Best wine book in the world 2015: Discover the variations in Barossa Shiraz with Dr. Thomas Girgensohn »
A world-beating book for any serious red wine lover or visitor to the Barossa
BREAKING NEWS: Barossa Shiraz by Thomas Girgensohn has won Best Wine Book of the Year, woldwide, and Best Wine Book of the New World, at the Gourmand Awards 2015 held in Yantai, China in June 2015. Congratulations!
Our review is below, written when the book was published in 2014. As Dr Girgensohn replied to our congratulations: "You were the first to see the value in my book, and the first who has spotted the awards at Yantai... I appreciate the support VisitVineyards has given the book".
Why are some wines from a region excellent, and others of lesser quality? It's an obvious question, but one which up until now has not been well explained. So let's find out, starting in Australia's major wine region, the Barossa Valley, and with Australia's most popular red wine: shiraz.
If you're a dedicated wine traveller, and planning to visit the Barossa, you also need this book in advance, and to take it with you. Your journey will be a lot richer if you do.
For you can follow in the footsteps of former management consultant and long-term wine lover, Dr Thomas Girgensohn, who wanted to know the answer to Barossa's wine quality questions too.
He has collected wine for almost 30 years, and has closely observed the evolution of the Australian wine industry over that time. One of his favourite regions is the Barossa, and in particular its shiraz, which accounts for almost half of all plantings in the Barossa.
This is the first book in Australia to delve deeply into the terroir of a major wine region – the contribution of a vineyard site to the quality of grapes and wine produced – in specific but easy-to-understand terms. The result classifies the region according to the flavour and quality of the wines produced, rather than simple divisions based on climate, geology and/or geography, or proximity to the tourist routes.
It’s readable, interesting, ad-free and (to me) so much more enjoyable that a book simply full of lists, because it delves into the variations of this great grape variety, the reasons why they exist, and what it means for the wine. In fact, reading this is a lighbulb moment – and so obvious, you wonder why no-one has written this sort of book in Australia before.
Why is this important? The Barossa is Australia’s most famous wine region, and to many – particularly outside South Australia – the term covers the entire Barossa zone, which includes the higher-altitude Eden Valley, also famous for its cooler-climate rieslings.
For outsiders, it’s a hard region to get your head around, and until now, there’s been nothing much to help, other than guides that list everything but say very little that’s new, insightful or useful regarding wine quality. What Barossa Shiraz brings is the key to understanding.
Whilst one regional term was adequate in the 1980s, today ‘Brand Barossa’ is no longer enough to be a claim to uniqueness, says Girgensohn. He likens the situation to Bordeaux or Burgundy in France, whose generic wines are sold at very low prices, whereas their top wines command the highest prices in the world.
There, as in Barossa, quality is all about location, location, location. Such is the soil variation that twenty metres from a prime Burgundy vineyard, you might be growing potatoes instead of pinot. In the Barossa the distinctions may not be so abrupt, but they are certainly there. So, one person's prime vineyard might be neighbouring a mere pasture.
Of course, the French have had millennia to work out their terroir and land uses; in Australia we’ve only had 200 years, less in some of our newer wine regions. But the Barossa is home to the oldest shiraz vines in Australia, and indeed some claim, the world. So the vines have had time to adapt, and express the different characteristics of each site, although it should be noted that the history of the Barossa wine industry lies more in fortifieds such as ‘sherry’ and ‘port’, and with some exceptions, fine table wines only date from the late 1980s. So, this is all still a relatively new frontier, ripe for exploration and discovery.
The author states that specific (sub) regional definitions are important in the Barossa to create a point of difference, especially for its higher quality wines. [Editor’s note: the same will be increasingly true for all Australia’s major wine producing regions, especially those that produce a mix of premium and lower-priced wines. In the past marketers have tended to avoid dividing major regions, thinking that this could cause consumer confusion, but I believe that today there is more confusion between high quality and lower quality wines from the same region, and it’s time to rethink this broad-brush approach to regional and indeed wine branding.]
Barossa Shiraz divides the Barossa into eleven sub-regions, each of which the author asserts has its own distinct terroir, which he defines as ‘the sum total of environmental factors influencing growth of the grapevine and its grapes’. He identifies the major differences between each terroir, and creates a tasting profile for each sub-region.
This concept has its critics and it’s certain that concept of terroir is not very fixed or even defined as yet in Australia. However the author believes three key factors are most important in the Barossa:
- temperature and temperature range, which includes factors such as elevation, wind, latitude and soil. Elevation in the Barossa Valley varies from 180 to 400 metres above sea level, which has a significant effect on microclimate, and in turn on harvesting time;
- available moisture – rainfall and water-holding capacity, the latter very dependent on soil type, in particular the percentages of clay and sand, both of which can vary significantly in the Barossa;
- soil type. In the Barossa and Eden Valleys, Girgensohn defines seven distinct soil types and several sub types. Deep sand is a feature in many parts of the Barossa, and the wines from these regions “distinguish themselves by the purity and depth of the fruit characteristics and their lifted aromas”. Unlike other regions, he considers that slope and direction are less important in the Barossa than they may be elsewhere [Ed: e.g. cool climate regions where long exposure to sunlight is necessary].
So what are these regions and what makes each one unique?
Without giving too much away (you’ll have to buy the book – indeed, this is an essential purchase for any serious Australian shiraz lover, and as Andrew Caillard MW says in his introduction, it reminds him of the late Dr Max Lake’s definitive work, Classic Wines of Australia, published almost fifty years ago), Girgensohn’s 11 sub-regions can be grouped into four sections:
- The Central Valley – including the Lower Central Flats, Upper Central Flats and Eastern Slopes;
- The Southern Valley – including Lyndoch and Williamstown;
- The Western Ridge – including Gomersal, Marananga/Seppeltsfield and Greenock;
- The Northern Barossa – including Moppa, Koonunga/Ebernezer and Kalimna, often left off the tourist map (there are no major wineries here), but home to many great vineyards, perhaps most notably Kalimna Estate, from whose grapes some of the Penfolds Grange blend is made.
