South Australia’s rugged Eden Valley sits high above the Barossa Valley floor. The steep slopes of this cool, elevated, windswept enclave, studded with hilly vineyards, rocky outcrops and ancient eucalyptus trees are home to some of Australia’s finest wines, and some of Australia’s most revered wine royalty who custodians of a rich wine heritage. In this story we’ll look at the Eden Valley’s history, future and at some of the stars of this world-class region.
Joseph Gilbert: The Eden Valley pioneer
Wine in the Eden Valley began with Joseph Gilbert, an Englishman who arrived in the region in 1839. He brought 15,000 acres of rugged high country in the remote Barossa ranges. He named his property after his birthplace in England: Pewsey Vale. He planted cuttings from the Macarthurs’ vineyard at Camden Park in New South Wales and from the Horticultural Society in England. Less than 10 years’ later, he had established the Pewsey Vale vineyard, one of Australia’s first high-altitude, cool-climate vineyards. Over the next 50 years’, Pewsey Vale wines impressed the critics (journalist Ebenezer Ward described the Riesling in 1862 as ‘thoroughly matured, fragrant, delicate and pure’), wowed the show judges in Sydney, Melbourne and Bordeaux, and were favourably compared to the finest Rhines and Hermitages. As journalist Ernest Whitington wrote in 1903, ‘Pewsey Vale has long been famous for its beautiful wines. They are not to be excelled in South Australia’.
Many cool climate vineyards fell out of use between the 1890s and the Great Depression, as table wine declined in favour of fortified wines which were cheaper to produce. Pewsey Vale was one of them. However, in the 1960s when Geoffrey Angas Parsons became aware that his property had once been home to one of the region’s earliest vineyards, he approached good friend Wyndham Hill Smith of Yalumba with a plan to revitalise it. Pewsey Vale Riesling is now one of the most well-known and most-awarded Rieslings in Australia. The most famous is the now-organic-certified ‘Contours’ Single Vineyard Riesling, from a south-facing contour planted to the instantly recognisable ‘Pewsey Vale clone’ (winemaker Louise Rose describes the flavours that come from the clone as ‘Bickfords lime cordial’) which, it is believed, can be traced back to original vines brought over by James Busby. Pewsey Vale wines remain one of the valley’s finest Rieslings today.
Henschke: ‘Australia’s real First Growth’
In 1841, two years after Joseph Gilbert landed in Australia, Johann Christian Henschke arrived in Australia from Silesia. He moved to Krondorf in the Barossa, and in 1862 he bought a farm in the Keyneton region in the Eden Valley. (Keyneton was originally named North Rhine because it was thought to be a good place to grow grapes). By 1868 he had produced his first commercial vintage. He also started a legendary winemaking dynasty which – six generations later – continues today. It was fourth generation Cyril Alfred who saw the immense potential in capturing the pure essence of ‘place’ with his Mount Edelstone and Hill of Grace wines from two of Australia’s most iconic and revered vineyards (both are over 100 years old). At the time, the trend was for fortified wines – ports, sherries and brandies. Any table wines available were usually blends. Wines that expressed the individual terroir of not only a region, but a single vineyard, were revolutionary. Cyril knew he was onto something good, but when the 1956 vintage of Henschke’s Mount Edelstone won First Prize in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne, the rest of the wine world took note as well. The careful stewardship of fourth generation, Stephen Henschke, and viticulturist wife Prue Henschke, and their continued innovation, focus on sustainability, and dedication to quality continued what Cyril started. The Hill of Grace and Mount Edelstone are among Australia’s most prestigious wines and still feature in the highest classifications of Australian wine today:
‘Henschke’s 2010 Hill of Grace has got more 99 points than any other Australian wine: eight, from wine writers around the world tasting it blind. It’s seems a statistical impossibility!’
Andrew Caillard MW, Decanter, March 2016
‘his is Australia's real first growth!’
