‘A Very Bloody Exceptionally Old Vine’

‘A Very Bloody Exceptionally Old Vine’

by Tom Prior

Perhaps the most significant development for the Cape fine wine category of the last generation, has been the work of the Old Vine Project. But what of our international peers? Here’s a look at a few remarkable old vine wines from South Australia


I had initially set out to write a feature on old vine wines from Europe. Wines like the Domaine des Roches Neuves (Thierry Germain) ‘Les Memoires’ Cabernet Franc. It’s one of my favourite wines, from rare pre-Phylloxera vines of some 110+ years, biodynamically farmed and planted to high density. But upon reading up on the ‘Barossa Old Vine Charter’ ahead of a trip to Australia last month, things took a bit of a turn..

The old vineyards of Europe were the catalyst for Rosa Kruger to begin documenting old vine parcels of the Cape back in 2002. The OG ‘Old Vine Series’ of the Sadie Family Wines launched in 2006, with formal recognition of the OVP achieved in 2016. In the same year André Morgenthal joined as Project Manager instilling the line that represents the OVP mantra today; ‘plant to grow old’.

The Old Vine Project has been instrumental in protecting and rehabilitating these heritage vineyards, providing better economic support for those growers that farm and sell their yield. The project has been influential beyond our borders. ‘The Old Vine Conference’, with a HQ in the UK, kicked off in 2021 to create a ‘global movement to nurture and value great old vines, and their wines’. They host regular conferences and list organisations like the OVP across the world working to protect and preserve old vine sites here: https://www.oldvines.org/resources-links.

There’s something quite mythical about the struggle of an old vine. Scarcity as a result of the limitation of vineyard, and the ability to yield wine of transparent varietal character, individuality and a sense of place. The hallmarks for great wine. It’s hard to pin down why old vine wines can be so good, but there is a clarity and quality to the fruit and tannin. A seamlessness to the wine.

The Barossa Old Vine Charter

South Australia is home to the greatest array of old vineyards in the world. Whilst the late 19th century saw Phylloxera begin its decimation of the worlds wine regions, the general isolation of South Australia meant that, to date, the vineyards remain free of this root attacking insect pest. It means that the vineyards can not only be of a great old age, but they’re also planted to their own roots.

In 2007, Yalumba set about establishing the Barossa Old Vine Charter, which decreed that the use of ‘Old Vine’ in their labels would signify authenticated vines of 35+ years (as with the OVP). In 2009, the OVC evolved into an industry recognised charter for the Barossa.

With the Old Vine Charter are further classifications. 

- Old Vine: equal or greater than 35 years of age

- A Survivor Vine: equal or greater than 70 years of age

- A Centenarian Vine: equal or greater than 100 years of age

- An Ancestor Vine: equal or greater than 125 years of age.. AKA a ‘Very Bloody Exceptionally Old Vine”!

Late October, I set off on a multi-city trip to Australia to promote the wines of Radford Dale and the Cape region, with three days tagged on to visit our producers in the Barossa and Adelaide Hills. Here are a few recommendations.

Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Vineyard 1961 Block Riesling

2021 – R 596

2019 – R 580

Back in 1847, Joseph Gilbert planted the first vineyards & first plantings of Riesling in the Eden Valley. At 500m above sea level, the region sits 250m higher than the Barossa floor, with the relative cool-climate an attractive proposition for Wyndham Hill-Smith. One of the first families of Australian wine, the Hill-Smith family of six generations on still preside over Pewsey Vale and a host of top producing names; Yalumba and Heggies in South Australia, Dalrymple and Jansz in Tasmania, Burn Cottage and Nautilus in New Zealand to name a few.

Wyndham Hill-Smith set about restoring the Pewsey Vale vineyards in the 1960s, propagating material from the original 1847 vines.

Riesling is the singular focus here, with an array of top bottlings off an oasis of some 58ha of vineyard. One of the great New World Riesling producers and, as the name suggests, this bottling comes in from the vineyard planted in 1961. Enjoyable now and with bags of cellar potential.

2021: 94/100 Vinous “There's lovely purity and aromatic energy to this old vine 2021 Riesling 1961 Block, which displays pear, green apple and white flower aromas, a wild ferment just adding a slight savory touch. Compact and focused, it boasts layers of minerality with subtle jasmine tea, lavender and citrus pith. A gentle grip gives heart and soul before fostering a long, more savory finish. Delightful and will get better.” Drink 2025-2038.

