As Grant Burge releases its new 2018 vintage wines, chief winemaker Craig Stansborough explains how the style of winemaking is evolving through the years, what recent vintages have been like, which are the ones to put on your buying radar and how Barossa Valley, in general, is moving with the times – in the use of oak, whole bunch, yeasts and vineyard management. Full tasting notes including a ‘ripper’ 2016 Meshach and a museum 2012 release.
“We have the best access to old vines in Barossa,” Stansborough claims, “which is one of our strong points. Some of these vines were planted in 1901, 1920 and one vineyard in 1935 – it gives us something special.”
“It’s to keep the bastards honest,” Craig Stansborough says, referring to how fussy both his team at Grant Burge and other winemakers in the Barossa are about the oak they are being supplied.
“In the 1980s and 90s Australia wasn’t taken seriously by oak and cork suppliers and we were supplied with substandard oak, but now we are some of the fussiest oak users – we go through trial after trial and now we have some pretty amazing oak.”
When Stansborough, the chief winemaker here, joined the estate in 1993 it was largely American oak used “a bit raw and horrible”, but now they have switched to French for its improvement in quality.
It is not just at Grant Burge but across the Barossa this is happening – part of a general movement away from making high alcohol, primary fruit bombs and towards making wines with greater finesse.
“To be honest we never went down the super-ripe style of the late 2000s, we never did that hang-time getting up to 16-17% abv, making sure that every seed was brown, it went too far.”
Stansborough says that it is a fine balance between achieving ripeness but not going overboard. “You have to be careful not to change your style too much careful not to change your brand.”
Other changes he is seeing apart from using more French oak than American, is that there is a smaller percentage of new oak being used across the board and, where there is, the wines are generally going into new oak later; it then comes out of the oak two to three months earlier; wild yeast are more common; ferments are generally getting cooler; the wine is left on the skins a bit longer; and there is an increasing use of whole bunch.
“Greater use of whole bunch started with the modern Grenache movement and has crept into Shiraz, some do it beautifully and some go too far,” he says.
The biggest change Stansborough sees, though, is in improvements in vineyard management with his team putting a lot of care and attention into achieving balanced vineyards and soils “it’s where we are seeing the biggest quality gains.”
Where every mid-row would have been ploughed in the 1990s, this is a rarity now. “Our main form of weed control is sheep, although we get them out at bud burst, they can climb and eat buds they’re not stupid.”
“We are only using copper in some of our vineyards, we are not using any pesticides and very few herbicides, so we are practising organic viticulture in some vineyards but it’s not about going after certification and being a marketing thing, it’s more about looking after the land and getting better fruit, going organic would involve too much paperwork!”
Improving cellar conditions is also on the rise especially useful during the hot months of November and December. “the less sulphur you need the greater the vibrancy in the wine,” he says.
As for the 2020 vintage, Stansborough says with characteristic Antipodean understatement “It was a bit of a taxing vintage I’ll admit.” This, about a vintage that had bush fires, the lowest levels ever (down between 40-70% in some vineyards) and Covid, with a positive test within the winery, not helping matters.
And so to the new wine releases
Balthasar Shiraz, 2018, Grant Burge
The only red wine Grant Burge makes from Eden Valley fruit. Matured for 18 months in French oak, 38% new. A wine with power but good balance and a touch of fresh elegance.
Deep purple; dark and broody nose with classic Eden Valley note of violets, blueberries, spice tin, twist of eucalyptus; medium to full bodied palate but nicely balanced with fresh acidity; black fruit, crème de mûre, cedar, cloves, cinnamon bark. 14.5% abv.
Filsell Old Vine Shiraz, 2018, Grant Burge
A wine that makes its UK debut this week. 90% of the fruit comes from South Barossa with a blend of fruit coming from old vines “We have the best access to old vines in Barossa,” Stansborough claims, “which is one of our strong points. Some of these vines were planted in 1901, 1920 and one vineyard in 1935 – it gives us something special.” The wine was matured in a combination of French and American oak, 35% new.
Dark crimson; aromas of red and blue plum, lifted spice, milk chocolate; the palate is medium to full, powerful structure, with silky, ripe, even tannins and a bedrock of acidity that balances the fruit well. There’s some roast meat notes and a summer pudding melange of berry fruit on the intense, long finish, a little hint of citrus and nut shell. Best laid down for another five years or paired with a big fat steak. 14.5% abv.
Corryton Park Cabernet Sauvignon, 2018, Grant Burge
From East-facing vineyards in the high country (500m) of the Southern Eden Valley, Corryton Park is a marginal vineyard planted in the late 1990s with 76% of the fruit coming from here and the rest from South Barossa. The wine was fermented in French oak, 25% new. The very dry conditions were good for the style of varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, Stansborough was trying to capture “no green seeds or green tannin, nice fruit.” Fermented in steel for 8-10 days with 20% of the fruit left on the skins for 25 days. After fermentation the wine was matured for 18 months in French oak, 25% new.