Michael Schuster, UK Wine Writer/Lecturer, on Henschke’s Hill of Grace
Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz is ‘...seriously beautiful…’ (Campbell Mattinson) ‘…sublime…’ (Max Allen)
Today, the Henschke empire future lies with sixth-generation Johann and Justine Henschke, who are crucially aware of the legacy they have been left (and, no doubt, the pressure that comes with it).
Gramps & Orlando: The innovators
In 1837, two years before Gilbert and four years before Henschke, Johann Gramp arrived in Australia from Bavaria. The Gramps and their Orlando winery (now owned by Pernod Ricard who continue to make Orlando’s popular Gramps and Jacob’s Creek wines) has been a pivotal influence in Barossa and Australian winemaking. But it was fourth generation Colin Gramp who catapulted Eden Valley and its fresh, pure Riesling into the limelight, and Australian white winemaking well and truly into the modern age.
The Gramps were keen innovators and early adopters of technology and in the early 1950s Colin learned about the new cold and pressure fermentation tanks that were being used in Austria and Germany. At this time, white wines were open fermented and matured in wood - so losing the fresh aromatics and flavour that Riesling is renowned for. And without modern stabilisation techniques, the wine had to rest for at least a year before it was bottled. The new pressure tanks enabled the delicate Riesling juice to be fermented in a controlled, closed environment and then transferred to stainless steel tanks and bottles soon after. Within its first year, the 1953 Orlando Riesling, made using the pressure tanks, won first prize at eight major state wine shows – a revolutionary feat for a wine so young. (At the time, most wines – including white wines – were five or six years old before they were considered suitable for entering into a show.)
Colin also introduced the Charmat process into Australia which meant he could make sparkling wines using pressure tanks as well. In 1956, with the help of German winemaker Günter Prass, Orlando’s fruity, lightly sparkling Barossa Pearl made from Eden Valley Riesling, Barossa Semillon and Muscat was launched to an appreciative public. Table wines with the same approachable, fruity flavours soon followed. Fortifieds were on the way out. Pretty sparklings, and fresh, fruity whites made from multi-regional, multi-varietals ruled. Throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, wine drinkers lapped up the vibrant, flavoursome whites from around Australia.
David Wynn: The Birth of Cool
In 1972, David Wynn (famous for the iconic Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate) was looking for the perfect site to establish an iconic Chardonnay vineyard. Recognising that a cool-climate was key, he chose the highest point in the Eden Valley and planted 24 hectares of Chardonnay on cool south and east-facing aspects – the largest Chardonnay vineyard in Australia at the time. His stunning Mountadam Chardonnays showed how much the variety benefited from a cool climate, and what premium fruit the Eden Valley could produce. Thanks to quality pioneers like David, and as wine consumers became more educated and wine laws proscribed regional and varietal accuracy, so an interest in individual grape varieties, their provenance, ideal viticultural conditions and ‘sense of place’ grew.
Riesling reigns supreme
If anywhere has a sense of place, it is the Eden Valley. And – despite the fact that it turns out prestige Shiraz, Cabernet, Chardonnay and an increasing array of exciting alternative varieties – it is still the pure, aromatic, expressive Riesling that reigns supreme. Henschke’s Julius & Peggy’s Hill, Yalumba’s Pewsey Vale & Heggies, Peter Lehmann’s Wigan, and the legendary Leo Burings ... these are iconic Eden Valley wines. Equally iconic are their famous winemaker; Andrew Wigan, Louisa Rose, Stephen and Prue Henschke and John Vickery.
Few would disagree that one of the noblest and most iconic Riesling winemakers of all was, John Vickery. Voted Australia’s greatest living winemaker by a panel of peers in 2003, he is famous for the famous Clare Valley and Eden Valley Leo Buring Rieslings, and his 50 years’ of winemaking saw him accumulate a glittering array of trophies and gold medals. Though he officially retired in 2005, John has teamed up with Phil Lehmann (youngest son of Barossa great, Peter Lehmann) and is making Vickery Riesling once again at WD Wines, ensuring that his immense knowledge and Riesling expertise is preserved for future wine drinkers... a boon for winemakers and wine lovers alike.