2019: 93/100 Vinous “Bright straw. Vibrant, mineral- and floral-driven citrus fruit aromas show fine definition and pick up a deeper pear quality with air. Shows firm tension and energetic lift on the palate, offering nervy lemon zest, green apple and pear skin flavors that deepen and stretch out slowly through the back half. Smoothly blends depth and vivacity and finishes very long and minerally, with the citrus fruit note repeating.” Drink 2025-2034.

Meetng Ben Radford, winemaker at Rockford in the Barossa Valley & pictured here at his new project, Stonegarden in the Eden Valley, in front of an 1858 planted Grenache site. The name is no coincidence. Ben lived & worked in Stellenbosch until the early 2000s, co-founding the Radford Dale label with Alex Dale in 1998.

Rockford Barossa Valley Local Growers Semillon 2021 – R 709

Semillon is one of the original Barossa varieties and here Rockford work with local growers who have farmed the variety for generations. Expressions used to court richness and body, but today the Local Growers Semillon is a gorgeous expression of the variety, with multiple pickings to achieve freshness and texture. At a restrained 11.5% vol, it combines all the concentration of old, low yielding Semillon vines with a good acid backbone. Aromas of lemon, lanolin, a little honey and pithy apple. The palate meanwhile is waxy, racy and textural.

The Rockford courtyard winery resembles a museum, eschewing modernisation & employing the use of vintage, traditional presses & sorting machinery. It makes for a great visit, particularly in harvest time when guests can get close to the action and watch the work of the team within the courtyard.

Gentle Folk Adelaide Hills Piccadilly Chardonnay 2021 – R 1,015

I’ve sort of given up on locating wines from the 1983 vintage. It’s my birth year, but across the world’s wine regions it was a bit of a stinker as far as people tell me. On encountering this wine, I’ve reconciled that wines from vineyards planted in 1983 may be the answer.

It is among my favourite Chardonnay’s and a great pour to show any sceptics that Australian Chardonnay can be great for all the right reasons. With give-or-take 2,000 btls produced per annum, it’s a real treat to land an allocation.

1983 is also Gareth Belton’s birth year and he and wife Rainbo have recently taken on a new winery facility in the heart of the Adelaide Hills. It’s a remarkable landscape of steep sloped and green hills of forests, pastures, vineyards and orchards. At this time of year, the days can be warm, but the night brings about a dramatic fall in temperature. At the time of visiting, clear signs of frost damage have hit pockets of vineyard among the hills.

Gareth was born in Cape Town and spent his early years in Johannesburg before the family moved out to Australia. He and Rainbo studied as marine biologists, but a love of food and wine motivated them start the Gentle Folk label in 2012. At 520m above sea level on the Piccadilly range of the Adelaide Hills, this 40-year-old organically farmed Chardonnay site sits on quartz rubble over siltstone, sandstone and clay. Cool climate Chardonnay, with bags of palate interplay between long hung, concentrated fruit, steely minerality and a thrilling acid line. Tense, well judged & world class.

Yalumba Eden Valley The Virgilius Viognier 2020 – R 861

Likely Australia’s benchmark Viognier, Yalumba established the first plantings of the variety in Australia back in 1980 off the Yalumba nursery. It was a time when Viognier was all but extinct. In Condrieu of the Northern Rhone, the varietal had been reduced to a mere 5-10ha, depending on who you ask. Jancis Robinson MW notes in her book of 1985, ‘Vines, Grapes & Wines’ that she was able to identify records of just 32ha planted worldwide!

Admittedly, half of the wine comes in from the original site planted in 1980, with the remainder from a younger site planted in 2004. But it stands as an important expression of the old vineyard, contributing to the ascent of Viognier since, and serves a reminder that this varietal planted in the right location, as Condrieu, can produce excellent white wines.

93/100 Vinous “This beautifully crafted 2020 Viognier The Virgilius from Eden Valley shows exceptional fruit and oak integration. There are moreish and enticing aromas: lychee, blossoms and tinges of apricot with reserved, fine oak in tow. The creamy texture with gentle acid and superb balance provides a silky and contained package delivered over a long, savory finish. A standout and beautifully composed vintage.” Drink 2023-2029.

A visit to Yalumba, the only southern hemisphere producer to have an on-site winery cooperage. A short video of the cooperage visit is available via our Instagram account @RadfordDaleImports

Yalumba Barossa Valley Samuel’s Collection Grenache 2021 - R 448

One of the regular talking points from the recent trip centred around the rise of Grenache. As the world of wine increasingly rewards red wines of elegance and authenticity once again, so too do the producers of Grenache in the Barossa Valley and Mclaren Vale. It serves up a vital stylistic counterpoint to the powerful Shiraz led wines the region is well known for.