- The Eden Valley
With a separate section lying to the east, larger than the other four combined:
About the only thing I find in this book that is slightly confusing is the map on page 38 which shows these sub-regions – it would certainly have helped me if there had been some colour coding so each of these 4 sections were distinct. (However, nothing a few highlight markers didn’t fix, although I did find 3 areas around the perimeter that are not in any region. A map key would also help.) The index is not as comprehensive as it might be either – both minor issues that can perhaps be remedied in a subsequent edition.
More than a few wine drinkers might also be surprised that the Barossa is so small: about 40 km from north to south and a bit over 20 km from east to west according to his map, with the Eden Valley appearing slightly larger overall. So much great wine out of such a relatively small area…. one wonders what other as-yet-undiscovered wine regions will be found and developed in Australia, before urbanisation gets to them.
Back to the book. A chapter follows on each of the main ‘sections’, with in depth descriptions of their sub-regions, their terroir, the major wineries, the vineyards and the tasting profile of each. Girgensohn travelled extensively though the Barossa to compile these profiles, tasting not only finished wines but barrel samples in order to determine the specific flavour and structure characteristics of each sub-region.
Although these are by nature somewhat subjective, the author’s disciplined management consulting background shines through. To call his approach thorough and methodical is an understatement, yet he manages to write Barossa Shiraz in a highly interesting and captivating way. Perhaps coming from outside the wine industry and the world of wine critics gives him that keen observer’s eye and has meant that nothing is assumed nor taken for granted? He also manages to avoid excessive use of industry jargon.
Here you will find which sub-region produces the style you might tend to prefer, and why (or why not). Which Barossa shirazes are gentle and fruity, which are more peppery, which are strong and powerful, and which more aromatic.
Each sectional chapter ends with a number of pages in an easy-to-find dusky pink (yes, the colour of spilt shiraz), highlighting the ‘Leaders of the Barossa’ for each section: names like Doug and the late Peter Lehmann, Robert O’Callaghan (Rockford), Charles Melton, Bob Mclean (St Hallett), Stephen and Prue Henschke, Robert Hill Smith, John Duval, Chris Ringland (Three Rivers), David Powell, Tony and Troy Kalleske, Peter Schell (Spinifex), Kym Teusner and more.
The book also includes a chapter on the influence of history on Barossa winemaking today – important to put each region into context, and not just a historical filler – plus another on the Girgensohn’s 21 favourite Barossa shirazes, which he classifies into six types:
- icon wines, e.g. Henschke’s Hill of Grace, Chris Ringland Shiraz;
- full-bodied Barossa shiraz, e.g. E&E Black Pepper Shiraz, Mount Edelstone Shiraz, Rockford Basket Press Shiraz;
- very ripe shiraz, e.g. Kaesler’s Old Bastard Shiraz, Torbreck RunRig Shiraz Viognier;
- aromatic shiraz, e.g. Grant Burge Meshach, St Hallett Old Block Shiraz;
- Rhône blends, e.g. Spinifex Esprit, Charles Melton Nine Popes;
- value-for-money shiraz, e.g. Fernfield Pridmore Shiraz, Torbreck’s Woodcutter’s Shiraz.
The book concludes with a very handy and indeed innovative graph of palate weight (light to heavy) against ‘wine structure’ (weak to strong) which plots each sub-region accordingly. If you look at nothing else in this book, this graph and the two pages of text are a must for understanding some of the intricacies of the Barossa Valley.
Overall this is the best book on wine in Australia I have seen for a very long time, and I sincerely hope that not only will the author go on to develop his ideas in the Barossa (for example with other grape varieties) and also with further attention on the Eden Valley, but that others may follow Girgensohn’s example and produce rigorous analyses of the terroir and its relation to wine quality in some of our other major wine regions. Come back in another fifty years (hopefully less) and this sort of information will, or should be, everywhere.
For intending Barossa wine travellers, do not leave home without this book, and preferably read it before you leave – your experiences will be vastly enhanced if you do.
I also hope that Barossa Shiraz will soon be translated into Chinese, because there will be a ready and keenly interested market for it there, as wine drinkers in China (and elsewhere in Asia) become rapidly and increasingly discerning, and are keen to learn the real 'story' behind the wine.
It would also make a great app, as this sort of information will increasingly be required at wine drinkers’ fingertips, whether they are touring the region, scouring the internet for collectables or browsing in their local wine merchant’s store.
In my opinion, it is only through the education and understanding brought about by the likes of Barossa Shiraz that today’s and tomorrow’s wine consumers can be expected to understand the difference between cheap and premium wines from the same region (or country), and why it is worth paying more for some than for others. The long-term future of Australia’s wine industry depends on this sort of knowledge.
Congratulations to the author and publisher. It's a must on every red-wine-lover's list, and if you buy no other Australian wine book this year, make it this one.
UPDATE JUNE 2015: Barossa Shiraz is awarded the Best Wine Book in the World and Best New World Wine Book at the 2015 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards »
Barossa Shiraz by Dr. Thomas Girgensohn is published by Wakefield Press (Adelaide, SA, 2013; sc, 152 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$39.95.
VisitVineyards.com subscribers receive a 20% DISCOUNT when buying this book directly through Wakefield Press. Details and link here »
Thomas Girgensohn also blogs about wine at www.AustralianWineReviews.blogspot.com »
You can also hear him speaking with Andrew Caillard MW at the book launch in Sydney here »
- Barossa Valley (SA)
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