Eden Valley: The new custodians
The winemaking royalty of Eden Valley are so well-established and still so impressive that a newer generation of winemakers can find it hard to get a look in. It’s difficult to topple much-loved aristocracy. However, where there’s an old-guard, there’s always a new-guard moving upwards, and so it is with the Eden Valley.
A (relatively) new custodian is Radford Wines, founded by Ben and Gill Radford. The Radfords own some of the oldest vineyards in the region and farm their land using sustainable and biodynamic practices – including harvesting on days determined by the astral biodynamic calendar. Their hand-crafted ‘textural and flavourful’ wines are made from site-specific vineyards that showcase their unique terroir. Wines includes biodynamic Riesling with ‘a compelling sense of self and tremendous fruit purity’, minerally Chardonnay with ‘lashings of lemon verbena, honey nougat and creamy Meyer lemon’, biodynamic Shiraz that speaks of the vineyard with ‘great layers of flavours ... mocha chocolate, warm spice notes and Szechuan pepper’ and the intricate ‘Menagerie’ from a ‘quirky’ and ‘eclectic’ vineyard which is varyingly planted to Mataro, Grenache, Alicante and Shiraz – sometimes all in the same rows.
Another new custodian is Ruggabellus, headed up by Abel Gibson. His father was a viticulturist for Penfolds and – though he steadfastly avoided it for 10 years – a wine career was virtually inevitable. Abel trained with some of the finest Barossa winemakers, soaking up the knowledge and their ethos:
‘’Respect and history’ was learned at Penfolds, ‘craft and tradition’ at Rockford, ‘intellect and detail’ from Chris Ringland, ‘perfume and texture’ from Charlie Melton, ‘layers and length’ from my father Rob Gibson and most importantly ‘belief’ from Pete and Magali at Spinifex’
Ruggabellus are keenly conscious of the aeons of time and the majestic history behind their wild and mystical landscape and are eager to showcase the uniquely Australian character of their wines. They choose red grapes from vineyards that allow them to pick earlier to preserve vitality, crunch and intrigue; whites from vineyards that are rocky and closer to the sun. Wines are harvested on ‘fruit’ days (a biodynamic principle that is gaining a good deal of attention these days … proponents also recommend that the wines are drunk on a ‘fruit’ day as well).
Their respect for the land and its antiquity, is reflected in their wines; both in the contoured design on the label and the Latin-inspired names, including QUOMODO (‘in which way’) inspired by Riesling, SOLUMODO (‘barely’) inspired by Semillon and SALLIO (‘season’) a light introduction to their textured style of white.
For many Eden’ winemakers, Riesling is the essence of the vineyard. Picked, pressed and bottled, in all its pure, unadulterated glory with the barest of winemaker intervention. But what’s old is new again, and the new-guard are returning to natural techniques to make their revolutionary wines. Ironically, the wines causing so much interest now are being made in very much the same way as the wines that were ousted by the Colin Gramp and his pressure tanks all those years ago. At Radford, the Rieslings undergo a wild fermentation in old French oak hogsheads and maturation on lees. Ruggabellus, looking for exotic flavours and textures ferment their whites on skins (Solumodo spends five weeks’). The Quomodo Riesling is picked late, spends time in old oak, and a year and a half in the bottle before it’s released.
Eden Valley: A bright and brilliant future
Will these new wines now oust the establishment altogether, and start a new and exciting story for the Eden Valley? As history has shown, anything is possible. But the noble Eden Valley wines are so revered by connoisseurs in their present form that more probable is an exciting counterbalance between the two. Eden Valley is a land of contrasts, home to the hills and the valleys, the highs and the lows, the contours and the crisp lines, the aristocrats and the upstarts, the old school and the innovators. There’s definitely room for both the established custodians… and the new.
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