Australia part 2: Barossa's Old Vines
One of the important facts about Barossa is the incredible age of vines out there. In fact, they have the oldest Shiraz vines in the world. And not just Shiraz but Grenache and Mourvedre (Mataro) as well. This makes them older than the original vines in France from which the cuttings were originally taken. The reason for this is that most of Europe was devastated by the vine louse phylloxera, and so most vines had to removed and destroyed. Barossa is fortunate that it is still unaffected by phylloxera, although other parts of Australia are.
What becomes even more astonishing about this story is that they have also survived government incentives to be pulled up and the apathy of next generation growers. In 1987 the Australian government offered subsidies to growers who would pull out their old vines and replace it with more economically viable crop. And a lot of people did. It was thanks to the extraordinary efforts of people like Peter Lehman that Barossa still has the amount of old vines it has – he promised these growers fair money for their grapes if they did not pull the vines. And a lot of them chose not to because of that.
But old vines are hard to prune, hard to grow and many vineyards are family owned – 6 or 7 generations in. What happens if the next generation isn’t interested in farming grapes? I heard several stories of how such vineyards had been ‘rescued’ from the brink of being destroyed by winemakers who just happened to get there in time to buy up the land themselves. And then even the vines that are left don’t have it easy – the vine disease Eutypa is now affecting many vines in the region. So why all the effort? Because old vines make great wines.
One thing you get taught quite early on in wine study is that old vines make more ‘concentrated’ wines. While this is true to an extent, it is not the only benefit. The age of the vine also changes the structure of the tannin, creates an elegance and depth that you just can’t get any other way. And the owners of the vines recognise this. More than one person spoke about being ‘custodian’ of the vines. They are just looking after them as well they can until the next generation. And in order to preserve and promote these vines for as long as possible in 2009 an Old Vine Charter which has different categories of age from Old (over 35 years) to Ancestor (over 125 years) and seeks to help recognise the importance and quality of these vines.
If you wanted to try some wines from the oldest vines you could go for Henschke’s Hill of Grace, Langmeil The Freedom 1843, Cirillo Estate Grenache and Hewitson Old Garden Mourvedre. And while you do get old vines in other parts of Australia, Barossa definitely wins for the oldest!