Riley Harrison’s own wine project started very small and stayed very small for quite some time, allowing him to focus on the detail. That patience has paid off, with the Harrison fruit now coming from some of the finest vineyards in the Barossa, McLaren Vale and the Adelaide Hills. Harrison makes a syrah, a grenache, a cabernet franc, a cabernet shiraz blend, a grenache mataro and a blend of grenache blanc and noir, while his lone white is a roussanne and grenache blanc blend that sees a judicious amount of skin contact before being raised in neutral oak, building detail and mouthfeel. His wines are approachable, bright and textural, with endless layers of refined detail.
“I started Harrison as a creative outlet from my corporate winemaking day job,” he says. “It was tiny – hobby winemakers were making more booze than I was for the first few years. I wasn’t forced into growing quickly, so it worked perfectly. I was able to slowly piece together the vineyard sites that I wanted to play with.”
Harrison studied Viticulture at The University of Adelaide, starting in 2005, then completed a postgraduate degree in winemaking in 2011, also at UOA. Over the years, he has also worked vintages in California at Pisoni, and the Mosel, as well as for Herdade do Esporão in Portugal. In 2014, Harrison took on an assistant winemaker role at Dorrien Estate, making wine for owners Cellarmasters, as well as many other makers under contract. It was while helping to manage the 14.5-million litre facility that his own label started to take shape.
Leaving Dorrien in 2016, Harrison took up a winemaking role at a more simpatico estate, alongside Justin McNamee at Samuel’s Gorge Winery in McLaren Vale, which allowed the Harrison brand to grow slowly. “I couldn’t be happier with the parcels of fruit I now have in my arsenal,” he says, “and now it has become much more of a hedonistic venture into the land of aromatics and textural pleasure.”
Over the last couple of years, the brand has grown, and with high-quality and plentiful years in 2021 and ’22 allowing Harrison the chance to pack in his day job. “This growth from hobby scale wine production to a grown-up wine business meant that my energies needed to be focused solely on not fucking this dream up. October 2022 was the time that I took the plunge to focus wholly on the Harrison wine project… Daunting but very exciting times indeed.”
“Harrison Wines was established in the attempt to produce wines that people crave to drink... wines of great perfume, with freshness and vitality but also the structural bones to provide the framework for a little bit of bottle age. Essentially, I started a wine brand based upon styles of wine that I wanted to drink. As every harvest season approaches, I make sure that these very principles sit at the forefront of my mind. I always keep dreaming, experimenting and pushing boundaries in the quest for flavour.”
The 2015 ‘Fleur de la Lune’ Grenache was the first vintage for the label, with it released in 2016. “‘Sol’ was a straight roussanne in 2018 and ’19, but from ’20 it has been a roussanne and grenache blanc blend,” Harrison says, noting that he sources from the legendary Schiller Vineyard in the Barossa for grenache, as well as the certified biodynamic Yangarra Vineyard for the white varieties, while his syrah is from Murdoch Hill in the Adelaide Hills. From 2022, he has further expanded his fruit sources to add new wines to the roster.
“Harrison Wines was established in the attempt to produce wines that people crave to drink… wines of great perfume, with freshness and vitality but also the structural bones to provide the framework for a little bit of bottle age. Essentially, I started a wine brand based upon styles of wine that I wanted to drink. As every harvest season approaches, I make sure that these very principles sit at the forefront of my mind. I always keep dreaming, experimenting and pushing boundaries in the quest for flavour.”
This pursuit of flavour is nothing new for Harrison, having had a fascination with smell and taste since a young age. “As a child, I was a bit of a sniffer and a licker… maybe not the best quote… I love the hard work and long hours of vintage but am far too lazy to do it year-round, so becoming a chef was never an option… making wine seemed like a much better idea. I wanted to create drinks with great perfume, mouthfeel and the ability to transport the imbiber to another place. Taking grapes and really expressing the country on which they were grown and imparting a bit of your own personality is wholeheartedly what drives me.”
“I’m going deeper into the hole of exploring Rhône varieties and their suitability to McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley… look out for a skin contact grenache blanc, racy piquepoul and a beautifully perfumed cinsault.”
Drinkability is a key word for Harrison, but that’s not to say that his wines are gluggable, forgettable wines, far from it. “For every part of drinkability, there should be an equal part of intrigue – something to keep you going back for more. I like textural white wines, but I like them to show refinement.
“I’m really loving the fine-tuning of skin contact time on my Rhône whites. Whole bunch inclusion and just how much I should be doing is another constant variable in my winemaking. I’m a junkie for bunch. I definitely have a pretty refined set of techniques when it comes to each variety I work with, but I worry that following any absolute rules may result in my wine style becoming stale. I much prefer to set myself a bit of a brief and then fly by the seat of my pants.”
Sourcing his grapes from the Barossa, McLaren Vale and the Adelaide Hills gives Harrison scope to make wines in styles he favours, but for him it’s a bigger issue than that, with badly sited and conventionally farmed vines a burden on an already stressed climate, depleting water resources and the soil.
“In my limited experience, I have found that a lot of Australian regions just plainly have too much dirt planted to vine. Careful contemplation of what sites are actually appropriate for the grapes suited to that region is something we need to pay more attention to. My decision to make wines from multiple regions stemmed from wanting to only work with varieties highly suited to their growing conditions. Less vines and more thoughtful planting is our future. I’m going deeper into the hole of exploring Rhône varieties and their suitability to McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley… look out for a skin contact grenache blanc, racy piquepoul and a beautifully perfumed cinsault.”
Harrison exploration of grenache has also deepened, with a pink wine made from a co-ferment of grenache noir and grenache blanc, while an old vine blend of grenache and mataro from two vineyard sites will soon be released as a new premium wine called ‘Greg’.
And while the Harrison stable is still growing, it will always have a limiting factor. “I am firm in the opinion that too many wine brands surge straight past the production size that provides the best quality of life,” says Harrison. “The aim for me is to get to a stage where there is always food on the table, but the wine business doesn’t rule my life. I want to keep my mind uncluttered and really home in the wine styles I’m currently making. I want the creative juices to be flowing freely for many more years to come.”
Although Abel Gibson’s connection to the Barossa and tradition runs deep, his Ruggabellus label has given convention a good hard shake. Working with sites that enable him to preserve freshness by picking earlier, his reds see varying levels of whole bunch inclusion, and the whites undergo extended skin contact. Neither see any new oak. Aside…
Dan Graham’s Sigurd has been helping to redefine the Barossa Valley since 2012, with fruit picked earlier to capture freshness, then made with a minimal-intervention approach and no additions bar sulphur at bottling. Now also working with grapes from the Riverland, Adelaide Hills and Clare Valley, Graham makes varietal wines – chardonnay, riesling, chenin blanc, carignan and syrah – as well as complex white, rosé and red blends, with judicious amounts of whole bunch and skin contact employed to create complex, complete wines that are as focused on elegant flavour as they are on texture and structural detail.
Working out of the family winery, Angus Vinden has expanded on the traditional base his father established in the 1990s, both growing the classic Vinden range, as well as building his own wing to the portfolio with The Vinden Headcase. The latter is his outlet to create wines that sit outside the styles commonly associated…