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Friday retro-post: Going sub-regional – Wolf Blass Estates of the Barossa Shiraz

Wednesday’s post looked at Alex Head’s thrilling single vineyard ‘Blonde’ & ‘Brunette’ Barossa Shiraz.  Sticking with the theme, today’s retro-post looks at an altogether bigger player’s single vineyard Barossa Shirazes – Wolf Blass’ Sapphire label foursome, which I tasted at home and in the Barossa a couple of year’s ago.  Proof positive of the region’s sharper focus on site from this arch blender.

This post was first published on 10 October 2014.

Wolf Blass (the man) used to be known as “the master blender” but, as the brand’s Chief Winemaker points out, “when you look at the early labels, he was at the forefront of declaring region and variety.”  During my August visit with Chris Hatcher and his team we visited the vineyards behind an unexpectedly high number of Wolf Blass’ Gold, Grey, White and Platinum label regional wines – my personal favourites are reviewed below.  We also tasted the company’s first collection of Sapphire labelled sub-regional Barossa Shiraz wines from the excellent 2012 vintage.

I was struck by how each of Wolf Blass’s Estates of the Barossa four sub-regional Shiraz echoed my findings from a Barossa Grounds tasting in 2011.  This region-wide initiative has increased interest and knowledge in the famous South Australian region’s diverse terroir – a topic which I subsequently covered in this “broad church” Barossa feature for Imbibe magazine.

Every year since 2008 the Barossa Grounds project has conducted a sensory evaluation of Shiraz wines from nine anecdotally recognised Barossa sub-regions for similarities and differences in flavour and texture. Before I tasted Wolf Blass’ wines, I met up with James March from the Barossa Grape & Wine Association who run the project and its viticultural adviser, Nicky Robbins to catch up with the latest news.

March says “it’s been a journey of discovery – we have a better understanding of who we are and where we are.” Not least because what started off as a winemakers’ tasting  has broadened into a ground up (or ground down, you might say) project which involves soil scientists and viticulturists.

The focus, he explains, is “less about finished wines to the consumer and more about building a library or body of work to understand what’s influencing the different Barossa styles.” For example, 14 principal soil categories and 46 different soil types have been identified; temperature, elevation and rainfall data has been found to correlate with different wine styles.

As for the four Wolf Blass sub-regional Shiraz, each represents a critical marker along Wolf Blass’s traditional source route.  It lay in a straight line through the centre of the valley from Lyndoch in the south, right through the heart at Dorrien and north to St John’s, then following a sweeping eastern arc over the far side of the winery to Moculta in the northern reaches of Eden Valley.

Despite the fancy packaging, Wolf Blass Red Winemaker Steve Frost assured me the Estates of the Barossa project wasn’t driven by marketing.  Rather, he told me, “we’ve  had all the Estates of the Barossa fruit for some time – ‘A’ grade fruit with nowhere to go.  It seemed a shame to blend it into Gold Label which, unless it was exceptional and went into Black Label, is what would have happened in past.”

Wolf Blass Estates of the Barossa sub-regional Shiraz

In Barossa Grounds’ evaluatory style here’s my sensory assessment of Wolf Blass’ Estates of the Barossa Shiraz together with some background information about the climate, elevation, latitude and soil of each wines’ sub-region.  My notes are based on two tastings.  One over two days in London; the other took place with Chris Hatcher and Steve Frost at Wolf Blass’ Barossa HQ.

It’s worth noting that the winemaking for all four Shiraz more or less followed the same path in order best to tease out the sub-regional differences.  Harvested at optimum maturity, fruit from individual blocks was crushed separately and fermented in small open-top fermenters. A mix of plunging and gentle pumping over was used to optimise flavour, colour and tannin extraction. The wines were left on skins until dry to lengthen tannins and enhance palate line and finish. Each was matured in 60-75% seasoned and 25%-40% new French oak barrels for 18 months.   In Australia, the wines retail for around €90 each.

Here is Wolf Blass’s vintage report for 2012: good winter rain set the vines up well, which, with a warm early spring, resulted in healthy vines and an early onset of the growth cycle. Wind during flowering resulted in a slightly poorer set, which, along with a cool summer, reduced bunch and berry size. Mild days and cool nights during ripening allowed for optimal development, resulting in exceptionally well-balanced fruit with bright, rich varietal character, great intensity of flavour and good natural acidity.

