Barossa Valley’s artisans

If you think the Barossa Valley is behind the times, is dominated by big factory wineries and makes nothing but overripe, over-oaked, over-alcoholic monster reds, you’d be mistaken. But this is the stereotype some overseas critics seem to harbour. You’d also be wrong to think that global warming was turning the place into an oven – the kind of place that only makes jam. This summer has been a model growing season, with no heat spikes since November, and the best wine quality for many years. The November heatwave resulted in lower yields of chardonnay (not very important in the Barossa) and grenache, but quality is exciting across the board.

You’d also be misled if you took notice of the results of the local Barossa Valley Wine Show. It’s dominated by the big companies and few of the interesting small makers enter. But the same exciting groundswell of change that we see in such places as the Yarra Valley, Margaret River and Mornington Peninsula is also happening in the Barossa, Australia’s best-known wine region. It too is being led by younger people, who don’t accept at face value everything they learn from their elders or their university lecturers.

Artisans of Barossa is just one example of this groundswell. These people have formed a collective to help with promotion and co-operation. Not all are that young – John Duval is the latest to join up. Not all of them own vineyards or a winery. Kym Teusner, Dan Standish, and Peter Schell of Spinifex (tastings) own little or no vineyards. Duval has no vineyard or winery, but rents space in someone else’s winery. Troy Kalleske, on the other hand, makes all his wines from his family’s vineyard. Greg Hobbs is primarily a viticulturist whereas most of the others are primarily winemakers. The Artisans are as diverse as their wines.

The one thing they have in common is passion. Their wines are at the leading edge of not only what is best, but what is most interesting in the Barossa today. The ‘not-so-dirty dozen’ Artisans are, for the record:

The sub-region listed is the place they source all or most of their grapes, so you can see there is a good geographical and stylistic range. John Duval doesn’t list a sub-region, because he takes fruit from all over.

I spent a few days in the Barossa recently and visited several of these people and tasted and talked with them. I was enormously impressed. They are youthful, energetic, creative; they passionately want to make better wines; many of them operate with little financial backing (Spinifex and Schwarz operate out of a tin shed in a bare paddock with no cellar door, no bells and whistles).

How do they define ‘artisan’?

Standish offers “We’re not formulaic. We’re moving away from processed wine”. Adds Simon Cowham of Sons of Eden: “We have the freedom to produce the styles of wine we want.” Says Schell: “Hand-made, rather than industrial. And an individualistic approach. We all make shiraz but if you looked at those 12 shirazes together they would all be different – not all one same-ish, generic Barossa style.”

Some are organic or biodynamic (eg. Kalleske) and some are not. Some are against acid addition; others are not. There is no group position on such matters. What they have in common is thoughtful minds. “We discussed whether we wanted the group to be organic/BD and decided against it. We tolerate all approaches. We have a holistic attitude and we do approve of doing the right thing by the land and by the wine,” says Teusner.

There is no limit to their number. A few original members have dropped out because they were not right for the group. But a dozen is a nice round number.

“We are all friends and we enjoy each other’s company. We share resources, whether it be lending someone a tractor, or sharing bad-debt information,” says Standish.

The group had its genesis on a trip to the UK in 2006 when they realised they had a lot in common. They decided to put on a shared cellar door day – because none of them had a cellar door of their own. This is now an annual event. It takes place in Angaston Town Hall on August 20 during Barossa Gourmet Weekend. It will come to Sydney and Melbourne in September.

Dutschke Wines is the other new addition to Artisans, along with John Duval. This is timely as winemaker Wayne Dutschke was recently judged Barossa Winemaker of the Year by his peers.

There’s a boom in small winemaking in the Barossa. There are many others, such as David Lehmann’s David Franz (tastings), Tom Shobbrook’s Shobbrook Wines (tastings) and James Erskine’s Bowe Lees (tastings), who are doing interesting work on a micro-boutique scale but not at this stage members of Artisans.

Says Teusner: “When Dan Standish and Jaysen Collins started Massena and Michel Page and I started Teusner, there were maybe four small winemakers in the Barossa. Now there are probably 40.”

Australia has been hammered in the international press for making boring, same-ish wines. “But every country makes a high percentage of swill, not only Australia,” says Standish.

There’s no swill in what I’ve tasted from the Artisans. On the contrary, their wines are high quality and full of character and interest. “It’s the diversity of the Barossa that we want to celebrate,” says Schell. Duval adds: “We have more than 600 small growers, most with small holdings, some with six generations. That’s a lot of history. Few districts have that.”

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 1 March 2010.

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