Torbreck’s Hillside Vineyard is a piece of Barossa history. With the first plantings dating back to 1850, it lays claim to some of the region’s oldest shiraz vines. But the significance of the site is as much about the future as it is the living museum of old and ancient vines. A restoration and replanting program run by chief viticulturist Nigel Blieschke has seen the 15 hectares of shiraz and grenache vines expanded to almost 40 hectares, with Rhône varieties like carignan, counoise, grenache blanc and roussanne joining the Barossa standards. Key to Blieschke’s approach has been an emphasis on building resilience in the soil and vines, with a broader view to every aspect of the 100-hectare property, from caring for historic buildings to preserving and enhancing remnant native vegetation.
Built on a foundation of honouring the great sites and growers of the Barossa Valley, with half an eye to the wines of the Northern Rhône, Torbreck was established in 1994. That commitment to growers was at a time when many were at the mercy of the whims of large companies. With Torbreck offering a rare premium for concentrated old vine fruit, many mutually beneficial contracts were brokered.
That ethos has seen Torbreck maintain many of those agreements, as well as take on long-term viticultural management of some venerable sites and acquire others, including, in 2002, the Hillside Vineyard in the subregion of Lyndoch. Site of some of the oldest vines in the Barossa, the vineyard was in a state of substantial disrepair when they first took over, and while restoration work has been ongoing since that purchase, a major overhaul was begun in 2016.
“There has been a massive transformation of the Hillside Vineyard from a very dilapidated site with 15 hectares of vineyard to a showpiece vineyard with 40 hectares of vines,” says chief viticulturist Nigel Blieschke. “In that time, we have resurrected many 1850 shiraz vines by layering and soil management, returning the block to original planting density. Today, the fruit from those vines is a key component in ‘RunRig’ Shiraz, a wine that celebrates Torbreck’s faith in old vine shiraz as an extraordinary statement to the world.”
The Hillside soils are predominantly a deep-red clay, shot through with ironstone, quartzite and shale. While those first vines were planted in 1850, more vines were added in 1900, ’48 and ’88, and since 2016, the plantings have more than doubled to now occupy just shy of 38 hectares on the 111-hectare property. The Barossa mainstay varieties of shiraz and grenache are joined by mataro, carignan, counoise, grenache blanc, roussanne, marsanne and clairette.
While the vineyard now contributes to some of Torbreck’s iconic wines, it has also plumped the maker’s offering with single site bottlings. “The vineyard team have also converted our 1940s grenache block back to bush vines from a trellis,” says Blieschke. “This has helped lift quality, resulting in the single site release ‘Hillside’ Grenache.”
For Blieschke, the commitment to the ancient vines runs deep, but that responsibility does not stop at those gnarled treasures. “As the custodians of one of the oldest vineyards in the Barossa… with the second oldest winery in the Barossa on it, we are acutely aware of our responsibility to maintain and protect all parts of this important property, both the farmed and non-farmed areas.”
This process has seen the removal of wild olive trees, bridle creeper, artichokes and other invasive species, as well as new fencing to encircle the areas under vine to allow sheep to graze the mid-row plantings while also protecting native vegetation and waterways, with tractor passes for soil cultivation no longer necessary.
“Given that our Barossa soils are very old and depleted, we have chosen to stop cultivating our mid-rows,” says Blieschke. “We have sown an annual legume and grass sward of multiple species, which naturally regenerate. Having a mid-row sward covers the soil and limits the radiated heat, as well as adding organic matter to the soil, which in turn feeds soil biology and improves soil structure. We have also seen a 50 per cent reduction in our diesel use since moving away from soil cultivation.
“The company has recently developed a detailed native vegetation management plan for the property, has committed to conserving and managing 14 hectares of the property’s remnant scrub, and will reintroduce a number of endemic species that have been lost from the vineyard. We are also in the process of preparing a design to preserve the heritage-listed buildings on the property.”
“Given that our Barossa soils are very old and depleted, we have chosen to stop cultivating our mid-rows,” says Blieschke. “We have sown an annual legume and grass sward of multiple species, which naturally regenerate. Having a mid-row sward covers the soil and limits the radiated heat, as well as adding organic matter to the soil, which in turn feeds soil biology and improves soil structure. We have also seen a 50 per cent reduction in our diesel use since moving away from soil cultivation.”
Blieschke says that he has also “applied around 3,000 cubic metres of composted wood mulch under vine” since 2016, resulting in a “water savings of around 40 per cent per annum and a measurable improvement in soil organic matter and soil structure.” That water-saving process has been refined further by satellite surveys (NDVI) and soil-moisture probes for automated precision irrigation to direct water to areas with lower soil moisture and manage both heat and frost events.
Additionally, satellite imagery through the Platfarm app is used to direct and coordinate targeted applications of organic mulch and organic compost, with Blieschke’s aim to extend the organic program even further over time. “Our long-term goal is to eliminate synthetic chemicals… We currently only use organically registered fungicides and organic fertilisers, and we are in the process of investing in under-vine weeder technology… Given our dry climate, our agrochemical use is low, so we are ideally suited to organic or sustainable production systems.”
The satellite mapping data, along with information gathered from soil pits, was also used in the expansion of the plantings, with highly detailed vineyard architecture established to maximise the potential of the site – considering soil variation, geology, aspect, elevation, varieties and clones, amongst other details – as well as how this would translate in the winery.
“As a winegrower we are all winemakers!” declares Blieschke. “We are simply trying to grow the best wines we can, while striving to be economically and environmentally sustainable. Our viticulture and winemaking team is a close-knit group who are passionate about great wine and great vineyards.”
“The vineyard was planted with 17 old vine shiraz clones with four proprietary clones sourced from Torbreck ‘RunRig’ vineyards,” says Blieschke. “Blocks are designed so that they can be fermented as a parcel and, in most cases, clones could be kept separate or picked as a fermentable parcel.”
This vineyard structure is a neat encapsulation of how Blieschke and Torbreck winemaker Ian Hongell work in synergy, with their day-to-to tasks differing, but their processes seamlessly aligned to achieve the one result. “As a winegrower we are all winemakers!” declares Blieschke. “We are simply trying to grow the best wines we can, while striving to be economically and environmentally sustainable. Our viticulture and winemaking team is a close-knit group who are passionate about great wine and great vineyards.”
Acknowledging the significant issues of climate change, Blieschke says that erratic weather events are one of the biggest ongoing challenges. Drought-proofing measures and climate-apt varieties are part of the program, but he notes that maintaining and improving soil and vine health are fundamental.
“There’s risk in grape-growing, and the longer it’s out there, the greater the risk,” he says. “So, what we do in the vineyard makes the vines themselves more resilient. We need this so the fruit doesn’t collapse, then we can achieve the physiological ripeness we look for… Grapes that can do this have more density, texture and flavour. I think that is a tangible and very noticeable response from people when they try our wines. Not every vineyard can do this. Anyone who visits the Hillside Vineyard quickly realises it’s a special place – all of us at Torbreck have a soft spot for this historic vineyard and the wines that it produces.”