Medium deep ruby; aromas of cassis, After Eight, aniseed, touch of blackcurrant leaf; delicious pure, young, fresh fruit, in this medium weight, highly textured wine; flavours of mulberry, damson, touch of mocha and a ginger cake spiciness on the lengthy finish. The acidity, fruit and oak are very well balanced. 14.6% abv
Icon Nebu Cabernet Shiraz, 2017, Grant Burge
This wine was rebranded in 2016 as Nebu having been released in 2003 as Nebuchadnezzer “with such an ugly label that even I didn’t buy it,” says Craig. The aim is to get a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant wine so the ratio is normally around 60/40 over the Shiraz, with both wines coming from old vine fruit, that are vinified separately with minimal intervention. The wine is then matured for 18 months in French oak 18% of it new. 2017 was an unusually cool and wet vintage that was a challenge for winemakers but has resulted in an atypical Barossa Cabernet Shiraz. What is impressive is how the team has achieved good phenolic ripeness, ripe tannins (no greenness) and good fruit profile. There was no need to acidify much as there was good natural acidity in the fruit.
Dark cherry, almost opaque, with purple edges; on the nose aromas of blackberry, blue plum, vanilla and cinnamon; medium bodied, rounded palate with an elegant, taut streak that consumers would be surprised about if they did not know about the peculiarities of the vintage. Red and black fruit flavours with a blue plum skin edge that carries through to the finish. 14.5% abv
Icon Meshach Shiraz, 2016, Grant Burge
Named in tribute to Grant Burge’s great grandfather who started the winemaking tradition on the estate back in 1865, this is the current release of Grant Burge’s flagship Shiraz, and the 24threlease of the wine out of the possible 32 vintages since it was first released in 1988, it only being released in the best vintages. The fruit comes from three vineyards all aged 100 years or more, fermentation takes place in open top concrete fermenters with 11% of whole bunch fruit used. Basket presses are then used before 20 months maturation in hogsheads, 37% new and split between 77% French and 23% American.
Stansborough says that there are 16 or 17 parcels of vines that come from the three vineyards that make up the wine and with each they “play with them” using different vinification techniques. Some of the parcels respond better to wild yeast, longer time on the skins etc. “We do it according to vineyard, one vineyard responds really well with 25% whole bunch some don’t respond well.”
Since being released in 1988 the wine has achieved its iconic status through the awards it has won and its ability to happily cellar for two decades or more. 2016 is regarded as one of the great vintages with heavy cloud cover in December 2015 acting like a sunscreen and benefitting the fruit profile
Intense, powerful wine with layers, complexity and, although there is plenty of ripeness here it doesn’t hit you in the face with primary fruit. On the eye the wine is inky, opaque with purple hue; really elegant, almost shy nose for a Barossa with black plum, blackberry and mulberry, touch of dark chocolate and liquorice. The palate is full bodied with plenty of concentration but together the oak-work and acidity balance and restrain the wine well, the texture is grainy with mocha and espresso mixed with the black fruit, there’s a mineral line running through the wine also. Still very young.
Icon Meshach Shiraz, 2012, Grant Burge
Museum release of another great Barossa vintage. The winemaking has changed a little in that, where the 2016 has 35% new oak, the 2012 had 65% new oak, detectable by it having a bit more toastiness on the nose. Less whole bunch was used – 8% in this case.
Deep blood red with ruby edging; on the nose black fruits dominate (plum, mulberry) – with dark chocolate, liquorice, tar, olive, a touch of graphite; the palate is similarly complex but the overriding impression is of how the sweetness of the fruit knits in with the structure of the wine, with still-firm acidity and velvety tannins. Black cherry, cooked blackberries, plums, dark chocolate. The wine is in a really great place now and can cellar for a further decade at least.
Know your Barossa Valley vintages
Stansborough said that if you took a straw poll in Barossa of winemakers’ favourite vintages they would probably reply “2010, 2012, 2016 and 2018”. His personal favourite is the 2018 “with 2016 not far behind…a lot of it is Mother Nature doing its thing, that is the key driver in those vintages.”
The tasting comprised six different wines across four different vintages – all new wines on the market.
The 2018 harvest was dry but produced great quality thanks to the retention of water in the soils from the rainy months leading up to vintage. The dry, warm conditions were welcomed creating low disease pressure. These warm, dry conditions coupled with cool night-time temperatures produced fruit with exceptional flavour that were harvested at lower degrees of sugar ripeness.
Cool, wet conditions during December, January and February with warmer conditions to follow resulted in a very late vintage. This was the fifth wettest vintage on reord and one of the coolest. Extended hang-time on the vine with increased canopy density due to the wet spring and summer allowed the fruit to attain excellent flavour ripeness while maintaining good levels of natural acidity.
Cool winter with lower than average rainfall which continued into spring, warmer than average temperatures through November, December and January. Late January rain had a positive effect and combined with a mild February/March and allowed for a smooth harvest and good flavour development. 2016 will be regarded as a very good to exceptional year for reds in the Barossa.
The 2012 vintage provided exceptional conditions throughout the entire growing season. Good winter rains laid the foundation for a perfect spring, with mild and dry weather along with cool nights throughout the vintage producing perfect ripening conditions. Grant and the winemaking team, think that the 2012 vintage is one of the best they have ever experienced.
The Grant Burge wines are imported into the UK by Accolade Wines