containing genetic material that helped populate many of today’s Australian vineyards. Often found in small treasured patches within vineyards, they are usually dry-grown and low-yielding, producing grapes with great flavor intensity. They are believed to be among the oldest-producing vines in the world. The wines made from them are incredibly rare and sought after.
Key Wine Production Areas With Old Vines
Barossa is home to both the Barossa Valley and Eden Valley. The region has many fifth-, sixth-, and even seventh-generation grape-growing families. The Barossa Valley is home to some of the world’s oldest Shiraz, Mourvédre, and Grenache vines, some of which are over 100 years old, and is also home to what is believed to be the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard still in production. These vines produce deeply concentrated and bold wines. The neighboring Eden Valley is home to some of the world’s oldest Shiraz and Riesling vineyards.
Leading examples of Barossa Old-Vine Shiraz:
- Henschke “Mount Edelstone” Eden Valley Shiraz (Centenarian vine)
- Elderton “Command Single Vineyard” Barossa Valley Shiraz (Centenarian vine)
- Château Tanunda “The Château” Barossa Shiraz (Centenarian vine)
- Langmeil Winery “The Freedom 1843” Barossa Valley Shiraz (Ancestor vine)
- Henschke “Hill of Grace” Eden Valley Shiraz (Ancestor vine)
- Poonawatta Estate “The 1880” Eden Valley Shiraz (Ancestor vine)
Dragan Radocaj, Henschke Mount Edelstone Vineyard, Centenarian Shiraz vines, planted 1912
Leading Examples of Barossa Old-Vine Grenache:
- Kalleske “Old Vine” Barossa Valley Grenache (Survivor vines)
- Burge Family Winemakers Barossa Valley Garnacha (Grenache) (Survivor vines)
- Teusner “Avatar” Barossa Valley Grenache Mataro Shiraz (Survivor vines)
- Cirillo Estate “1850 Ancestor Vine” Barossa Valley Grenache (Ancestor vines)
Leading Examples of Barossa Old-Vine Cabernet Sauvignon:
- Penfolds Ancestor Vine Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon (Ancestor vines)
McLaren Vale is home to a variety of old vines, particularly Grenache and Shiraz, yielding wines with rich flavors and velvety textures. Some examples include:
- Kay Brothers Block 6 Shiraz (Ancestor vines)
- Richard Hamilton Shiraz Reserve Centurion (Centenarian vines)
- Ox Hardy Upper Tintara Vineyard 1891 Ancestor Vines Shiraz (Ancestor vines)
- Paxton EJ Shiraz (Ancestor vines)
- D’Arenberg The Solipstic Snollygoster Single Vineyard Shiraz (Ancestor vines)
d’Arenberg Shiraz, planted 1898
Wine production in the Clare Valley dates back to 1852, when Jesuits from Austria established the Sevenhill Cellars. The Clare Valley is most famous for its Riesling vines, some of which are over a century old. These vines produce wines with remarkable purity, intensity, and aging potential. As is usual in Australia, there are some notable Old-Vine Shiraz vineyards too.
Leading examples of Clare Valley Old-Vine Riesling:
- Jim Barry The Florita Riesling (Old vines)
- Pikes “The Merle” Riesling (Old vines)
Leading Examples of Clare Valley Old-Vine Shiraz:
- Wendouree Wines Shiraz (Ancestor vines)
The Hunter Valley:
The Hunter Valley is one of the oldest producing Australian wine regions, with vineyards dating back to the 1860s. It is notable for its old Semillon vines, first planted in the 1830s, which today produce distinctive, age-worthy white wines. It also has a significant area of old vine Shiraz still growing on its original Vitis vinifera rootstocks.
Leading Examples of Hunter Valley Old-Vine Shiraz:
- Tyrrell’s Wines 4 Acres Shiraz (Ancestor vines)
- Tyrrell’s Wines Old Patch1867 Shiraz (Ancestor vines)
- Tyrrell’s Wines Johnno’s Shiraz (Centenarian vines)
Leading Examples of Hunter Valley Old-Vine Semillon:<;/p>
- Tyrrell’s Wines Johnno’s Semillon (Centenarian vines)
Tyrrell’s Centenarian Old-Vine Semillon, planted 1923
Australia’s old wine vines are not merely a testament to the Australian wine heritage but also guardians of exceptional quality and unparalleled character in wines. The legacy of these vines, surviving through time and challenges, continues to shape Australia’s wine identity, offering oenophiles around the world an opportunity to savor the essence of history in each bottle.
As these venerable vines persist, they stand as living monuments, weaving a narrative of resilience and remarkable craftsmanship in winemaking. They represent the profound connection between the land, the vines, and the exquisite wines they produce. Explore these treasures of the past and revel in the unique flavors that only old vines can bestow — a true celebration of Australia’s winemaking heritage.
Mclaren Vale’s Living Icons
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