Ringland: Barossa winemakers living in ‘golden age’ of wine

Australian Shiraz from Barossa Valley has never been more dynamic or diverse, believes veteran winemaker Chris Ringland, with the communication revolution giving young winemakers the confidence to carve their own style and ability to communicate with consumers directly, sidestepping the need for critics scores and reviews.

Chris Ringland

The traditional heartland of Australian Shiraz, the Barossa Valley, built its reputation on bold, rich and ripe expressions of the grape with structure and ageing potential. This traditional style, done well, still makes up a large swathe of premium Australian Shiraz, one that Chris Ringland has been refining for the past four decades. His Dry Grown Barossa Ranges Shiraz is among Australia’s most expensive Shiraz wines, with an average selling price of £525 a bottle, according to Winesearcher.

However these traditional styles are only part of the region’s offer, with these “grand” traditional wines increasingly being joined by lighter, more elegant expressions of Shiraz, resulting in a level of diversity previously unseen in international export markets.

“The younger generation is finding their feet,” says Ringland. “They have more experience of whole cluster fermentation, creating fruit and spicy character. I still stick very firmly with the style and philosophy that I learned at Rockford Wines with Robert [O’Callaghan]. From my personal point of view I like to create a grand wine – almost like a grand reserva Shiraz aged in barrel between 5-6 years, sometimes released 10 years old – but that’s my personal experience.

“Other winemakers are much more excited by producing fruit forward wines that people can drink straight away. I think it’s wonderful that this diversity is being celebrated. What I think we have been mistaken on is this belief that there is a right way of doing things and wrong way. The whole joy of wine is this diversity and quirkiness and craziness. That’s part of what makes wine so exciting.”

COMMUNICATION REVOLUTION

Driving this diversification and growing confidence among winemakers, says Ringland, has been the communication revolution that has taken place over the past 20 years, which means that winemakers are no longer dependent on newspapers or wine journalists to get their story out there to promote their wines.

“They can develop personal relationships with their customers individually, thanks to the development of the internet,” says Ringland, describing it as a “golden age of wine”.

“Robert Parker for example used to tell people about these wines. Now the winemakers can tell customers themselves. That’s why this new generation of Barossa winemakers are living in a era that’s never been possible up until now. It’s tremendously exciting. I’ve seen some of the younger cellar hands going to start their own projects and to my bloody delight they have gone on to create their own unique personalities and styles of wine. It’s pretty gratifying.”

The proliferation of smaller winemakers is also driving greater diversity within Australian Shiraz, says Ringland, with winemakers waking up to the geological variation and soil compositions across the region, and increasingly focusing on single vineyard wines to better explore and express their terroir.

“Barossa and Eden Valley is a big wine region and it has been a process of individual winemakers making wines throughout these complex geological sub regions – the differences in altitude and geology and soil,” he says. “Individually, winemakers are working with different vineyards within sub regions and creating their own styles. It’s starting to follow through to an international understanding that Barossa and Australia are complex places and there are a lot of exciting gems to be discovered.”

TERROIR ‘DOESN’T EXIST’

Earlier this year the Australian wine industry launched a six-year AU$5.3 million research project to help it to better understand the effects of terroir on its expression of Shiraz from a scientific perspective, but also to raise the industry’s premium potential from a marketing perspective.

The country-wide project will see a number of research institutions, including the University of Adelaide, Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation, National Wine and Grape Industry Centre (NWGIC), South Australian Research and Development Institute and the Australian Wine Research Institute, come together to analyse Australia’s soils, geology and climate to determine how they influence wine style and quality.

However while Ringland acknowledges the differences in soil and geology, the impact it can have on a wine and the need to communicate regionality to consumers, he’s sceptical of the concept of terroir, and the need to scientifically pin it down to a quantifiable measure.

“I am a great admirer of the British physicist Julian Barbour. He asserts that time doesn’t exist. It’s a construct that we created to make sense of reality. I think there is a parallel with terroir. I don’t think it exists. It’s a construct we constructed to explain the differences and quirkiness and different wines coming from different varieties and regions. I don’t understand why we would want to define it. Part of the fun of wine and what makes it exciting for me is this mysterious aspect.”

DOG ON A LEASH

Describing his approach to managing terroir, Ringland says he is simply a “person with a dog on a leash, who doesn’t know where the dog is going to go.”

“In any given season there will be a unique array of climactic variations and quirky changes and differences in rainfall and temperature,” he explains. “I do my best to adjust the pruning of the vines, but my role is actually to use the wine as a means of telling a story about what happened in that vineyard over the last 12 months. There are times that no matter how much I understand what’s going on it goes off in another way.”

Nevertheless, Ringland acknowledges that the concept of terroir and its impact on a wine is an important conversation for Australian winemakers to be having, among themselves and with consumers, if Australia is to continue to raise its premium offer.

“Barossa is a region that is learning to tell people about the complexity of the region and therefore the terroir differences,” he says. “It’s more an opportunity to tell another aspect of the story. It’s something that is very important to talk about but on the other hand trying to turn it into a measurable entity in my view doesn’t really achieve anything positive.

“Celebrating the mystery is as much part of the reason that people find wine fun and interesting. To me terroir is not something you can dial up. It’s not something that you can analyse and measure. It’s something that just is and what’s more important is that we convey the peculiarities.”

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