Discovery Tasting: Yalumba

There’s nothing that you guys like more than a bit of heritage, so it was no surprise that our Yalumba Discovery Tasting was hugely over-subscribed. Not only is it the oldest family-owned winery in Australia, but we were getting to taste the very top end of their portfolio, from the Rare and Fine collection of wines.

Yalumba began back in 1849, when Samuel Smith, a brewer, who had arrived in Australia from Dorset, came back to his family in the Barossa with $300 in his pocket from the Victoria gold rush – a small fortune back then. He rented 80 acres of land, bought a horse and put his first vines into the earth.

A mere 171 years later, we were privileged to have a sixth-generation family member, Jess Hill Smith, pouring the wines and giving us the stories, alongside veteran winemaker Louisa Rose, who will be starting work on her 30th vintage at the company any time now.

It quickly became obvious that this was a tasting of two halves – of in-depth winemaking and viticultural information, but also of stories. So whether you have customers who like to know about soil and altitude or people and history, there was something for everyone.

Highs and lows

The Barossa is made up of two valleys: The Barossa Valley – which is warmer, lower and fairly densely planted, and the Eden Valley, which despite its name is essentially up in the hills to the east. It’s here, in Angaston, where Yalumba are based.

Despite being next door to the Barossa Valley, the extra 300m of altitude has a big impact in the Eden Valley. It’s largely at 500m above sea level, compared to the Barossa Valley’s 200m, and it’s both damper, and cooler. Although the midday temperature in summer might be similar to the Barossa Valley, it takes longer to reach that temperature in the Eden Valley, and cools off faster.

Nights are cool – around 10 degrees is not uncommon in summer – giving big diurnal shifts. There are more whites planted in the Eden Valley (Chardonnay and Riesling are both popular) and the reds tend to be more perfumed and tauter in structure.

Asked to put the difference between the two in a European context, Louisa Rose said that ‘Eden Valley is not dissimilar to the northern Rhone, with the Barossa maybe more like the southern Rhone.’

As well as the family connection, there are maybe three other key elements that came through strongly in this tasting:

  • Sustainability – which runs through the whole business, but particularly in viticulture and winemaking.
  • Barrels – Yalumba are the only wine company in the southern hemisphere to have their own on-site cooperage. All of the wines tasted here had been aged in home-made barrels. ‘It’s a really important part of what we do,’ said Jess Hill Smith.
  • Old vines – Yalumba’s vineyards contain some spectacularly old vines – including some of the oldest Shiraz and Grenache vines anywhere in the world. Their influence on the wines was profound.

The Wines

The Virgilius 2016

The Virgilius is Yalumba’s top white wine – and one of the most famous Viognier’s anywhere in the world; certainly outside Condrieu. They were one of the first wineries to plant the variety, and have persevered with it to form an impressive reputation.

Key to the wine’s success is the minimal intervention and biodiverse vineyard, which, perhaps, is the difference between this wonderful wine and most underwhelming examples of the variety. ‘We couldn’t make this wine the way we do without having really healthy vineyards,’ says Louisa.

Interestingly, she says that the variety ‘behaves more like a Shiraz’ in the vineyard – and she sees parallels in the glass, too.

‘I’s got quite a lot of natural phenolics, a very low natural acidity and a moderately high alcohol,’ she says. ‘If you can’t see the colour, it’s not obvious that this is a white wine.’

All of which makes it a fascinating option for food matching. Louisa suggested trying it with red meat, but also richer, spicy food as well.

And certainly matching suggestions flooded in from our tasters. We had everything from Singapore chilli prawns and pad Thai to red duck curry, spicy crab with celeriac and tamarind chutney and fish stew with oriental spices.

Paul Robineau, from 110 de Taillevent, loved its ‘Great fruit profile of underipe tropical fruit with great savouriness – ginger, celery.’

Our tasters also noticed that, over the course of the hour, it opened up even further. Continuing the ‘white wine that thinks it’s a red’ line, Louisa recommended decanting it before serving.

‘I find it difficult to find a decent Viognier outside of Rhone valley and I think this one is really great,’ said Adam Michocki, from The Man Behind the Curtain

Tricentenary Grenache 2015

Fans of history loved this wine. It’s from a single block of 800 old vines, planted in 1889. The vines now are, Jess said, ‘enormous – they come up to my shoulder!’

‘We call this Barossa Valley Pinot,’ she continued. ‘It has the same weight to it. And Australian sommeliers use it the same way. They’re on by the glass, often on degustation menus. And they often chill it down.

‘As people are discovering these lighter bodied Barossa wines, they’re getting really excited by the concept of a light to medium bodied old vine Grenache.’

It’s a wine that has 41 days on the skins – something which Louisa says ‘gives it that silkiness on the palate’ – and time in old barrels that have no overt influence on the wine beyond letting it breathe.

It was another wine that attracted interesting food matches – often with an Asian influence; Peking duck, salt-aged beef tartare, and duck salad were all suggested.

