Into the valley of the vines
The afternoon I arrived in the Barossa Valley, in the state of South Australia, I was warned that an unusually severe storm was forecast in what was proving to be a turbulent summer of unseasonable rain and floods. Driving north from the serene city of Adelaide, I'd already passed through a violent hailstorm that left parts of the road flooded and then, as I arrived in the Barossa and the temperature rose rapidly, locusts swarmed and thudded against the windscreen. "If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense," said Alice. "Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't." And so it seemed to me just then.
I was in the Barossa to attend the annual, pre-Christmas Generations Lunch, when the region's winemakers come together to drink each other's wine and talk business. The previous day I'd been touring the vineyards up in the Adelaide Hills and I'd been struck once again by the freewheeling, can-do attitude of Aussie winemakers.
They like to experiment, blend and plant whatever they want wherever they want. There are no appellation laws, no restrictions on which varietals can be grown. They like to speak of "label integrity": forget terroir, the market and the weather will decide what succeeds. In the Barossa, I met a winemaker who had stubbornly tried to make a good Pinot Noir - which usually thrives in cooler climates - and only eventually conceded defeat; the relentless sun scorched the vines.
Later that night, the forecast storm tore through the valley. I watched from my hotel window as forked lightning struck the surrounding hills like some angry god in the act of wreaking vengeance. Power cables and trees were brought down, roads and tracks were rendered impassable, rivers surged and swelled. The next morning I was told that the lunch was off because of a power failure, but then shortly afterwards it was back on again.
When I arrived, late, at the cavernous barn where everyone had gathered on a warm and cloudy afternoon, I was put on a table with the Henschke family, whose ancestors arrived in the valley from Silesia in the early 19th century and planted the first vines. The Henschkes' Hill of Grace, an intense and complex blended Shiraz, is rated along with Penfolds's stately Grange as one of Australia's, and the world's, great wines.
I was hoping to drink a fine vintage at lunch; instead, I was offered a glass of Château de Fonsalette 2002, one of the most distinguished names of the Rhône Valley. "We want to try out the competition," I was told.
The principal speaker at the lunch was a plummy Englishman named Andrew Caillard, a wine auctioneer and writer, who was present to celebrate the Barossa but also to challenge. "How does the world see us?" he asked, rhetorically. "Are we really as good as we think we are?"
The Barossa has long, hot, dry summers and most of Australia's internationally renowned wine producers are there: Jacob's Creek, Peter Lehmann, Wolf Blass, Penfolds. These names are synonymous with a certain kind of mass-produced and highly alcoholic supermarket wine.
I asked one of the Henschkes why the big, head-thumping Barossa Shirazes were so alcoholic. "You don't have to have more than one glass," he said. So that was that.
Later, I toured the neighbouring Eden Valley, at a higher altitude than the Barossa, and there I drank some good, crisp, acidic Rieslings, which had that unmistakable scent of petrol you encounter sometimes, as well as a peppery, late-ripened Shiraz. I met Stuart Blackwell of St Hallett Winery, and he spoke of the need for Barossa winemakers to adapt and to make more "balanced, fruit-friendly" wines, "knocking back" the alcohol and enhancing the acidity.
The next day as I departed, the sun was shining on the terraces of trellised vines once more and there was no wind in the valley.
It was as if the great storm had never been - and everything was what it was, just so.
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