When it comes to Australian wine, there are certain family names that are synonymous with a particular region. The Radford name is one of those inextricably linked with the history of the Barossa. Winemaker Ben Radford is one of the fifth-generation of a family of Barossa farmers, so it’s fitting that he is working for Rockford, one of the region’s most traditional wineries.
Rockford wines are an Australian icon in a region full of legendary wine names. But unlike some of these titans of the Barossa they are relatively new to the scene, having been established by Robert O’Callaghan in 1984. The impact they’ve had since then - be it in helping to save the Barossa’s precious old vines or reviving the art of traditional winemaking - more than makes up for their relatively recent arrival. Ben Radford is now the custodian to this modern Australian wine classic and there couldn’t be anyone more suited looking after this precious Australian wine jewel.
‘What makes the Barossa special is the fact there’s a tradition of living off the land, and those traditions have been carried on by a lot of people here today. Growing grapes, making your own food, smoking your own meats has gone hand in hand with the tradition of winemaking. Preserving that tradition is so important.’
A sense of community – Growing up in the Barossa
If you’ve ever visited the Barossa, you will know that it’s a place where community is vitally important. It’s a place that has developed its own unique traditions; from butchers to bakers to grape growers to winemakers, the Barossa has become known as one of the world’s great food and wine regions. For five generations, the Radford family have been an important part of these traditions, working the Barossa’s soils like the Henschkes, Kalleskes and the Lindners.
Ben grew up in this special place, learning first-hand the importance of community and how it goes to make the Barossa so special. And while you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone more passionate about the Barossa, at a relatively young age Ben knew that he also wanted to see the world.
Growing up, winemaking wasn’t the job that Ben wanted to spend his life doing. He has always loved spending time in nature, so working as a park ranger seemed to be the ideal career choice. But as has happened to many children of the Barossa before, they didn’t choose the vinous life, the vinous life chose them. Rather than spending his whole life working in the region he grew up in, though, Ben spent twelve years’ working in wine regions around the world. Working in Burgundy, the Rhône and the Niagara Peninsula gave Ben experience with a wide variety of grapes and wine styles, much more than a single region could offer. He put this experience to work in Stellenbosch in South Africa, working as Head Winemaker for the Longridge/Winecorp group. Ben helped grow the group into one of the most highly respected in South Africa and learnt loads of the skills that he puts to use today as M.D. of Rockford.
An important meeting over a glass of Shiraz in Stellenbosch
Working in South Africa was important in shaping Ben’s skills and winemaking philosophy. At Longridge, he learnt about biodynamic viticultural methods, practises that he employs at his vineyard in the Eden Valley. South Africa was also important for more personal reasons. Barossa-boy Ben met his future wife Gill during his time in Stellenbosch. Gill was studying to be a chef at the Institute of Culinary Arts when she met Ben. They bonded over a bottle of Shiraz, something that would have been sure to make Ben’s ancestors proud. Ben and Gill lived and worked happily in South Africa and their thoughts turned to starting a winery there. But thoughts of returning home had never really left Ben’s mind, and when a special property in Eden Valley came on the market those plans were quickly changed. The property was home to old vines planted in the 1930s, they had found the perfect place to start shaping a new life in the Barossa.
Gill and Ben moved to the Barossa in 2002 and for the next few years Ben worked around the traps and started to grow their Radford Wines label. All was ticking along nicely, they were loving being a strong part of the Barossa community and it got even better in 2006 when Ben started working at Rockford. He quickly fell for the place and before long the feeling was mutual. Given the tightknit nature of the Barossa community, it might come as no surprise that Robert O’Callaghan had known Ben since he was a child. Robert’s children were friends with Ben, so working at Rockford was a little like coming home. But Robert is not one for nepotism or favouritism, he judged Ben on the quality of his work and his winemaking. Before long Ben was Robert’s right hand man, respecting the style and traditions of the winery while taking the quality levels to another level.
Minimal intervention winemaking: The way things are at Rockford
In recent times, there has been a lot of press and media attention on organic and biodynamic farming, natural wines and minimal intervention winemaking. For many this may appear to be a relatively recent trend, but for some in the wine game it’s simply been the way they’ve always done things. Robert O’Callaghan’s mantra at Rockford has always been, ‘Preserving the best of the traditional wine trade.’ A quick walk around the Rockford winery and cellar door during the vintage would be enough for anyone to understand what Robert means by this. Someone will be hand shoveling grapes from a truck into a wooden chute that leads to a Bagshaw beater-crusher that was built in the 1890s. From there the grapes are moved to beautiful old slate tanks by a Whitehill must-pump which is driven by an old single engine that could doubtless tell some amazing Barossa vintage stories if it could speak.
‘We are very lucky in the Barossa… we have a great climate, hot dry summers and cold wet winters, that allows the ability to farm with minimal intervention… Some years we don’t even use copper or sulfur sprays used in biodynamic and organic farming.’
This scene at Rockford is one that might come into your head when you dream of an idyllic winery full of old world charm. Wines are pressed in beautiful basket presses before heading to small and large format oak casks stored in the stunning stone buildings that Robert O’Callaghan built in 1984 with friend Michael Waugh of Greenock Creek fame. When he first started the winery, Robert was starting with very limited funds, he had no money for expensive modern equipment. So, Robert bought, or in some cases was given, the lovely old machinery that other wineries were throwing out as they modernised. While there are winemakers and cellar hands who’ve worked at Rockford’s over the years that may have cursed the extra manual work that comes with this equipment, the winery now looks like trendsetters given that many winemakers are now emulating the minimal intervention processes employed at Rockford.
A bright future for Ben Radford and Rockford
After completing his ‘apprenticeship’ under Robert O’Callaghan, in 2012 Ben was handed the reigns for the day-to-day running of Rockford as Managing Director. Working alongside Robert, Ben has carried on Robert’s vision for Rockford while adding his own personal perspective. While there’s no chance we will see a Rockford Nebbiolo or extended skin contact Vermentino, Ben continues to slowly but surely improve the wines made at Rockford.
Thankfully, he’s not improving the wines by throwing out the traditional methods which made Rockford’s reputation. There’s more than a little charm and nostalgia to see wines being made the same way they have for a hundred years or more. Maintaining the grape growing and winemaking traditions of one of the world’s great food and wine regions. Sure, it’s a lofty goal. But you’d do a lot worse than pick a fifth-generation grape grower and winemaker like Ben Radford to fight the good fight for the Barossa. The region’s future is in very good hands.
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