Octavius Old Vine Shiraz 2016

This is a wine that owes its existence to the foresight of the government of South Australia, who had the foresight to quarantine the state from 1865 to the 1960s as a way of keeping phylloxera out. The result: vineyards with ancient vines that go into wines like this.

The average age of vines for the Octavius is 80 years old, but there are other key factors influencing the flavour. First of all, it’s a mix of 2/3 Barossa Valley and 1/3 Eden Valley Shiraz, with the latter adding ‘northern Rhone-like’ perfume and florals to the richness of Barossa Valley. But it’s also aged in unusual-sized 100-litre barrels – the ‘octaves’ that give it its name.

Our tasters enjoyed the lift from the Eden Valley fruit and wondered whether the winery might consider renaming it Syrah. The reaction from Jess and Louisa? Maybe not this specific wine, but watch this space…

The food matches here were more traditional. But the suggestion from Daniel Stojcic (Noble) of ‘Venison loin, parsnip, braised red cabbage, kale and pear’ a good example. Though Louisa rose’s suggestion of letting guests try it with a square of dark chocolate after the meal sparked debate.

‘It would have to be dark chocolate with no sweetness,’ said Blandford Comptoir’s Tanguy Martin. But our attendees could totally see it working.

The Signature 2015

This wine has been made by Yalumba since 1962 and it’s perhaps the wine that the company has the most affection for. For starters it’s a Cab/Shiraz blend ‘something you really don’t find outside Australia’ as Jess put it, and it’s from some of their top vineyards.

But it’s also got a great story behind it. When Jess’s Grandfather made this first ‘icon wine’ almost 60 years ago, he dedicated it to their founder, Samuel Smith. The process kicked off a tradition, and every release since has been dedicated to a member of the team at Yalumba.

‘It could be absolutely anybody. A sales rep, a vineyard worker, a family member…’

Jess Hill Smith

That year’s recipient is announced every year at the Christmas party. ‘Their names are etched into our history books for ever,’ says Jess. ‘Without them we wouldn’t be who we are today. Without them we wouldn’t have made it to 171 years.’

It was a story that our tasters loved. As well as enjoying the wine itself our sommeliers loved the story itself. ‘It gives the wine soul,’ said Wiltons’ Monica Bacchiocchi approvingly.

‘Approachable with very integrated oak. Blackfruit driven, great eucalyptus and herbal notes,’ said Paul Robineau.

The Caley 2013

The Caley is a relatively new addition to the Yalumba portfolio. The first wine was made in 2012 – a spectacularly good vintage – and the current stock in the UK is only the 2015 vintage.

It’s a blend of two regions – both with stellar reputations for their particular variety: Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon and Barossa Shiraz. The exact proportions change every year, though this particular vintage has the lowest percentage of Cabernet (55%) because Louisa felt it was ‘having an unusually strong influence’ on the blend. Interestingly, both Coonawarra and Barossa appear on the label.

Again, there is a good story. In 2012 the Yalumba team unearthed an old trunk full of letters that (third generation family member) Fred Caley Smith had written to his father while he travelled the world in the 1890s. It was a treasure trove of memories and impressions of the world from a 27 year-old Barossa lad, and one the family wanted to honour.

‘We were looking back to the past to come up with a wine for the future,’ explained Jess.

It was, Eden Locke Hotel’s Isobel Salamon said, a ‘beautiful story.’

‘Love the Caley 2013! So much dried herbs (thyme, rosemary) on the nose as well as tobacco and burnt vine trimmings.’ Rebecca Parker, Alchemilla

The Caley 2015

This wine had a higher (probably more typical) percentage of Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon – 74%. So no surprise that it was significantly different to all the other wines tried in the tasting, which were more Barossa-like in style.

‘The terra rossa (in Coonawarra) is quite unique,’ said Louisa Rose. ‘With that incredible mass of white limestone underneath. If you look at the Caley you see that beautiful definition. It’s like a piece of silk.

‘Some tasters recently said it had great “lucidity”. I think that’s an amazing word to use describe a full-bodied red wine.’

Louisa describes the relationship between Cabernet and Shiraz as being that of a cool, poised variety (Cabernet) being ‘given a hug’ by its partner.

‘There’s a real purity and line to that 2015, which I think is delicious,’ said Louisa. ‘It has a higher percentage of Cabernet, so the Shiraz in the 2013 is maybe a bit more open and voluptuous. But the 2015 will definitely get there. I think structurally it’s spot on.’

Or, as Mana’s James Cameron put it, ‘A refreshing coolness with flavours of green olive and blackcurrant leaf, with dense black fruit and an intriguing spice. An elegant wine.’

left: Louisa Rose; right: Jess Hill-Smith

Winemaker Tasting Note Videos

If you missed the webinar you can watch the full session below or enjoy these bite-sized videos recorded by the winemaker, Louisa Rose, to learn a little more about the wines presented.

