Australia's Barossa Valley
History and Facts
Barossa Valley’s 150-year Old Vines
In a region with the oldest vines in the world, so old that no single person alive could share a tale of planting these special vines firsthand, there must be custodians, storytellers, and keepers of the vines; people so incredibly passionate about the grapes and the Barossa vines that bear them that year-after-year. These custodians are the dedicated farmers, winemakers, each pouring their everything into the production of these special wines as a tribute to what the land has given them, assisting in maintaining the vines’ health from year to year. By allowing their wines to be shared with us, they keep the history alive and allow us a rare glimpse into the past.
The wines these stewards of the land make with 150+ year old vines allow us to experience a special piece of history, in liquid form. These ancient vines are still happily producing grapes full of depth and complexity albeit at a lower yield. While there are timelines out there with all the major events that have impacted and influenced the Barossa Valley over the last two centuries, we’re here to give you the thousand-foot view. We’ll hit the key points including fortified wine, Brandy, Phylloxera (or lack thereof), bush vines, soil, climate, and the leaders in the industry. By connecting the important influences from the wineries, families, historic events to the people charging forward today, we can get a sense of where the region started and why it is the way it exists today.
The Most Well-Known Australian Wine Region
Barossa Valley is home to the most well-known Australian wine region when viewed from a worldwide perspective as it is also one of the most exported. So even if a trip to the other side of the world is not possible at this very moment, I encourage you grab your Barossa wine to transport you to the very place you’ll be reading about in this article, even before you continue reading it!
Barossa Valley is at the southern base of the Mount Lofty Ranges (Adelaide Hills) and is separated from the Eden Valley to the east by the Pewsey mountain range. If you are trying to understand Barossa and Eden from a California mindset: Barossa would be a very hot Sonoma with no oceanic influence and Eden Valley would be cooler climate Napa with a much higher elevation. Barossa is incredibly peaceful with rolling, grassy hills as far as the eye can see with a crown of vines gracing most of the hills.
Barossa boasts an interesting soil composition due to the long-gone mountain that once stood where the region is now. Over millions of years during a shift in the tectonic plates, the mountain collapsed sideways causing an array of ancient soil compositions throughout the region. A major component of the soil is Terra Rossa or red clay. Sandy loam, quartz, and gravel can also be found in pockets of the region. Many of the vines in the area are irrigated due to the hot, dry weather. The old bush vines and some ancient trellised vineyards are the exception as they have lived their entire lives without irrigation. I’ll admit, after visiting the region during summer I find it shocking that anything can live without being irrigated here; yet these vines are, and have been, here for over a century, living off what little water is contained in reserves found under the water table.
Yalumba: Barossa’s Oldest Family-Owned Winery
The story of Yalumba can help us understand some of the Barossa’s beginnings. In 1849 Samuel Smith, one of the most influential and still relevant individuals in Australian wine history, arrived in South Australia. Originally tending to a garden and planting his own vines on the side, he was struggling to make ends meet. As the 1850’s Gold rush picked-up, Samuel left for Victoria to get in on the action. He was extremely lucky and returned to his Barossa homestead three months later with a haul of gold worth over three hundred thousand euro. Using this gold, he purchased eighty acres of land cementing his intent to grow grapes and make wine in South Australia. After receiving several awards in wine shows around the country in the winery’s yearly years, Yalumba’s name was put on the map. Fred Caley Smith, Samuel Smith’s grandson, then elevated the business to the next level, collecting vine cuttings from around the world and advertising their wines during his travels. Business was good and the family was able to capture a large market share.
Yalumba is a far cry today from what it was back in the mid-1800s, yet, they continue to reinvent themselves and are on the cutting edge of modern-day winemaking. They continue to have a major influence on the Australian wine scene, championing many policies within the region geared toward across-the-board improvement. Though they have many positives, I must admit, when visiting the winery, the volume that Yalumba produces, doesn’t exactly make it feel like a “family” estate, mainly owing to the large-scale brands also made on site. With that being said, I believe it is important to note that Yalumba is still able to maintain an impressive level of quality across the board for their wines.
The original structures from the estate’s early 1900’s expansion is still maintained and showcased on property; however, they are not all utilized in the same way as they once were. This is due to the estate’s exponential growth since fifth generation Robert Hill-Smith took over. The cellars take up most of the old winery including the old concrete vats and the now-basement of the original winery structure. The winemaking has moved into a larger facility on the property. The impressive library collection dates back over a century and offers a unique history in and of itself. The family also has a personal cellar that is quite possibly the best collection of fine wines in the southern hemisphere. A full rack of DRC, 1889 Yquem, to just name a few! A walk through Yalumba, is to step back in Australian wine history and lends a unique perspective to its early beginnings which consists of amazing wines.
Barossa Valley’s Future
It is important to note how phylloxera, or the lack thereof, plays an important role in the Barossa Valley. Phylloxera is the reason the “old world” regions of Europe cannot claim the oldest vines in the world despite producing wine for far longer than Australia. The first recordings of Phylloxera hit France in 1863 and spread across Europe causing an incredible amount of devastation in the vineyards. The Phylloxera attacks the root of vitis vinifera vines, poisoning the root base and causing the vines to die. What’s more there is no “cure” or way to fight off these aphids once they are present in the land. Fortunately, the Barossa is still 100% Phylloxera free; however, there is still a very real threat of Phylloxera in Barossa and across the rest of South Australia. While some wineries have planted their new vines on American Rootstock, so that in the event that Phylloxera does hit they do not lose their entire crop, an even more staggering number of producers have not made this precaution believing in the added depth and quality of the rootstock.
The future of the Barossa Valley is still in question, with water resources becoming increasingly more expensive and difficult, and global warming, vintages are becoming more and more difficult to predict. Stylistically the wines are changing as well. Almost every single winery is struggling to meet current market demands for less oak and less ripe characteristics in wine. With that being said many producers are changing the way they make their wine by not using American oak (like they once did), and harvesting the grapes earlier than in the past. This change in winemaking has been dictated by consumer trends, especially in the USA and will affect the vintages for the next 10 years at the very least. When considering that the first vines where brought over right around the same time that colonization happened, wine has always been a part of Australia’s story. It will be interesting to see how the story continues through our lifetime.
WINE MAKES A MAN MORE PLEASED WITH HIMSELF, I DO NOT SAY THAT IT MAKES HIM MORE PLEASING TO OTHERS.