Chris Hatcher & his number 2 Steven Frost show off Woolf Blass Estates of the Barossa sub-regional Shiraz

Wolf Blass Estates of the Barossa Lyndoch 5351 Barossa Shiraz Sapphire Label 2012

Lyndoch: In the far south of the Barossa Valley, Lyndoch feature’s the region’s lowest altitude, with the God’s Hill and Lyndoch Valley vineyards from which this wine is sourced,lying on some of the district’s higher peaks at 250 to 300m.

Framed by slopes of Barossa Ironstone, the soils show multiple complexities, ranging from red-brown earths to alluvial sediments and fine sands overlying ancient micaceous schists, siltstones, calcitites and quartzites.

Lyndoch enjoys the region’s highest rainfall at around 650mm, while the lower elevation results in slightly warmer average temperatures, promoting some of the earliest ripening, with higher levels of humidity contributing to fresh, aromatic flavours.

The Lyndoch terroir is known for growing soft perfumed Shiraz with lush fruit and natural elegance.   Frost admitted that this Shiraz “gave us most grief – we needed to get it into bottle quickly because the parcels seem to fall away, losing fragrance while the others built.

My tasting note: – a deep/opaque crushed burgundy hue with no sign of having to be rushed into bottle, although it is certainly the lightest of the four (just like the Lyndoch Shiraz I sampled at the earlier Barossa Grounds tasting).  It reveals great youthful intensity and vibrancy of of raspberry/framboise, cassis and mulberry to nose and palate with sweet vanillin, milk chocolate and a hint of eucalyptus.  Well focused with soft, velvety tannins it has an effortless delivery.  A very broachable, suave wine.  14.5%,  Acidity: 6.7 g/L, pH: 3.57

Wolf Blass Estates of the Barossa Dorrien 5352 Barossa Shiraz Sapphire Label 2012

Dorrien: Sourced from two distinguished vineyard sites at Dorrien in the central heart of the Barossa Valley. A largely flat area at an altitude of around 260m, with gentle undulations sloping towards the North Para River, Dorrien is geologically stable, predominantly shaped by the flow of the central river over time.

The blocks are planted in ancient sedimentary soils over 5 million years old, made up of sandy loams over light to medium clays.

With a relatively low annual rainfall of around 470mm, low humidity, and optimum sunlight, Dorrien benefits from cooling breezes flowing down-river from the foothills. Together these natural conditions produce elegant, balanced Shiraz, with a purity of fruit and fine, structural tannins.

My tasting note: while you sink into the Lyndoch’s pool of supple, very pure fruit the Dorrien grabs you from the off with its tongue twisting, flavour ricocheting savoury leathery tannins.  Tannins amply oiled by its free-wheeling wild black cherry, blueberry and black olive/tapenade fruit and juicy acidity.  Earth, dried sage, creosote and mocha notes chime in.  Even this non-meat eater can see that this bellowing, belly full of a wine has rib eye written all over it.  Great character and structure.  14.5%, Acidity: 6.7 g/L, pH: 3.56

Wolf Blass Estates of the Barossa Moculta 5353 Barossa Shiraz Sapphire Label 2012

Moculta: Sourced from Moculta Vineyard in the north-eastern foothills of Eden Valley. The Moculta district lies to the east of the Stockwell fault which separated the Barossa and Eden Valleys during a fracture dating back 35 million years, lifting the Eden Valley side and disrupting the surface, leading to the erosion of the underlying rock.

The landscape is rugged, with jutting rocky slabs and lean, shallow, wind-blown soils comprised mostly of red-brown earths, loams over underlying shaly rocks and limestone.  Frost lifts it off the page when he says it takes a six foot tall tree 100 years to reach that height because the soils are so poor and stony.

At around 350 to 400m elevation, the Moculta district enjoys a cooler climate than the valley floor resulting in later ripening, with a more generous rainfall, falling mostly through the winter months. Shiraz from Moculta shows great intensity and finesse with juicy fruit and a distinctive mineral influence.

My tasting note: a dark inky hue with a flavour profile to match, Moculta has a very tight but bright seam of blackcurrant fruit of great persistence and line.  A plume of iron filing tannins keeps pace, building in the mouth and, together with its mineral-sluiced acidity, it teases out savoury layers of star anise, liquorice, smoky clove and malty, mocha oak.  A gravelly finish – crushed rocks on the back palate – resounds for a good while after the spit (or swallow).  Fabulous – on each taste my personal favourite.  14.5%  Acidity: 6.9 g/L  pH: 3.56

Wolf Blass Estates of the Barossa St John’s Ebenezer Road 5355 Barossa Shiraz Sapphire Label 2012

St John’s Ebenezer Road: Sourced from three remarkable vineyards at the eastern end of Ebenezer Road in the Barossa Valley’s north, which features a flat to gently undulating terrain with an elevation of around 280m.

