Australia's Barossa Zone produces quality, unique wines from truly old vines

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Australia. A land of stunning landscapes, futuristic architecture, boomerangs and didgeridoos, poisonous critters, English criminals and…Germans?

When talking about the South Australian region of Barossa, surprisingly, yes. Most of Australia was colonized by the British, and as such, most Australian wineries were started and influenced by Brits.

Not so in Barossa. The area was heavily settled by German immigrants starting in the 1840s, and their influence remains in language, religion, food and--yes--wine.

Barossa is a winemaking zone not far from Adelaide, known internationally for its spicy, chocolatey, bombastic red wines, many from exceptionally old vines. In fact, the region boasts some of the oldest commercially producing vines in the world.

The Turkey Flats vineyard contains shiraz vines originally planted in 1847. The region is considered a heritage site, and as such, since 2012, its traditions of food and wine have been protected by law.

Within the larger Barossa Zone lie two sub-regions: Barossa Valley and Eden Valley. The former is more synonymous with the internationally celebrated red wines, especially shiraz. (Side note: Shiraz is a name used almost exclusively in Australia and South Africa. In most other places, the same grape is known as syrah.)

But cabernet sauvignon, grenache and mourvèdre are also superstars here. Sometimes they are made into single varietal wines, and sometimes in blends.

To indulge in some of Barossa's old vine grapes, it seems fitting to turn to Yalumba, the region's oldest family-owned winery. Founded in 1849 by Samuel Smith, who is far better known for his beer, Yalumba is one of 12 wineries known as Australia's First Families of Wine, an organization dedicated to demonstrating to the world the quality and diversity of Australia's wines.

When speaking of old vines, it should be noted that "old vine" is not a legal designation. Technically. any wine can be labeled Old Vine without containing juice from vines of any significant age.

But even the youngest vines contributing to 2014 Yalumba Grenache Barossa Old Bush Vine ($23) are 45 years old, and some are up to 120 years old. Old vine, indeed.

The wine is a beautifully pale brick and garnet hue in the glass, belying the plush and robust aromas rising from it. Red cherry and a note of sanguinity evolve into raspberry, black pepper and turned earth on the palate.

Yalumba not only has a tradition of producing great wine, but the winery has also trained some of Australia's premier winemakers. Peter Lehmann's ancestors were some of the first German immigrants to settle in the area.

He began his winemaking career at Yalumba in 1947. He later started his own eponymous winery in 1979 and gained international acclaim for his work.

2013 Peter Lehmann Barossa Valley Clancy's ($17/750ml bottle) is a blend of two of Barossa's standouts: cabernet and shiraz, with a splash of merlot for suppleness. The nose is perfumed with musky incense, clove and toasted caraway, but the palate explodes with deep, dark fruit: blackberry, black cherry and currant, and a hit of rich, dusty cocoa powder. Vintage after vintage, this wine consistently scores in the 90s with wine journalists, and it's easy to see why.

If we head east from Barossa Valley, up into the lyrically named Mount Lofty Ranges, we find ourselves in Eden Valley. Barossa's German heritage finds its greatest outlet here in white wines, especially riesling, of exceptional quality.

Despite the German influence, however, you would not likely mistake 2017 Hewitson Riesling Eden Valley Gun Metal ($22) for a Mosel riesling. It lacks the telltale petrol on the nose as well as the floral note of honeysuckle. The Gun Metal, as its name might suggest, is profoundly minerally, its aromas of limestone unbroken by any round stone fruit or the slightest hint of sweetness. It is bracingly tart, showcasing vibrant lime flavor.

Australia is often noted for its unique geographical features, its animals found nowhere else in the world. A tour of some of Barossa's signature grapes shows us that Australia has also achieved, through assimilation of a wealth of cultural influences, great quality and uniqueness in its wine.

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