Chateau Tanunda – rich full-blooded reds, and a real chateau!

The abnormally soggy eastern Australian summer is likely to result in lower-alcohol wines than usual from the 2011 vintage. Winemakers from Clare to Canberra, McLaren Vale to the Yarra Valley, say this year’s wines will have moderate alcohol strengths, more like 13% than 14.5 – which has become the norm in recent years. It will give heart to those who regret the trend towards stronger alcohols, although not all the wines will be good: low-alcohol will be a sign of underripe grapes in some cases. In the Barossa, Clare and McLaren Vale the wines are likely to be a ‘cool-climate style’, reminiscent of the 2002s and 1990s.

Balance is one of the most important features of wine, but alcoholic balance is not always synonymous with low-alcohol. Concurrent with the high-alcohol trend has been a trend towards richer fruit flavours, more concentration and power, and red wines of this style can accommodate more alcohol than leaner wines, without losing their balance.

One winery harvesting great success with rich reds in recent times is the Barossa Valley’s Chateau Tanunda (tastings).

This historic winery, opened in 1890 but operating since 1888, and with a name synonymous for earlier generations with inexpensive brandy, was restored at a cost of more than $5 million by its current owner John Geber. It was little more than a pigeon-infested shell when he bought it in 1989. Geber did a superb job on both the chateau and its gardens and grounds. The wines took a little longer to hit their stride but are now reaping the rewards of years of planning. Key to the strategy was Ralph Fowler (winemaker 2005 to ’08), who Geber credits with much preparatory work, identifying and securing source vineyards, and Tim Smith (winemaker 2007 to present), who leaves at the end of this vintage to pursue his own venture, Tim Smith Wines, also Barossa-based.

The Chateau Tanunda building, a magnificent edifice made of bluestone quarried at Bethany, houses a new winery with all-important basket-press, cellar door sales and function areas and is a landmark of the Barossa, just off Basedow Road in Tanunda. Its 40 hectares of land include a croquet pitch and cricket oval – to which crowds flock for the biennial Masters Cricket charity match. The chateau’s five vineyards cover 100 hectares, not including 25 contracted growers. This enables fruit to be sourced widely from the Barossa and Eden Valleys.

Of special interest is the Terroirs of the Barossa range. It has three sub-regional bottlings: Greenock (from the north-west), Ebenezer (north-east) and Lyndoch (south). All have subtly different personalities while sharing the general Barossa trait of chocolaty richness.

Chateau Tanunda has four levels of wine: from the bottom up, they are Barossa Tower ($15 to $18 reds and whites), The Chateau range ($18 whites to $28 reds), Grand Barossa ($30 shiraz and cabernet sauvignon) and finally Limited Release ($48 Terroirs of the Barossa shirazes; $95 The Chateau 100-Year-Old Vine Shiraz (tastings), and $160 The Everest (tastings) series of grenache and shiraz).

It’s a big range so I’ll pick the eyes out of it. The Chateau riesling and semillon are excellent: fine, modern, well-priced dry whites. The 2010 Eden Valley riesling is a ripper whose price only reflects the absurd unfashionableness of this grape.

Off to one side, we find the 2009 Vine Vale Shiraz ($28 ex-winery tasting) – delicious and remarkable value; the 2009 120th Anniversary Celebration Release Shiraz ($25), under a resurrected early label, is oaky but rich and a must for nostalgia buffs.

I find the Terroirs of the Barossa range a little unconvincing: terroir differences are more fascinating in marginal climates (for shiraz: say Yarra Valley, Canberra or the Grampians) and I remain to be convinced that anyone in the Barossa has really captured anything compelling in a range of sub-regional wines. The Ebenezer (tastings) is idiosyncratic; the ’09 Lyndoch is elegant and charming, moreso than the ’08 (tastings); and the Greenock (tastings) is my preference, the most complete and delicious, especially (again) from the very good ’09 vintage.

Then we come to the 100-Year-Old Vines Shiraz (from Angaston; $95) which is a rip-snorter (tastings). The ’08 is rich, sexy, decadent and utterly delicious, a triumph from the difficult year – although Eden Valley had less heat than the Barossa floor. The one-third new oak does not show, and while it doesn’t stint on alcohol (at 14.5%) it tastes very well balanced. Geber reckons the use of open-top vats helps dissipate some of the alcohol during the tumult of fermentation.

The Everest limited-release reds are where the greatest excitement lurks. It’s these wines that so delighted the judges at the International WINE Challenge in England late last year, winning the trophy for best single estate wine (’08 The Everest Old Bush Vine Grenache – tasting) and the International Shiraz/Syrah Trophy (’05 The Everest Chateau Cru Shiraz – tasting). These are knee-tremblingly opulent, decadent wines, hovering around 15% alcohol and loaded with flavour. If you’re into very big reds, these are some of the best. The ’08 vintage of the shiraz and ’06 of the grenache are also superb and cast in the same mould. Normally, grenache is not matured in new oak, but the ’06 spent two years in new French puncheons. It doesn’t show. This attests to the great flavour of the fruit.

These wines are only made when the fruit is right, says Geber, and that means no ’07s, although both wines were made in ’09 and ’10. They are rare and you must go to the chateau to buy them: 08 8563 3888 or

Chateau Tanunda must be the last Australian wine property to be still using the C word. And it’s not about to change. Geber fought successfully in the highest court for international trademarks, the Trademark Court of Appeal in Brussels, for the right to use the name. And fair enough: the grand building is more of a chateau than a lot of French wine chateaux!

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 12 April 2011.


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