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Death of the Big Red

“Some people aren’t happy with wine unless it stains their teeth,” said a bemused sommelier to me recently.

Barossa is the capital of big reds, so it’s interesting to get a pulse on what is happening there. Since the peak of the big red boom a decade ago, things have been dialled down from 11 on the volume scale to maybe halfway.

The pursuit of big wines started in the ’90s. The fever for them was a combination of the prevalent winemaking philosophy at the time, big scores from critics and a somewhat macho drinking culture.

Fraser McKinley – who recently won the Young Gun of Wine Award for the progressive Barossa Shirazes under his Sami-Odi label – started his career at Torbreck, in 2003. He recalls the atmosphere at the time: “The biggest wines had the most accolades and hype around them. Bigger seemed to be better and biggest certainly best.”

But things have changed. Dining has become fashionable, and women influence a lot of traffic to restaurants. Lighter wines are needed to suit lighter dishes. Health consciousness has made people think more about alcohol. Big wines, even when balanced, are hedonistic drinks – guilty teeth-staining pleasures had at home. People don’t want to wait ten years for a wine to mellow out. From restaurants to wine bars and even to retail, people are buying wines to drink now, not to lay down. Cellaring is out, drinkability is in.

While there’s a place for concentrated but balanced examples, there’s a wave of medium-bodied, and even a ripple of light-bodied, reds coming out of the Barossa that capture the imagination.

A group of trendsetting winemakers are making sexier wines by connecting with old practices in the vineyard and winery because, today, size does not count.

Picking grapes early, the use of whole-bunch fermentation and maturing in old oak are the new trends in Barossa winemaking, all of which are geared to present more modest wines.

Pete Schell sources fruit for his Spinifex label from around 60 vineyard parcels in the Barossa: “What I’ve particularly noticed this year is that the younger grape growers are going back to more labour-intensive and traditional methods of managing the vines, to deliver less ripe and more balanced fruit.”

“I was taught at Uni to not harvest until all parts of the grape, including the seeds, exhibit fully ripe flavours. But, if I pick fruit based on flavour, then it’s too late. I know I’ve messed it up.” Keeping grapes on the vines longer can lead to more sugars (i.e. bigger alcohol) and can give way to overripe and pruney characters at the expense of fruit freshness.

Picking grapes earlier isn’t the only way to minimise the alcohol and weight of a wine. Whole-bunch fermentation – where grapes are kept intact on their stalks for fermentation – can result in lower alcohol, as well as less colour extraction from the skins. Additionally, the technique brings very pretty aromatics to the wine.

All of Eperosa and Sami-Odi’s wines are 100 per cent whole bunch. Spinifex, Ruggabellus, Frederick Stevenson, Yelland & Papps, Schwarz’s ‘Meta’ range, Head Wines and Shobbrook are other labels employing this technique, with the percentage of whole bunch in the ferments changing with each season.

After fermentation comes maturation. Barossa was once defined by the use of American oak, which can impart a pronounced coconut flavour. More recently, French oak – which has a subtler vanilla character – has become popular. In both cases, the more new wood there is, the more weight is added to the wine, in both flavour and tannin. But now there’s a desire among producers for using old oak (previously filled barrels, with the oak characters softened), as they strive for lighter wines with more purity.

“Penfolds only kept oak barrels for four years and then sold their used wood off to Torbreck and other producers,” recounts McKinley. “Now, Penfolds aren’t selling off their barrels so young. I’m still using 13 and 14-year-old barrels.”

Generally speaking, maturation used to last 18 months to two years. Now it’s six to 18 months. While standard barrels in the Barossa are around 300 litres, large wooden vats – usually around a few thousand litres – that enable less oxygen contact are popping up at Spinifex, Ruggabellus, Head Wines and Yelland & Papps. Shobbrook mostly uses these, as well as a dozen 675 litre ceramic eggs. Deviating even further from the big reds of old, some ‘nouveau’ wines just spend a short time in stainless steel tank. It’s all about lighter, fresher wines.

The practices in the cool climate regions of Burgundy and Beaujolais are a common source of inspiration for these winemakers, a far world from the Barossa, both geographically and philosophically.

Steve Crawford, a qualified viticulturist who is now making his own wines under the Frederick Stevenson label, said to me: “I pick a lot earlier than other winemakers. I’m the laughing stock amongst them.”

It’s the crazy ones who change things, isn’t it. Here’s to them.