Vineyards are planted in unique soils comprising Barossa Ironstone, with its exceptional water-holding properties, red clays and dry alluvial sands deposited up to 50 million years ago.

At the far north of the valley, the climate is more continental, with the warmest daytime temperatures and lowest rainfall and humidity. The area also experiences some of the coolest nights, leading to longer, slower, later ripening, allowing flavours to fully develop.

As a result of this unique terroir, Shiraz in the area tends towards small berries with tough, dark skins producing concentration and depth, with opulent, fleshy fruit and full, ripe tannins.

My tasting note: the power end of the valley flexes its muscles in this ultra-motile, fleshy, supple, super-sleek Shiraz.  It ripples with lavish, velvety, palate-staining fruit of the classic Barossa Black Forest gateaux variety – black cherry, kirsch and creamy chocolate, crushed raspberries and mocha too.   Great sumptuousness and layer, which is well supported by a fine mesh of tannins which, with its firm, fresh undertow of acidity, makes for a long, tapering finish.  Opulent it may be but there’s plenty more in the tank.  14.5%  Acidity: 7.0 g/L  pH: 3.53

Wolf Blass regional wines

Woolf Blass White Winemaker Matt O’Leary with company viticulturist Roger Schmidt at the Rogers vineyard, Eden Valley

Wolf Blass White Label Riesling 2013 (Eden Valley)

A tight, very pure, mineral nose and palate with lime, lime blossom and talc-like finely textural minerality.  A lean, bony acidity makes for a brisk-paced, long and pointy palate.

Woolf Blass White Label Chardonnay 2012 (Piccadilly Valley, Adelaide Hills)

This sub-regional Adelaide Hills Chardonnay blew me away.  It’s a beautifully crafted wine for the money – generous, yet well structured.  Toasted hazelnuts, cashew and cordite notes permeate its taut lemon and grapefruit driven palate.  Great energy and persistence. As it opens up it reveals fleshier white peach and a savoury, incipient oyster shell leesiness.  Lots going on to draw you back to the glass.  Excellent.

Wolf Blass Gold Label Pinot Noir 2013 (Adelaide Hills)

Pinot Noir is not the easiest of grapes, especially at Gold Label price point.  This impressed me with a nicely judged savoury edge – fruity, but much less fruity than I’d expected it has a slightly smoky whiff of cheroot and earthy beetroot to its supple, fleshy plum fruit.

Wolf Blass Gold Label Syrah 2012 (Adelaide Hills)

With a dash of Viognier (co-fermented skins) this is a very well made, easy-going, Syrah with a riff of black pepper to its sweet, creamy, blackberry and blueberry fruit.  Smooth as tannins enhance its slurpability.  I’d go for this over the Barossa Gold Label Shiraz – this Adelaide Hills’ wine has a bit more about it.

Wolf Blass Gold Label Malbec 2012 (Langhorne Creek)

Hatcher highly rates Langhorne Creek’s Malbec which has found its way into Wolf Blass Black Label since 2002. This is the first single varietal Langhorne Creek Malbec and he says it was a labour of love to secure enough fruit to make a stand alone wine.  It’s a characteristically deep hue with violets on the nose and super-succulent juicy, black berry and cherry fruit.  With lightly worn oak, its very gentle grip tannins are of the fruit variety – very fresh.  Great immediacy/directness.

Wolf Blass Grey Label Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz 2012 (Langhorne Creek)

A minty edge to the nose pulls you in and gives energy and lift to the perfumed, very persistent black berry and currant fruit.  Fine grained tannins and well integrated juicy acidity add to its fluidity and length.  Lovely balance and, with its loamy, earthy undertow, nice complexity too.  Very Langhorne Creek.  I liked this wine very much.

Wolf Blass Medlands Vineyard Platinum Label Shiraz 2010 (Barossa)

Narrowing down the site selection process even further this Barossa Shiraz hails from a single vineyard –  Medlands vineyard in Dorrien.  It is always the best of the best, which typically means it comes from  two blocks – 316 & 320 – of which this is a 50:50 blend.  Lashings of very intense blueberry, blackcurrant and black olive fruit are well supported by a firm backbone of savoury tannins.  The fruit intensity – almost painful – is such that the tannins do not feature as prominently in the flavour profile as for the Dorrien single vineyard Shiraz.  But its black olive notes share the Dorrien’s savoury, almost chemical, oily rag flavour and sense of viscosity.  A dense wine; the door has yet to really open on this one.  Stash it away.  Tons of potential.

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