For and against: bold versus bright reds

By Halliday Wine Companion

4 Jul, 2019

When it comes to red wine, tastes are changing, but will there always be a place for Australia’s big and bold styles? In this piece from Halliday magazine, we hear from two Barossa winemakers who are on either side of the fence.

Reid Bosward @ Kaesler Wines

Bold: Barossa shiraz is one of the iconic wines of Australia, if not the world. Even if you don’t like it, you can’t ignore it. It’s a benchmark. Even in France, they’re starting to ape our style. Why? Because we’re great at making it, and people love drinking it.

It isn’t for everyone – and neither is Champagne, pinot noir or riesling – but it’s ours. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the North Pole or the South Pole, in Norway or the USA, you can taste a Barossa shiraz and know exactly where you are. It’s distinctive, and I think that often gets overlooked.

Everyone moans and groans about the alcohol, but if you don’t like alcohol, then have a bloody soft drink. We make a wine that’s 14.5 per cent alcohol, yet for some reason, people think that if we make a wine that’s 12.5 per cent, it means they can have an extra glass at lunch. You do the math. That doesn’t work. And if you’re worried, you don’t have to drink a whole bottle. In fact, most Barossa reds taste better the second day, which means you can have a glass tonight, and then enjoy the balance tomorrow. This particular style wants and needs air, and it looks best 12 to 24 hours after opening.

Twenty-five years ago, we went down the path of making what I consider to be quintessential Barossa reds. The idea was to create something reasonably extracted and structured, with a view to ageing. We pursued that and decided we weren’t going to deviate from that style. It’s a valid style, but I can also understand why some producers don’t want to go there. It’s a heavy investment in oak, time and stock, and there are a lot of steps and details that go into this type of winemaking. We also invest in our soil, and that’s not cheap. If a grower is selling grapes for $2000 a tonne, there’s not much left in the tin to do the 101 little things that we do to care for our vines.

That’s where the brighter styles have emerged. It’s a great response to the situation, and it opens up the door to more people. These young guys and girls make the fun, juicy stuff because it sells earlier, and they can get their money back quicker. But the first thing they do when they’ve had a good year is to go and find a good block and get serious about making an icon wine. And I love that because most of them are pretty handy winemakers, but they just don’t have the financial wherewithal to do what we do. When they do, though, they generally do it in a way that makes the rest of us go, ‘Shit, we’ve got to pull our socks up!’ It pushes us forward.

Where the bright and juicy styles won’t be able to meet with us is in 10 years’ time. If Australia wants to be a serious player on a global scale, it needs wine that can age. That’s essential for a successful style, brand, country or region. And if you put a foot over $50, it’s implied that you should be able to offer a wine that is good now and will also reward ageing. That’s where these styles come into focus.

Josh Pfeiffer @ Whistler Wines

Bright: People are looking for lighter, easier-drinking red wines that they don’t have to cellar for five years before they’re at their peak. They’re less inclined to buy a six-pack of wine and put some away, and more likely to buy one or two bottles of different styles.

Lower-alcohol reds are better suited to our climate. And with the diversity of cuisine in Australia, people want food-friendly styles. You’d need a rib-eye steak to get through a bottle of full-bodied Barossa shiraz.

I’m picking quite early in comparison to my neighbours, and as a result, my wines are generally fresher. The aim is to achieve lighter styles of red wine that are fun and approachable. As soon as it’s in the bottle, it needs to be ready to drink. I’m not saying these styles aren’t ageworthy either. If you hark back to the 1960s and ’70s in the Barossa, the alcohol content of a lot of the reds was between 12 and 13 per cent. It’s encouraging to know those lighter styles of shiraz could age well. My first year at Whistler was 2014, and the five-year-old wines that we have now are still looking good, so that’s promising.

We’ve been using organic practices in our vineyards for the past six years, and biodynamic for the last two. We’re on the western side of the Barossa as well, which is different from the valley itself. It’s slightly warmer, which leads to earlier ripening and flavour development, so we have a few factors on our side when it comes to making these lighter red styles. We also have seven soil types on our 35 acres, so it’s quite complex. We’re a single vineyard winery, and we grow about 90 per cent of the fruit on our site.

There’s still a place for those Barossa shiraz wines at 14 or 15 per cent alcohol that everyone knows and loves. That’s one of the real strengths of the Barossa. People know that if they reach for a bottle of Barossa shiraz, it’s going to be good, and that perception is important to maintain. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make lighter styles of red wine here.

It’s only in the past five years that we’ve started pursuing this style, and so far, the feedback has been positive. We used to make some pretty big wines at Whistler. Personally, though, I love wines from Burgundy, Beaujolais and Mount Etna. They’re a bit lighter and crunchier, and with more fruit vibrancy on the whole. You get an abundance of flavour from Barossa fruit. I saw that as a fantastic opportunity to pick earlier, knowing there would still be plenty of flavour in the wine to keep people happy. It’s been a gradual shift – I started picking a little earlier, and now I’m picking a lot earlier.

The Barossa is a more traditional region in general, but there are smaller producers here focusing on this style of wine. Winemakers like Tom Shobbrook and Wayne Ahrens from Smallfry have been doing it for years. There might only be a handful of us, but that number is on the rise.

‘For and against’ is a regular feature in Halliday magazine. Become a member to get every issue first. Do you have a topic you’d like to debate? Talk to us on email, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.