Wines of Australia: Old Vines, Classic Wines

Last week, I went to an Australianwinepalooza held at Formento’s in the West Loop. The Savour Australian Wine Road Show stopped in Chicago and it was quite a wine bonanza. Australia is about the same size as the continental United States. It takes 5 hours to fly from Perth on the west coast to Sydney on the east coast. Australia is the fourth largest wine exporter after France, Italy and Spain. A wine road show on Australian wine is like a road show on US wine, where do you start and how do you edit it when there are so many delicious wines to cover?

Fortunately, Global Education Manager, Mark Davidson lead an Old Vines and Classic Wines of Australia seminar with an illustrious panel of winery principals including Chester Osborn – winemaker at d’Arenberg (4th generation, est. 1912, McLaren Vale SA), Charlie Seppelt – winemaker at Hickinbotham (vineyard est. 1858 a small piece of old vines still survives, Clarendon Hills, McLaren Vale SA), Bruce Tyrrell – winemaker and owner at Tyrrell’s Wines (family owned since 1858, Hunter Valley, Limestone Coast, Heathcote) and Allister Ashmead – Co-Managing Director at Elderton Wines.(1894 vineyard planted, Barossa Valley SA) I think one of the underlying themes besides the age of their vines (most planted in the mid 1800’s) which is almost always a good thing was their commitment to producing quality wine that people love to drink.

When you look at a map of Australian wine regions, they fall within larger geographic zones: Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Northern Territory and Western Australia. For the most part, the wine subregions have Mediterrean climates that are cooled by the ocean winds. The soils vary sub-region to sub-region which enables them to plant a variety of grapes and distinguishes the regions. When you say South Australia, for example, you have to be more specific and think McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley or Coonawarra among other wine regions in SA.


I have visited Australia but I didn’t have my wine cap on I had my jilleroo hat on.

Scan 1

I stayed on a property (a ranch, small ones are 10,000 acres) in Goondiwindi in Queensland and helped with the cattle and sheep, or should I say the horse did. In Goondiwindi, besides  “roo-guard bumpers” on the cars to push kangeroo off the highway, the local grocery store sold 2 things, lamb and XXXX beer. Basically, I had lamb for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wine was not on my mind at the time, nor was it grown in the area. There is a much longer story to this but onto wine.

One thing that was quite evident is that there is an Australian way of things, like witty, unusual, naming conventions for wine.

Naming Conventions

From upper left: d’Arenberg ‘The Dead Arm’ Shiraz 2012, McLaren Vale, SA, Kaesler ‘Old Bastard’ Shiraz 2012, Barossa Valley SA, Fowles Wine ‘Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch’ Riesling 2013, Chardonnay 2013, Shiraz 2012 Strathbogie Ranges VIC


The table at d’Arenberg certainly got your attention with tchotchkes (like a dead arm) included to highlight the wine names like ‘Derelict Vineyard’ Grenache 2012 (grapes grown on an abandoned plot in 1993, the wine had gritty tannins, ripe raspeberry fruit), which we tasted in the old vine seminar. We ,also, tasted ‘Ironstone Pressings’ Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvedre 2008 (spice, licorice notes) and on his table among many other wines was the ‘The Dead Arm’ Shiraz 2012, (where Chester does not prune the wood, hence the name). This was not the fruit bomb, overly oaked  Australian Shiraz I had remembered and imagined, it had a subtlety of hand and was really good. All of his wines were real food wines, so I think a wine dinner setting would be the best way to appreciate them. Basically, as witty as the names were, they were all named for a reason and Chester loves his rhone grapes.


Kaesler Vineyards in the Barossa Valley was established in 1893. We tasted their “The Bogan’ (the Australian name for a Chicago jagoff) Shiraz 2012 in the seminar which was rich and expressive full of blue and black fruit. I tasted their ‘Old Bastard’ Shiraz 2012 which is named for the old, gnarly vines and it had really nice weight on the palate, I just wanted to sit down to a nice meal and savour my glass.

