Sunday, February 13, 2011

Australia's Old Vines - Our Unique Inheritance

(1850s Cirillo Estate Old Vine Grenache)

“Narrative is what Australia will have to develop in order to regain its rightful place on the shelves and, especially, to acquire the respect that its best wines deserve. Australia never delivered a narrative. Instead, they confused a cheap price with a good story”

Matt Kramer, Wine Spectator, 1 Feb 2010

But we do, we do, we do have a narrative . . . it’s just that we haven’t quite articulated it to ourselves, or to anyone else for that matter.

When considering a wine, a sense of history is just about as important to me as a sense of place (though happily the two are often inextricably linked). I'm a lover of history more generally and I bring this interest of mine to the way I look at a wine, a winery, a wine region, and just trends in the wine world more generally. This sense of history can provide me with both incredible inspiration and excitement in my wine journey, and at other times disappointment and frustration. History generates much of the romance that exists in wine. It also generates a narrative.

I think there are a number of great stories that Australian wine can tell, many of which are modern narratives, but one area in which we are particularly blessed are our old, gnarly vines. Australia has numerous vineyards that were planted in the 1800s that are still producing quality grapes today. Vineyards I'm aware of include -

Barossa Valley

1843 - Freedom Vineyard – Shiraz (possibly the oldest Shiraz/Syrah vines in the world currently producing the single vineyard Langmeil Freedom 1843 Shiraz)

1847 - Moorooroo Vineyard – Shiraz (currently goes into the Schild Estate Reserve Moorooroo Shiraz)

1847 - Turkey Flat – Shiraz (grapes from this vineyard go into the Turkey Flat Shiraz)

1850s – Cirillo Vineyard - Grenache (oldest Grenache vines in the world and make the single vineyard Cirillo 1850s Grenache)

1853 - Old Garden Vineyard – Mourvedre/Mataro (oldest Mourvedre/Mataro vines in the world that make the single vineyard Hewitson Old Garden Mourvedre)

1860s - The Grandfathers Block – Shiraz (the oldest block in Henschke’s Hill of Grace Vineyard)

1875 - Kalleske Vineyard - Shiraz (produces the single vineyard Kalleske Johann Georg Shiraz)

1888 - Kalimna Block 42 – Cabernet Sauvignon (possibly the oldest Cabernet vines in the world and in great vintages goes into the single vineyard Penfolds Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon)

Hunter Valley

1867 - Old Patch Vineyard – Shiraz (produces the single vineyard Tyrrell’s Old Patch Shiraz)

1879 - 4 Acres Vineyard – Shiraz (produces the single vineyard Tyrrell’s 4 Acres Shiraz)

1880 - Old Hill Vineyard – Shiraz (goes into the Mount Pleasant Old Paddock & Old Hill Shiraz)

Nagambie Lakes

1860 - Tahbilk – Shiraz (produces the single vineyard Tahbilk 1860 Vines Shiraz)

The Grampians

1866 - Concongella Vineyard – Shiraz (produces the single vineyard Best’s Great Western Thomson Family Shiraz)

Mclaren Vale

1892 - Block 6 – Shiraz (produces the single vineyard Kay Brothers Block 6 Shiraz)

Langhorne Creek

1891 – Metala Vineyard – Cabernet Sauvignon (grapes go into the Metala White Label Shiraz Cabernet)

Quite a list, and I’d hazard a guess there are a few more that I’m unaware of. These vineyards are not just amazing simply because they are 120-170 years old. Indeed with such old vines there is no guarantee they will produce good fruit. However, in this case virtually all these vines are producing fantastic wines. Whether you are looking at the Hewitson Old Garden Mourvedre, the Tahbilk 1860 Shiraz, or the Tyrrell's 4 Acres Shiraz as examples, you are tasting single vineyard wines that are great performers regardless of the age of vine (but also because of their age).

They are then all the more remarkable because they are pre-phylloxera vines. Phylloxera was of course the plague that swept through the vineyards of Europe, wiping virtually all the vines out there from the 1860s-1890s. While Phylloxera did reach here in the 1870s, Australia was to some degree spared, and as such we have this unique inheritance. A concentration of pre-Phylloxera vines that seemingly no other country has.

To my mind this should all be clearly documented, celebrated, and promoted. Instead it’s all a bit under the radar at present. At a time when Australian wine is still being questioned for it’s supposed lack of personality and terroir, and indeed narrative, we’ve got this amazing story that’s not expressly being told. We’re like a boxer constantly being hit with jabs who doesn’t quite understand he has this big overhand right that will put paid to that incessant jabbing.

