What does it take for a family-owned winery created 174 years ago in Australia to be successful in 2023?
Yalumba Winery, in the Barossa Valley, was established by Samuel Smith in 1849, making it the country’s oldest family winery. I visited the winery in 2008 with members of the London-based Circle of Wine Writers as guests of Wine Australia. I was surprised and impressed to see that they had created a nursery to supply the plant material for their vineyards. That requires climate-controlled space and knowledge and expertise in plant propagation. Recently, I met Chief Winemaker Louisa Rose and tasted a few of her wines via Zoom. She assured me that the nursery is still providing plant material, plus they now have a cooperage on-site to create their barrels per the winemaker’s needs. Yalumba is the only winery in the Southern Hemisphere with such a luxury. The Hill-Smith family are zealous in ensuring the quality of the ingredients that contribute to their wines. Ms. Rose agreed. “We like to have control of the process.”
She has been at Yalumba since 1992. Asked about how she decided to pursue a career in winemaking, she explained that she grew up in Melbourne in Victoria where her family had a small vineyard in the 70s. The family spent their weekends trellising, training and pruning vines as needed. “I really loved working outside in different seasons,” she explained. She recalled delivering some of their grapes to a winery and watching them making wine. “I thought that looked like a lot of fun. Not that grape growing wasn’t fun, but I liked seeing how they are linked.”
She attended Melbourne University where she got a Bachelor of Science degree, though she said, “I didn’t think I would get a job as a winemaker.” She then moved to South Australia to study winemaking at Roseworthy on the campus of Adelaide University. One of the requirements of the program was to get a vintage job. “I thought I would probably never come back to South Australia and I thought I would lose the house I was boarding in, so I decided I would get a job in the Barossa.” Yalumba offered her a job for the 1992 vintage, and the winery team then asked her to come back for the next vintage. In 1993 she became the full-time assistant winemaker. She considered herself lucky because, “that was when the Australian wine business was on a growth curve after a depressed time in the 1980s. We were starting to export wines, especially to the UK. The wine industry was growing, vineyards were growing and there was a place for me to grow, so I never left.”
Robert Hill-Smith has been in charge since she arrived. “He has such vision and the ability to work with a large business, but it feels like a small business with the understanding that we are working with the next generation in mind, making long -term decisions.”
Asked if she has favorite varieties, her answer was Viognier. “It is the variety that is synonymous with Yalumba. We do have other vineyards and brands and other white varieties, but Viognier is the one we have really focused on.” It was planted in the 1980s. She explained that for more than 100 years they have been growing Rhône varieties such as Grenache, Mourvedre and Shiraz. “Yet we had never worked with the white varieties. So, we thought this variety would work very well. We also planted Roussanne, but we were really taken with Viognier.”
However, it was a new variety for them, and they were not quite sure how to handle it. She explained that it was a good discovery process for them. “For example, Viognier is a low acid grape, and we were accustomed to working with Riesling’s naturally high acid (in their famous Pewsey Vale Vineyard). We learned how to work with texture in white wine because that is where the length and freshness of these wines come from.”
Discussing the Eden Valley Samuel’s Collection Viognier 2020, she noted its freshness. “If you looked at the analysis of the Viognier, you would think it is a red, because it’s a bit higher in alcohol, with a higher pH and yet so fresh and with the ability to age.”
Sixty percent of the Viognier was fermented in French oak puncheons and barriques, part in stainless steel, then aged on lees for 9-10 months before blending. “This is the essence of our Viognier,” she said, “if you only get one chance to taste Yalumba Viognier, this is the one. It is always going to be very open in the mouth with lots of apricots and white peaches, ginger, and white pepper. Those are the characteristics that we think are our expression of what Viognier does in Eden Valley. They come into their own with food.”
I was very impressed with the freshness of all the wines presented. Rose explained that Shiraz has not normally been considered an aromatic variety, but when they recognized that quality, it changed the way they think about picking decisions and making wines that are perhaps more modern and subtle, as opposed to the more traditional big, rich, over-oaked high alcoholic version of Shiraz. She noted the entire region is exploring the region’s terroir. The Barossa Grounds Project—led by the Barossa Grape and Wine Association—is working to “understand the climatic, soil, and topographical influences on the variations in Shiraz style across Barossa.”
The 2019 Barossa “Samuel’s Collection” Shiraz ($20, imported by Winebow), honoring the winery’s founder, is a great example with incredibly fresh and aromatic, floral blackberry fruit, a light scent of toffee, dark chocolate, yet the intense flavors that are fresh and lively. The tannins play their role of structure while conspiring with acidity for a bright, long, long finish.
The Yalumba “Signature” wine is, Rose explained, “named in honor of an individual who has made significant contribution to the culture and traditions of Yalumba.” Australia’s iconic red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon – Shiraz in Rose’s hands is uniformly fresh and aromatic with a deep black ruby color, and forward, spicy, black cherry, blackberry aromas. The black fruit in the mouth is concentrated yet lifted by crisp acidity and smooth tannins. She explains that she thinks of Cabernet Sauvignon as “linear with a beautiful tannin structure, whereas Shiraz is a bit richer and riper, and sort of wraps around the Cabernet. Once you blend them, they are very harmonious.”
As I tasted and admired these wonderfully fresh and lively wines, I appreciated the company’s ability to evolve and adapt while creating their style. Robert Hill-Smith had the vision to vertically integrate the winery’s production, with a grape vine nursery and creating a cooperage. Chief Winemaker Louisa Rose had the patience and resolve to understand Viognier and make it the variety that is synonymous with Yalumba. We get to enjoy their wines.