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Meet the Ashmeads: Barossa royalty & rise of Elderton Wines

Meet the Ashmeads: Barossa royalty & rise of Elderton Wines

Although its original vineyard was planted 130 years ago it wasn’t until 1980 that Elderton Wines really started – when a real estate agent offered Neal and Lorraine Ashmead 72 acres of vineyard for free if they bought the farmhouse. Having brought the vines back from the brink, the couple won Australia’s top wine trophy 10 years later and have never looked back. Now under the ownership of sons Cameron and Allister, Elderton is on an ambitious growth programme, changing the style of the wines, and looking to invest in its future. The good news is that the wines are back in the UK. Peter Dean caught up with Cameron and tasted through the new vintages.

Peter Dean
16th February 2024by Peter Dean
posted in People: Producer,

“Traditional Barossa wines are not the easiest so we are making a style that is more enjoyable and easier to drink, I really love the change of style,” Elderton co-owner Cameron Ashmead says.

Elderton co-owner Cameron Ashmead, Mere, London, February 1, 2024

“What are you talking about you fucking dickhead?”

Is not the answer you would normally expect from a winemaker responding to an observation about one of their wines at a tasting.

Admittedly the person in question had just likened the sweetness of fruit in the Barossa Shiraz they had tasted to Coca-Cola so, when all things are considered, it was a pretty fair response.

Such was winemaker Richard Langford’s riposte, however, that all of the other raised hands in the room that were ready to ask questions quickly disappeared.

These tales are coming thick and fast from Cameron Ashmead, over a tasting lunch designed to show off the latest Elderton wines that Langford used to make for the Ashmead family. Obviously the man was quite a card. We also heard, for example, about how when he was the winemaker for Elderton Wines from 2003, he once wrote back to a loyal customer who had questioned whether there was a change in the winemaking style with a brief note that simply said “It was nice having you as a customer.”

We are sat in Mere, a fancy eaterie in the heart of London’s adland, hosted by Ashmead and New Generation Wines MD James McKenna who is delighted that Elderton has become the importer’s first Australian estate which he sees as the beginning of a move to replicate the success it has had with New Zealand and South African wines.

Elderton cellar door – surrounded by the 72 acres of vines that were given away for free

So who are Elderton Wines?

Along with his brother Allister, Cameron has been running this Barossa winery since 2003, when he returned from working overseas. This second-generation team is now into its 43rdvintage. Cameron is keen to show the latest vintages alongside some library wines that show off the age-ability of Barossa Shiraz, its change in style and the beauty (if it really needed proving) of Elderton’s Eden Valley Riesling and its outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon, a 1992 bottle of which is one of the highlights of the tasting.

Cameron also needs to give us a quick resumé of Elderton’s fascinating history and how this inheritance came about fortuitously and not through any long-standing Barossa lineage.

“We learned how to make wine in Saudi Arabia,” he half-jokes alluding to his parents’ home prior to buying Elderton in 1980 where the real estate agent unbelievably threw in the estate’s vineyards for free.

“If you buy the house, I will give you the surrounding 72 acres of old vines for nothing,” he said.

This was the last wine recession in the country, when Shiraz muffins were a thing and you couldn’t give away still table wine from Barossa. The vines, planted in 1894 by early German settlers, were also in dire need of restoration. But, given that the Ashmeads paid AU$270k for the estate, it’s fair to say the family got a bit of a bargain, especially when you consider that planted vineyards in the locale have recently been sold for AU$500k an acre.

That was then and this is now. Barossa was a very different beast in the 1980s.

Neil and Lorraine Ashmead with the Jimmy Watson Trophy which they won just 10 years after establishing Elderton

Having bought the estate, Cameron’s parents Neil and Lorraine made their first vintage two years later, moved the focus of the winery from fortified to fine table wine and then sold like hell in the days when Barossa Shiraz was a tough sell.

“Dad would load the car up and not return until he’d sold every bottle,” Cameron recalls, “sometimes he’d be gone for ‘years’.”

A natural born salesman, Neil’s favourite mode of transport was a jet-like Brock-modified HSV Commodore which took him four and a half hours driving to get to Sydney, a trip which Cameron sheepishly admits now takes him nine hours, and that’s pushing at the speed limit.

Over coffee we hear of near-misses in the motor, but sadly Neal did pass away before his time in 1997, just four years after he and Lorraine won the prestigious Jimmy Watson Trophy which put Elderton on the map. “It also allowed my parents to have their first holiday in ten years,” Cameron remembers.

The latest vintage and the first of Grand Tourer, with a label design that got the lawyers talking

To honour their father in 2008 Cameron and Allister launched Neil Ashmead Grand Tourer Shiraz, the bottle bedecked with racing car iconography – some of which had to be amended after a well-known motoring brand did a ‘legal shot across the bows’.

Another of Elderton’s wines Ode to Lorraine is named after their mother, an homage also not without its difficulties.

“When we told Mum we were going to name a wine after her she refused and said if you do that I’m going to write you out of the will,” continues Cameron, “although I did explain that she had already signed over the shares to us so it didn’t make much difference.”

What he and his brother did do, however, was fly two bottles of the inaugural vintage of Ode to Lorraine to Jean-Georges in New York City where their mother was celebrating her 60th birthday. When Lorraine ordered an Oregon Chardonnay the sommelier brought out a bottle of ‘her’ wine.

“She laughed, then cried, then said to the sommelier ‘I’ll still be having the Chard…. When she got home and found that we had made thousands of bottles of the wine and she was furious.”

