Barossa Valley winemakers need to break free from the region’s “default setting” and revisit the lighter expressions of its past, believes one winemaker.
Pete Schell of Barossa producer Spinifex
“There’s a natural generosity in Barossa but you can have too much of a good thing,” remarked Pete Schell, the New Zealand-born winemaker who established Spinifex a decade ago. “I’m a big believer that you don’t have to push Barossa Shiraz too hard.”
Acknowledging the commercial and critical success of many richer Barossa styles, Schell indicated that this has deterred many winemakers from pulling back to a more restrained expression.
“Too many people have been making too much money too easily,” he observed. “That always f*cks things up.”
However, Schell pointed beyond what he views as the region’s “adolescent” phase that began in the 1990s, as he recalled: “There were a lot of very, very cool claret-style reds being made here through the ‘80s, refined, elegant wines.”
In addition to taking inspiration from this historic Barossa style, Schell, whose wife is French, added: “The time I spent in the south of France has changed my perspective on what you can do in a warmer climate. There’s a default setting here. It’s a version but it’s not the only solution.”
Despite the region’s current stylistic reputation, Schell indicated that a growing number of winemakers, especially from the younger generation, are sharing his vision of a more restrained Barossa style.
“A lot of young guys here are going back to basics, doing less,” he reported. “I think there’s a lot of development and evolution, I really do. There’s a lot of discussion.”
Despite the recent challenges posed for Australia’s wine industry by the country’s strong dollar, Schell indicated that the resulting influx of wine from other parts of the world, especially Europe, was helping to drive demand for lighter styles.
“There’s so much good imported wine in Australia now,” he observed. “The punter is seeing that if a wine is a little brighter and more fragile then it’s not deficient.”
Schell put a similarly positive spin on the current cool climate trend, which in recent years has seen Australia’s domestic competitions award high profile trophies to an increasing number of wines from Victoria and Tasmania.
Despite Barossa’s warm climate, he said: “I take it as an invitation to make better wine. If it’s balanced then it’ll be a good wine; it’s just about being better at handling fruit.”
Outlining his own efforts to create “a much more honest perspective of Barossa Shiraz than that plummy chocolatey style,” Schell highlighted a move towards larger barrels, sometimes 2,500 litres in volume, as well as concrete tanks. As for the viticultural side, he insisted: “You don’t have to pick super-late to get density.”
Drawing a further contrast with the modern Barossa reputation, Schell explained: “I’m increasingly looking at softer, slower maturation. A lot of Australian wines are over-matured. If you give our wines a few years in bottle then that silky Barossa style comes through. If it’s glossy and silky straight away then you’ve gone too fast.”
Despite his current standpoint, Schell acknowledged the stylistic shift at Spinifex over the last decade. “My style of wine is very different to 10 years ago,” he remarked. “I’m looking for a little more restraint. When I look back on those wines they’re richer, denser. I liked them at the time, but it just shows how I’ve changed. I was going too hard, over-extracting and doing too much, but I’m maturing and I like to think that in 20 years time I’ll be better again.”