The history and evolution of the Barossa Valley

In the world of wine, there is no substitute for patience. The finest, most age-worthy bottles cannot be hurried or hastened to reach full maturity; nor can a vine’s age be accelerated to produce the complex and concentrated grapes for which old vines are prized.

The Barossa Valley has the living proof, boasting some of the oldest certified vineyards on the planet, dating as far back as the 1840s and still producing grapes today. Throughout their lifetime, these ancient vines have witnessed seismic changes, not least in the style of wines being made in the region.

Tracking the evolution of that style provides an intriguing glimpse into the history of Australian wine as a whole, as well as illustrating the qualities of the Barossa that make it one of the world’s premier fine wine vineyards.

Strong beginnings

In the early days of the mid-19th century, most Australian wine was fortified, usually in the image of port. Grapes grew easily in the Barossa’s warm climate, and by 1929, a quarter of Australia wine was being made there.

The first shift towards the modern era began in the 1950s, when some experimental dry reds were made – most famously, Penfolds Grange was born in 1951, followed by Henschke’s legendary Hill of Grace Shiraz in 1958.

Then, in the 1970s, consumers tastes shifted from red to white wine, and some Barossa producers struggled to adapt. A vine-pull scheme led to many old vines being ripped out, but also drove lots of growers to start bottling wine under their own brand names, including Rockford, Charles Melton and Elderton.

This set up the golden era that followed in the 1990s, when a renewed focus on quality led to widespread export success, especially for Shiraz.

Personal perspectives

One of the companies that has seen it all is Yalumba. Since the 1850s, this name has been synonymous with some of the Barossa’s best-known wines, and for over 25 years, Louisa Rose has been head of winemaking there. As such, she has a panoramic perspective on the evolution of Barossa wine.

Her first vintage at Yalumba was in 1992. At that time, fortified wine was still an important part of the business, while old vines were underappreciated – she recalls old-vine grapes being picked early to make cheap sparkling.

While Shiraz was the main focus for reds, 1992 was also the first vintage of Yalumba’s Bush Vine Grenache, a pale, juicy, red-fruited style which showed that the Barossa had potential beyond blockbuster Shiraz.

Six years later, Louisa pioneered top-quality Viognier from the Eden Valley, a sub-region of the Barossa, with the release of Yalumba Virgilius. This peachy, full-bodied white variety was almost unknown outside its home turf of Condrieu in France’s Rhône Valley, but Virgilius drew immediate praise for its extraordinary clarity and concentration of flavor.

It was becoming clear that the Barossa style was evolving. Throughout the 1990s, Shiraz had been predominant in the Barossa, thanks in large part to the enthusiastic endorsement of uber-critic Robert Parker.

Dense purple in color, with sweet oak spice influence, rich black fruit and a plush texture, it was an easy wine to like. But over the next few decades, wines such as Bush Vine Grenache and Virgilius Viognier showed that the Barossa could author a full spectrum of styles.

According to Rose, “the key to that diversity came from a greater understanding of our own land, as well as a more global perspective on wine.”

Evolving knowledge

Until the late 1990s, the Barossa area had no official delineation. However, when a trade agreement with the EU brought reciprocal protection for appellation names, the Barossa’s boundaries had to be formally established.

This required a detailed survey of their terroir – or ‘grounds’ as the local terminology puts it – and Rose believes that this allowed them optimize the combination of variety and vineyard, opening the door to greater stylistic diversity.

At the same time, Rose credits increased travel as a key reason for the Barossa’s evolution, saying that “as winemakers visited wine regions and export markets around the world, we developed a much broader understanding of how our wines were perceived on the world stage, and brought back new ideas and techniques to try in the winery.”

The modern era

With this expanded knowledge, the Barossa remains at the forefront of the Australian fine wine scene in 2020. The number of registered wineries has tripled since the 1990s, ranging from natural winemakers such as Tom Shobbrook, whose appetizing Syrahs exhibit a raw, energetic tension, to traditional Barossa stalwarts such as Torbreck, with its range of beefy, powerful Shirazes.

Meanwhile, Yalumba is now in the fifth generation of family ownership. They still look to the future, and Rose is currently experimenting with new varieties that might be more adaptable to climate change, as well as finding new clones of classic varieties to continually improve quality. She is also researching the benefits of indigenous yeast, as well as considering how to achieve flavorful wines at lower alcohol levels.

From pioneer planters and fortified forefathers to world-class Shiraz and Viognier, the story of the Barossa is one of continual evolution. Today, there is so much more to discover beyond the traditional full-bodied reds for which the region became so famous – as demonstrated by this selection of some of my favorites below

Yalumba, Bush Vine Grenache 2018 Barossa
(US$18.99 Allendalewine.com, AU$26.99 UnitedCellars.com)
Made from ancient vines in a modern, fruit-driven style, this wine symbolizes everything that the Barossa stands for. Despite the pale color, there is loads of generous ripe red fruit giving a mouth-filling texture and a juicy, long finish.

Charles Melton, Nine Popes 2014 Barossa Valley
(US$43.99 FineWineandGoodSpirits.com, AU$80 Winesquare.com.au)
A typically Aussie interpretation of ‘Châteauneuf-du-Pape’, Nine Popes is a homage to that great Rhône red. It follows the same recipe, blending Grenache with Shiraz and Mourvèdre to create a fulsome, spicy red with loads of flesh and body.

Penfolds, Kalimna Bin 28 Shiraz 2017 South Australia
(US£21.49 VineAndTable.com, AU$37 Cellarspace.com)
Penfolds are famous for their cross-regional blends, and this is a great example. Kalimna is a Barossa Valley vineyard, but the 2017 vintage includes Shiraz grown in nearby McLaren Vale and Padthaway. With 12 months maturation in American oak, this is classic Aussie Shiraz combining baked black fruit with silky structure.