I could not resist stopping by a table with a line of wines titled ‘Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch’ which I guess may be related to the old sales term, ‘eat what you kill’. Fowles Wine in Strathbogie Ranges, Victoria.

One of my favorite wines of the day and such a pleasure to taste was Torbreck Vintners ‘Runrig’ Shiraz 2012, Barossa Valley, SA. From what I gather, Australia in places like the Barossa Valley had an overabundance of Shiraz in the 1980’s and the government paid producers to pull their vines. Other producers just abandoned their vines. David Powell, the owner and winemaker at Torbreck reinvigorated old abandoned vines and acquired the property. This wine had structure, body and a real dark fruit flavour.


Another fascinating wine producer Yarra Yering from the Yarra Yarra Valley. Wine was grown in Victoria’s Yarra Valley from the mid 1800’s through to the 1920’s and was a principal export of the new colony. The industry was halted in the 1920’s by the economics of the day, changing tastes and the high price of wool. 
It would need a visionary to re-establish winemaking in the Yarra Valley and in 1969 one came along. Dr Bailey Carrodus was ideally qualified to become a great vigneron.

The gentle slope with its northerly aspect and deep grey silty loam shot through with bands of gravel fulfilled all of his requirements. Good drainage, all day exposure to the warm sun, and enough elevation from the valley floor to avoid the spring frosts.

He named his vineyard Yarra Yering and in 1973 produced his first vintage of Dry Red Wine No. 1, a Bordeaux inspired blend and Dry Red Wine No. 2, a northern Rhone blend. Sara Crowe is now the winemaker at Yarra Yering.


Then on the west coast of Australia, Margaret River were some lively beautiful wines from Vasse Felix. In 1967, Dr Tom Cullity plants first vines at Vasse Felix to found Margaret River’s first vineyard and winery. Vasse Felix focuses on Margaret River’s regional strengths of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, along with Semillon Sauvignon Blanc blends and Shiraz. The wines are made to best express the unique terroir of Margaret River and the Vasse Felix vineyards and winemaking philosophy.

vasse felix

We tasted 15 wines in the old vines, classic wines seminar. Tahbik ‘1927 Vines’ Marsanne 2007, Nagambie Lakes, VIC. Tyrrell’s ‘Vat 47’ Chardonnay 2010, Hunter Valley NSW which was full of lemon, vanilla and summer butter. Vasse Felix ‘Heytesbury’ Chardonnay 2014 Margaret River, WA.(all hand-picked fruit) Leeuwin ‘Art Series” Chardonnay 2012, Margaret River, WA. d’Arenberg,’ Derelict Vineyard’ Grenache 2012 McLaren Vale, WA. Torbreck ‘The Steading’ Grenache Shiraz Mataro 2012, Barossa Valley, SA, d’Arenberg ‘Ironstone Pressings’ Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre 2008, Leeuwin ‘Art Series’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Margaret River , WA. Yalumba ‘The Menzies’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Coonawarra, SA. (soil is Terra Rossa, classic cigar box smell) Hickenbotham Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, McLaren Vale, SA. Elderton ‘Ode To Lorraine’ Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz Merlot 2006 Barossa Valley, SA. Tyrrell’s ‘4 Acre’ Shiraz 2013 Hunter Valley, NSW. Kaesler “The Bogan’ Shiraz 2012, Barossa Valley, SA. Elderton ‘The Command’ Shiraz 201o Barossa Valley, SA Hickenbotham ‘The Peake’ Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon 2013. McLaren Vale, SA.IMG_6284

There were so many different wines on the tables, including sparkling Jansz from Tasmania made in the Methode Tasmanoise which I have picked up at Plum market in Chicago.

The picture below is a sunset at Tyrrell’s Hunter Valley Vineyard. All I can say is that I now recognize some outstanding producers and have a completely different impression of Australian wines than I had going into the day. I left the tasting realizing how big the wine world is, how many dedicated, passionate committed producers there are, and what history there is behind the vines. At least for me, I will not make an assumption about “Australian Shiraz’s”. They are all different yet all good and there are so many other grapes vinified in Australia. Yet again, so many wines, such little time!

tyrrells sunset

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