Grenache is having its time in the sun and South Australia has an arsenal of historic vineyards at their disposal to capitalise. Once again, Yalumba are among the driving force behind the revolution of Grenache. They’ve steered a course towards finesse in their varietal bottlings, employing a portion of whole-bunch fermentation and extended time on the skins. They’re looking for tannin integration, more of a savoury refinement and balance.

The Samuel’s Collection Grenache is consistently among our best New World buys, from gnarly, old vineyard parcels planted between 1920 & 1976. It’s medium bodied, with inviting scents of red and black cherry, florals, a little herb and sweet spice. The palate meanwhile is sleek and energetic

Yalumba Barossa Valley Tri-Centenary Grenache 2017 – R 1,088

Yalumba’s flagship Grenache, the Tri-Centenary, comes off a special ancestor block of 820 vines planted in 1889. According to vintage, they again employ extended maceration on the skins. In the case of the 2017, some 116 days and for the 2021 tasted during the trip, a whopping 249 days. The 2017 is matured for a short 4-month period in older French oak barrels.

If you have a pre-conception of dark, powerful Barossa reds, then this will feel somewhat anti-Australian. It’s a remarkable expression of Grenache; highly aromatic with rose water, crushed red berries, orange pith, herbs, white rocks and a light peppery character. The palate is detailed, delicate and savoury. Really fine. I like Julia Harding MW’s ‘warm climate Pinot’ analogy.


Henschke Eden Valley Hill of Grace Shiraz 2017 – R 16,720

Australia’s most famous single vineyard wine, the Hill of Grace is produced from a single ancestor vineyard of 150+ year old Shiraz, with the oldest vineyard block within appropriately referred to as the ‘Grandfathers’. The vineyard is understandably well fenced, at the risk of Phylloxera coming into the site. Only Henschke employees can walk here.

Henschke was my first visit in the Barossa, and I was taken aback by the landscape during the drive out from Adelaide. It’s one of undulating slopes and grazing meadows, with ancient, individually contorted gum trees striding high as far as the eye can see, with cattle and exotic (to me) wildlife at every turn. It’s not only stunning, but with the absence of other crop farming nearby, chemical spray or run off do not impact on these special, tucked away vineyards.

At R 16,720 and just 3 btls in our allocation to South Africa, I cannot pretend to have sampled the 2017, but I was fortunate enough to sample the follow up 2018 at the cellar. It’s mighty impressive. Compact red and black pastille fruit, spice. A little coiled up for the moment but bristling with intent to go all out over the decades of drinking pleasure to come.

This year Henschke celebrated 60 years of Hill of Grace, hosting a tasting to important wine media of vintages all the way back to 1958. There’s a free to read article at JancisRobinson.com, including notes and key stylistic evolutions available here: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/henschkes-hill-grace-60

Despite all the prestige associated with the wine, the Henschke red wine cellar is surprisingly modest. Original open top concrete fermenters line the red wine cellar, and the team make use of simple wooden planks during fermentation to keep the cap submerged.

Henschke Barossa & Eden Valley Mount Edelstone Shiraz

2017: R 4,255

2016: R 4,010

2015: R 3,681

Another special old vineyard parcel of Shiraz, from which Henschke first released a wine in 1952. The vineyard was planted in 1912 on its own roots, and so it’s likely the longest produced single wine from old vines on the planet.

There’s a surprising drinkability and refinement to the 2018 sampled at the cellar. Lifted aromatics of tilled earth, a little incense, graphite, bay leaf and cool black fruit. I had thought this would resemble more of a ‘made wine’, but there’s a translucency in it and the sense you’re drinking something from a historic source. And you are. A very cool wine, again with remarkable cellar pedigree.

2017: 17.5/20 Jancis Robinson MW. “Lots of savoury herbs on the nose (‘very Eden Valley’ according to Stephen Hensche) and richly nuanced on the palate with a dry finish. Very subtle oak indeed. Velvety tannins and something saline, plus a hint of spearmint. So clean and refreshing on the end. Very clever winemaking.”

2016: 18/20 Jancis Robinson MW. “Such intensity and so much history in this beautifully balanced wine. You just know you’re tasting vine-growing rather than winemaking here (sorry, Stephen). Everything seems so healthy and in balance. No sweetness but rather herby savour and appetising layers of fully ripe fruit. Not at all like Barossa Valley floor Shiraz - much more lifted and cooler.”

2015: 17.5/20 Jancis Robinson MW: “Really beautiful composition of a wine that combines ripeness with freshness. Dry finish and long. Very long! A beauty. Lightly saline and lots of something mineral.”



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