  1. The Virgilius Viognier 2017
  2. The Tri-Centurary Grenache 2015
  3. The Octavius Old Vine Shiraz 2016
  4. The Signature Cabernet Sauvignon & Shiraz 2015
  5. The Caley Cabernet Sauvignon & Shiraz 2015
  6. The Caley Cabernet Sauvignon & Shiraz 2013

Also included below are the tasting sheets for each wine that you can download.

Watch the full webinar

For more information about sourcing these wines contact UK importer: Fells

Santa Rita, Sideways and Sea Breezes

The Santa Rita Hills is one of the best cool-climate areas in the world. Located in the southern part of California, 148 miles north of Los Angeles it stretches for about 10 miles inland between the towns of Lompoc to the west and Buellton to the east.

What make this region so unique for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay especially are the transverse hills. Most of the hills in California run north/south parallel to the Pacific. But here they run east to west. So instead of acting as a barrier to the cool sea air, they channel it inland. As a result the vineyards have a great oceanic influence.

There are two east-west valleys between Lompoc and Buellton. The most northerly one runs along Highway 246 between Purisima Hills to the North and the Sta. Rita Hills. It has a loamy, shale-rich soil (part of the Monterey Formation) and generally makes more generous wines.

The other valley runs along Santa Rosa Road, between the Santa Rita Hills and the Santa Rosa Hills to the south. Its terroir is mainly made of clay, shale, alluvial soil (by the riverbed) and diatomaceous earth. The latter is an agglomeration of fossilised algae that resembles limestone and is where the Sandford & Benedict vineyard was first planted. (You’ve all seen Sideways, right?)

Map courtesy of Santa Rita Hills AVA/Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance

Diatomaceous earth is composed of diatomite – sedimentary formation of fossilised diatoms (algae) – silica and clay and can be compared to limestone as it forms soft white rocks.

Limestone soils are famous worldwide for producing great wines for a number of reasons. Diatomaceous earth (such as limestone) has an alkaline pH due to their high calcium content; this helps the vines to absorb nutrients as well as promoting water retention.

It is particularly important in clay soils as it offers better soil structure and, in periods of dry weather, makes it easier for the roots to go deeper in search of the water and nutrients needed. Soils rich in calcium also lead to higher grape acidity late in the growing season (which is particularly crucial in the Santa Rita Hills as the latter is very long in the region) and lower wine pH.

Modern history

The region’s modern history started in 1970 when Richard Sandford searched the region to find somewhere to farm. He analysed weather records from the area and found that the further inland you go, the hotter it gets, with one mile roughly equal to one degree more of temperature.

With this information, he located a two to four miles wide micro-climate on which to establish his vineyard and in 1971 he planted the Sandford & Benedict vineyard, eight miles east of Lompoc, with his business partner Michael Benedict. It was a watershed moment for the history of winemaking in the Santa Rita Hills.

The 1980’s saw a growing interest in this vineyard with vintners such as Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat) buying grapes from there as well as the Santa Maria Valley.

However, the rise of the region took time and, by the 1990’s, the northern part of Santa Barbara County had become Chardonnay territory. The warmer Santa Ynez Valley had also become known for growing Rhône varietals.

It was only in 2001 that the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley became the Santa Rita Hills AVA.

The climate in the Santa Rita Hills is relatively warm and consistent all year long but rarely exceeds 27 degrees Celsius as it is cooled down during the growing season by the strong oceanic wind and fog from off the Pacific. The wind blows during the early afternoon sending the vine into a sort of “ripening dormancy” and allowing them to slowly mature and achieve the best phenolic ripeness without sugar spiking. Alcohol levels are, therefore, lower.

It never gets very cold. Even in January the average temperature in Lompoc is 19 degrees Celsius.

The climatic conditions (warm, not hot, cooling breezes and fogs) and soils make the region particularly suited for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But though they do, indeed, thrive here other varietals are also grown, such as Syrah and Grenache.  

Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non planted his Eleven Confessions Vineyard just a few miles east of the Pinot Noir holy grail of the Sandford & Benedict Vineyard, for instance. The vineyard is planted to Syrah and Grenache primarily with the addition of Roussanne, Viognier and Petite Syrah as well as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Muscat. The cool climate allows for harvest around the end of October and sometimes even in November. It is densely planted and produces on average less than 600 grams of fruit per vine.

During the early 2000’s, the trend was towards bigger and plusher expressions of Pinot Noir. This was partly due to the long growing season that the region enjoys allowing a longer hang time on the vines and pushing the maturity of the grapes.

But since the mid-2000s, the region has seen a resurgence in term of style that seem to go back to its 1970’s roots as regards ripeness levels. Lots of wines nowadays have a true sense of place and terroirs with bright minerality, tension and lean fruit with this hint of ripeness as a backbone.

6 Names to look out for

1. Sandhi

(Roberson Wine)

2. Domaine de la Côte

(Roberson Wine)

3. Melville Winery

(The Vineyard Cellars)

4. Ojai Vineyard

(Tiger Vines)

5. Sine Qua Non

(Berry Bros & Rudd)

6. Au Bon Climat

(Fields, Morris & Verdin)

You can read and learn more about California in the LEARN section.