Maybe there is a document somewhere that lists all the vineyards that are say 100 years old, or were planted in the 1800s, but I’m yet to find it. And while individual wineries and sites do indeed highlight their old vineyards, it’s still not something that’s well understood more broadly. The vast majority of wine consumers both in Australia and abroad would have no idea about this wonderful aspect of Australian wines. There is the Yalumba Old Vine Charter (, which is heading towards what I am talking about, but I’m not sure it’s moved much beyond relating to the wines Yalumba produces.

This old vine inheritance has to be part of the narrative Australia puts forward to both its consumers here and overseas. For the Barossa alone it is stunning to think that you could go there and taste wines from arguably the oldest Cabernet, oldest Shiraz/Syrah, oldest Mourvedre, and oldest Grenache vines in the world. If this was promoted to anyone with the slightest sense of history and a love of wine it should be like drawing moths to a flame. If you go to the Hunter Valley you can visit Tyrrell’s, a family owned winery established in 1858, and try their two single vineyard wines from the 1800s, the 4 Acres and the Old Patch. If drinking a glass of Tyrrell’s 4 Acres Shiraz doesn’t provide one with a sense of history and weight beyond just enjoying what’s in the glass, then I don’t know what will.

Of course this is only one part of what I believe to be a very exicting time in Australian wine more generally, and there are many stories to be told. But this part of the story, that of ancient vines, is truly unique, not well known by the broader public, and directly answers the challenge as to whether Australia produces wines with both a sense of place and narrative. It deserves to be heard.


P.S. If anyone has a comprehensive list of Australia’s pre-phylloxera vines I’d love to see it (or let me know of any vineyards I’ve missed out on in my own list)


stu said...

I wonder how many of these wines are exported and indeed how many have trouble selling?

Rightful place place on the shelves? If we're talking mass-market then in the UK that means removing the Jacob's Creek/ Oxford Landing mass blend types retailing at 5GBP. Sorry to bag these two but they are to me the de-facto 'villains' in this piece.

Although I go back to my earlier question that is do any of these upper-echelon wines need to be sold overseas? Or is there sufficient demand in Australia for them? I think the narrative already exists here in Australia.

I don't have the answers, but I often get a little worked up by these commentator types seeing the Aus wine industry as one homogeneous mass.

Red said...

Stu, thanks for the comments. I think most of these wines sell well, but my point is more about the broader image and perception of Australian wine. Greater knowledge of our old vine heritage would in my opinion have benefits well beyond the immediate wines it applies to, in the same way wines from Bordeaux benefit from the reputation of its most famous estates.

The narrative does exist in Australia, but I would argue only amongst wine tragics like ourselves, and even then it is not well documented. Move a bit broader and I don't think many people would make the association/connection between Australian wine and old vines.

Of course the selfish bargain-hunter in me would be happy to continue to buy 4 Acres Shiraz at $45 a bottle, but conversely the parochial, proud Aussie in me wants the world to know the story.

Andrew Graham said...

There is a list out there that I think Bruce Tyrrell was helping compile that documented all the old vines in the Hunter. Would you believe that there are century old Trebbiano vines out there?

It's a story that we need to celebrate more than we currently do (our old vine heritage that is).

Good work sir.

Red said...

Cheers AG.

Interesting about the Trebbiano, and makes you wonder how many other examples like that are out there

Anonymous said...

I agree it is important to know about these old vine wines. I wonder how much old vine fruit out there just disappears into blends and/or some of the boutique labels we see now?

Red said...

Sean, fortunately I think the trend is towards more and more of these vineyards being bottled as single vineyard wines, rather than blended away (especially when you look at the above list of wines). Let's hope it continues.

Chris Plummer said...

Just going over your list again Red and I notice you've left out my favourite century+ old vineyard; Wendouree. Should be celebrating its 120th birthday next year or the year after, depending on whom your source is. :)

I also notice you didn't include Reynella's Stony Hill, the first vineyard planted in the Southern Vales in 1838, oh wait a minute, make that Devine Home's Housing Estate Vineyard. Boooo!!!! :(

Sorry to bring up a downer but I think it re-iterates your point Red; Australia's old vineyards deserve greater recognition by all. Not the least of which are our local housing developers.

Chris P

Red said...

Whoa! Big oversight on my part. Thanks Chris.

Let's hope increased recognition means there are no further Stony Hill like stories.

paul said...

Great article. I will get to your blog more often.
If you include vineyards over 100 years old then add the Homes vineyard used in the Les Amis, planted in 1901 and the Hobbs vineyard planted in 1905.
Paul Downie

Red said...

Thanks Paul. I'm slowly collating a more comprehensive list and will put it up on the blog at a later date.

Anonymous said...

The Old Hill also forms the backbone of the Maurice O'Shea Shiraz.



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