Consistent growth

Originally planted over 100 years ago by the Pohler family, Mengler Hill is one of the highest altitude vineyards in the Barossa,

Elderton has expanded over the past 43 years with the brothers buying vineyards in prime sites but through this growth it has still managed to retain its family-run structure, ethos and sense of fair play.

Another legend recalls how a cellar hand transferred some prime 2010 Ashmead Cabernet Sauvignon into a 9000 litre tank. Trouble was there was already 1000 litres of water already sitting in the bottom of it. Instead of getting the sack, the cellar hand still works there today.

As for the current winemaking team Cameron is married to head winemaker Julie Ashmead who comes from Aussie wine royalty the Campbells, they having been making wine for the past 153 years.

“The best thing I ever did was marry well,” he says.

Having made wine in France, the US and Chile, Julia is still the head winemaker at Campbells and Elderton, with day-to-day winemaker Brock Harrison running Elderton since his appointment in 2019.

With the purchase last year of the Mengler Hill vineyard for AUS$3.5m, Elderton has expanded to four sites, the other vineyards being the original vineyard Nuriootpa that was used as a real estate makeweight, Greenock Vineyard and Craneford.

Stylistically, Elderton is investing in the future too.

Cameron explains how Barossa has been on a bit of downward trajectory of late, affected by the two years of Chinese embargo, but also a move away from full-bodied wine styles.

“Traditional Barossa wines are not the easiest so we are making a style that is more enjoyable and easier to drink, I really love the change of style,” he says.

Tasting the recent vintages alongside some museum wines, the style change shows the new wines having less extraction, concentration, sweet ripeness and power but with greater finesse, control, and a lean towards red and blue fruit rather than intense red and black.

In the vineyard the team is managing the canopy more scientifically, using supplementary irrigation at key times of the night, planting a range of different varieties and picking fruit earlier. Older and larger formats of oak are also being used in the winery.

So to the wines

Although the tasting shows 13 wines, the focus is on the eight wines that New Generation will have available, and which are the wines paired with a four-course lunch.

2023 Eden Valley Riesling which is served as an aperitif with canapes is a crisp, talc-dry gastronomic wine that boasts orange blossom aromas with layers of ripe grapefruit and lime. There is still that firm backbone, but the fruit cloaks it well, the fruit being picked later than usual to not put the acid profile into overdrive. Nice that the family has avoided plastering the bottle like a show pony with the many awards the wines has won. RRP: £22.75

2022 Barossa GSM is a blend of 43% Grenache, 34% Shiraz and 23% Mataro from vines that range from 5 to 107 years old. Bright crimson with purple edges, the wine is young, juicy, vibrant, almost impudent! There is a distinct musk note, herbs and vibrant red and black fruit. On the palate the wine is warm, open, light, gluggable, with a hint of chocolate amongst the red fruit. This really found its feet with a Salt Beef Boil-up, the wine (some of which was added to the consommé) really picking up umami notes. RRP: £25.75

2021 Barossa Shiraz. Elderton used to be one of the (many sources) of fruit for Grange and the quality of fruit that comes from three of its vineyards shines through in this classic expression of Barossa. Deep purple, hints of spiced plums, and a structured, fresh and fruity palate that handled a Barbecued lamb saddle, served with lamb heart, black garlic and coconut crumb with consummate ease. Some game-iness there, Eden Valley black pepper coming through, ripe, approachable tannins, fine-boned texture with a lovely register on the palate. Hard to believe it clocks in at a hefty 14.8% ABV. RRP: £25.75

For the main course of grilled venison with celeriac puree, winter veg and a Grand Veneur sauce, ‘Mum’ accompanied ‘Dad’ so to speak with 2021 Ode to Lorraine Barossa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz Merlot served alongside 2022 Neil Ashmead Grand Tourer Barossa Valley Shiraz.

Ode to Lorraine had a fine elegance with the 4% Merlot adding a touch of softness and spice. From new and seasoned French oak puncheons, the wood is apparent with powerful aromas of red and black fruits with a touch of fresh bay leaf. Credit to the winemakers for giving this wine a gorgeously fresh palate which belies its 14.9% abv (the same as ‘Dad’). Black fruit, dense and flavoursome, juicy with firm acidity giving the wine balance. RRP: £39.25

The 100% Shiraz 2022 Neil Ashmead GTS was beautifully fresh on the palate with pepper and charcuterie notes mixed in with fruits of the forest, the nose, for me took a little while to love – pretty funky, with savoury, peppery aromas. It opened out and worked well with the food, however. RRP: £39.25

Elderton used to be one of the (many sources) of fruit for Grange and the quality of this Nuriootpa fruit shines through in 2020 Command Shiraz, a classic expression of Barossa Shiraz. 2020 was a hot vintage with yields 80% down, the wine has also spent 24 months in new French and American oak puncheons so no surprise to find some concentration here. The wine also spends two years in bottle ending up with interesting layers and complexity on release. A powerhouse of spiced plums, chocolate, hint of vanilla and a very rich, ripe, intense core of lovely micro-fine tannins – dense and broody in a word. RRP: £80.25

Having secured the celebrated Greenock vineyard in 2010, that has a small plot from 2015 (planted by the Helbig family), 2021 Helbig 1915 Shiraz is a vin de meditation whose dense, broody strength would make a great after-dinner drink, which is exactly when we sampled this. If you want colour, flavour and alcohol “turned up to 11” this is your wine. A chunky money at 15.8% abv there is no doubting the quality of fruit here and how the winemakers manage to get freshness in the core is anyone’s guess. RRP: £213.50

Elderton Wines are brought into the UK by New Generation Wines which is a commercial partner of The Buyer.