South Aussie wineries exceeding grape expectations

Katie Spain, Wine writer, SA Weekend. August 9, 2019 10:00am

South Australian wineries have won top wine and winery of the year in the prestigious 2020 Halliday Wine Companion Awards. We delve into what makes these two South Aussie winemakers so special.


Jim Barry Wines patriarch Peter Barry doesn’t spend much time on the past.

“I don’t like to look in the rear-view mirror,” he says. “I prefer to look forward.”

But, as the Clare winery prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary in August, he was forced to go through the history vaults.

Peter and his children Tom, Sam and Olivia have put together a book to mark the occasion. Jim Barry: More Than A Lifetime’s Work is released on August 17 and includes photos, and letters from the past.

“It’s a story about our family but it’s also a story about Clare and what has happened here since Dad arrived in 1947,” Peter says.

“The only time I’ve ever really looked in the rear-vision mirror is when we were putting this together. Otherwise it’s just the road ahead.”

Peter’s father, the late Jim Barry, was the seventeenth qualified winemaker in Australia and the first qualified winemaker to work in the Clare Valley.

Jim met his wife Nancy in 1950 and they married a year later. The pair began producing wine in 1959, first under the St Clare Cellars banner and later under Jim Barry Wines.

Jim and Nancy purchased 28ha of land from pastoralist Duncan McRae Wood in 1964 and planted a little 3ha patch of vines in the winter of 1968.

Peter recalls helping his father hand water the vines from a drum in the back of his FX Holden ute during the drought of 1969.

“Only water the ones without leaves, they need it most,” Jim would say to his children. “The vines with leaves will live.”

Jim’s commitment to growing shiraz, cabernet, malbec and riesling started in 1966 when he set up a nursery to provide free cuttings and rootlings to people who had land – to try to encourage them to plant them, rather than fortified varietals.

“All they had to do was dig a hole, plant them, nurture them, and they were on their way,” Peter says.

Jim was somewhat of a renegade and had the kind of foresight many wine folk dream of. In 1985, the Australian wine industry was in turmoil with a State Government initiated vine pull scheme in place across the Clare Valley.

Everyone wanted cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, so beautiful old shiraz and riesling vines were rendered worthless and removed.

When many others were pulling out these vines, Peter and his brother Mark decided to make a great Australian shiraz that embodied all they had learned from their father.

They did so using grapes from the Armagh Vineyard planted by Jim in 1968.

The inaugural 1985 The Armagh Shiraz defined Clare and was made to last. The labels were printed on heavy, textured art paper and applied by hand.

In 1986 the Barry boys, Peter, Mark and John, pushed back on the vine pull program once again, purchasing the renowned Florita vineyard at Watervale.

“My father was 61 and my mother said, ‘You’re not allowed to buy any more properties, we should be slowing down and retiring’,” Peter says. “So he said to my brothers and I, ‘You better buy it’.”

It was a financial gamble.

The vineyard produced 20,000 cases of riesling and, at the time, Jim Barry sold 1000 dozen. “No one wanted to drink riesling,” Sam says. “Chardonnay had taken over.”

The family took a gamble.

“We bought the Florita vineyard in the bottom of the market of the vine pull,” Peter says.

“Not because it was cheap but because no one wanted riesling. If we hadn’t purchased the vineyard who knows if it would have been bulldozed for the land and something else planted.”

Foresight and determination won out.

Florita is now one of the oldest vineyards in Clare Valley and has long been recognised for producing some of the finest fruit in the region.

The brothers swam against the chardonnay tide and developed The Florita Riesling. First released in 2004, the micro-batch, super premium riesling is the result of years of patience. Individual rows are selected where terra rossa and loam barely cover the deep limestone below.

The demand for top quality riesling is growing.

Bad memories of sweet riesling in casks (back when riesling could be made using a mix of any grape varieties) are dissipating.

“The great thing now is that there’s a generation of people coming through who didn’t grow up with that,” Tom says.

“So they don’t have that negative perception of riesling being sweet. It’s such a food friendly wine and the next generation is embracing quality and premium riesling.”

Jim Barry Wines also made history when they produced Australia’s first commercial assyrtiko. Peter first tasted the Greek variety in 2006 while on holiday with his wife Sue in Santorini.

The planting material was sourced from Argyros Winery, Santorini, as eight dormant cuttings from a single vine. After a 10-year journey, the Barry family launched their limited commercial release in Australia in November 2016.

Noteworthy wines also include The McRae Wood Shiraz, The Benbournie Cabernet Sauvignon, First Eleven Cabernet Sauvignon, Pb Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon, The Cover Drive Cabernet Sauvignon, The Lodge Hill Shiraz, The Barry Brothers Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon, The Lodge Hill Riesling and Watervale Riesling.

The family has also collaborated with Germany’s Ernst Loosen of the Dr. Loosen Estate to produce a Loosen Barry Wolta Wolta Dry Riesling.

It pays homage to generations of the Loosen family’s winemaking techniques and the Barry family’s vineyard practices.

There’s a lot to be excited about.

On August 7, 2019, Jim Barry Wines was named Winery of the Year in the 2020 Halliday Wine Companion Awards.

It’s a big deal. Wine critic James Halliday and his tasting panel review more than 9000 Australian wines annually, uncovering the winners of six major awards and 13 varietal winners.

Peter says his parents would be proud.

“They’d come very close to shedding a tear. Mum would have given me a hug and Dad would shake my hand and say, ‘Who would have thought?’”