Lured over from the fine wine side of the game, Alex Head left behind roles in an auction house, wine merchant and importer to get his hands dirty in the rugged soils of the Barossa Valley. The first Head wines hit the market in 2006. His wines are Barossa through and through, but there’s a more elegant pitch here, one where red fruits tussle with black and freshness is prized over raw power. Head won the Young Gun of Wine People’s Choice Award in 2013.
Alex Head entered the wine game qualified. It’s just that it was with a Bachelor of Biochemistry from the University of Sydney, rather than your more typical wine science degree. That hasn’t slowed him much, though. With an urban wine apprenticeship on the mercantile side, at the legendary Ultimo Wine centre and at an auction house in Sydney, Head eventually got his hands dirty working seasons at Torbreck, Tyrrell’s, Cirillo and Laughing Jack, before pitching into his own fledgling Barossa Valley endeavour in 2006, with the first release under the head imprint hitting the market in 2008.
Head entered a pretty traditional Barossa market of the time, with a still seemingly unquenchable thirst for the ‘blood and guts’ style of red wines. His ‘The Contrarian’ perhaps best laid out the jagged edge of Head’s planned assault, with a reversing of assumptions of how shiraz needed to be made. That in no way meant that Head thought all was broke in the Barossa, far from it, but just that it needed an avant-garde assault to shake up assumptions, to test new waters. Indeed, while some similarly minded makers were reframing South Australia’s dominant styles in extreme fashion, Head’s mandate was always to celebrate what had come before, but to not do so blindly.
Owning no vineyards himself, Head has worked tirelessly with growers to produce exemplary low-yielding fruit that reveals a ripe varietal expression and reflection of site with a balanced level of intensity and alcohol. He dialled back new oak use, employed larger vessels and worked with wild ferments, with whole bunch use being a leading feature, although the wines rarely look overtly stemmy. Indeed, Head’s wines are not easy to pin down outside of this, as techniques and processes vary from site to site, from blend to blend, from vintage to vintages. No recipes, as he says.
What does suffuse Head’s style is his admiration for the wines of the Rhône Valley. His riff on his surname with ‘The Blonde’ and ‘The Brunette’, both shiraz, are also equally a paean to the soil types of the Northern Rhône, while his benchmarking for grenache will always be channelled through his obsession with Château Rayas. He also makes two everyday ‘Head Red’ bottlings, a flinty and delicate Eden Valley Riesling, a barely blushing and bone-dry rosé, grenache and mataro from ancient vines and his pinnacle shiraz, ‘The Redhead’ from russet soils on Mengler’s Hill in the Barossa Ranges.
Working with an extensive roster of growers – most of whom work with organic practices, and all of whom farm sustainably – Head has flipped his sourcing priorities, with 80 per cent of his fruit now coming from the Eden Valley, and 20 percent from the Barossa proper. A combination of changing preferences – both his and consumers – a warming climate and dwindling water supplies has seen the Valley floor relegated to the margins, though he doesn’t ever see it being replaced entirely.