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Standing Taller Than Ever: the Old-Vine Wines of Torbreck in the Barossa


The journey through Torbreck old-vine Barossa wines with chief winemaker Ian Hongell at Noizé restaurant in London in February 2024 included a new wine, The Forebear


Ian Hongell is a man in a hurry. Not that you would know it from meeting him. He has an easy, smiling manner and comes across as measured and thoughtful rather than someone in a mad hurry. But the point is a wine grower only has one vintage a year.


“I do feel I’m in a rush. Before you know it your career is over,” he says. A little later he adds: “Every year you finish vintage and you’re thinking about what you’re going to do next year.”


Another thing you learn quickly is that Ian Hongell knows exactly where he’s going, which explains why he has done so much since he arrived at Torbreck as chief winemaker in time for the 2017 vintage. And it explains why, when asked at his interview in the US by Torbreck’s American owner what he could do [for Torbreck], he answered, “I think I can make better wine.”


This was no idle claim: Torbreck, founded in 1994, had established its international reputation for making some of the greatest Rhône-style old-vine wines of the Barossa Valley – and therefore of Australia – with its second vintage. Two years into his new job, Ian was vindicated when the owner Peter Kight visited Torbreck, tasted the wines and concluded that Ian was indeed making better wine.


In what way better and how did he do it? By better wine, Ian says he meant getting quality more consistent through the range, so that he could then drill into, understand and develop the personality of each site and wine.

"I'm not denying climate change but our lived experience is that we can adapt and continue to make great wine"

Achieving quality consistency included evening out the yield fluctuations – no mean feat in years that have featured drought, frost, gails at flowering, hail, above average temperatures, below average temperatures, La Nina’s excessive rainfall and, this year, a harvest so early that crush started in February while Ian was in the UK showing the forthcoming new-release wines.


And no mean feat when you’re talking about venerable old vines, some of them 19th century, many of them dry-grown, some even on their own roots, and when you’re also talking about fruit from around 30 families, as well as Torbreck’s own vineyards.


In practical terms, improvements have involved regenerative farming – aka ‘regen’ – especially at the largest and most significant of Torbreck’s five holdings, the Hillside Vineyard, which was one of the first to be settled in the Barossa in 1849 (the age of Torbreck’s and its growers’ vines is phenomenal, but we’ll come back to that). It lies on gentle westerly slopes just north of Lyndoch in southern Barossa and Torbreck bought fruit from this vineyard from the outset, before buying it in 2002.


Regeneration has included eliminating synthetic treatments, moving to minimal or no tilling, using the farm’s sheep to fertilise and keep the vineyards trim (there are cereal crops, too – all part of regen farming), managing water flows and getting the creeks going again, restoring the natural contours, composting and, not least, fencing.

"New varieties include Carignan for its fruit profile, Counoise for its nerviness and Grenache Blanc for its complexity"

Fencing may not sound very significant (or interesting) but Ian has spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on it – isolating parts of the property to return them to nature, to keep the sheep where they’re supposed to be, and so on.


Restoring and renovating the old buildings – the cottage and the old winery and cellar – has been another part of the project.


Across the Torbreck estate, there has been planting and replanting of Shiraz and Grenache vines, including by layering (or marcottage), and in 2017 and 2018 some new varieties went in: Carignan for its fruit profile, which is different from that of Shiraz, Grenache and Mataro (Mourvèdre), Counoise for its nerviness, and two Rhône whites, Grenache Blanc, which Ian is particularly excited about for its complexity, power and flintiness, and Clairette.


But this is not about changing grape varieties because of climate change. “I’m not denying it [climate change], but our lived experience is that we can adapt and continue to make great wine. These things have always happened. I don’t think we need to change varieties and rootstocks.”


Not that he’s suggesting that being a wine grower is easy: “People say it’s romantic. I says it’s effing hard.” He should know; he has a vineyard of his own in the Barossa and his father is a grower, a longtime supplier to Torbreck. But at least Ian has a day job. For most of the Barossa’s growers, it’s their main existence and they can never even be sure they’ll get a crop.

"The sourcing of barrels has been refined to get tighter, firmer, less showy French oak for more harmony on the palate"

Torbreck’s holdings now provide about 50% of its fruit and everywhere suitable for planting has now been planted (some places are no-go areas – anywhere within about 20m of eucalyptus trees, for example). More than 20% of Torbreck's own vines are over 100 years old. That's quite something.


Making better more consistent wine has, unsurprisingly, involved winemaking adjustments. The approach in the winery (which is in Marananga close to their prestigious Gnadenfrei Vineyard) remains minimal intervention, with minimal movement of wines and no fining or filtration. All wines start as wild ferments and are only inoculated halfway through to ensure that, with their high alcohols (reds of 15–15.5%), they do make it to the finishing line.


On the oak front, the sourcing of barrels has been refined to get tighter, firmer French oak – what Ian calls “less showy oak” resulting in “more harmony on the palate; not having everything at the front door”. They have also been making sure they get the best quality corks.


But even after all this, Ian says the single greatest change he made was the one he made immediately: controlling the temperature of the maturing wines.


Stylistically, the wines have become more aromatic and lifted, with fresher, brighter, more defined fruit, more restrained oak, finer textures and clearly differentiated personalities – wines that defy their alcohol levels.


Time to let them speak for themselves.


Luncheon line-up. The name Torbreck is taken from a forest near Inverness in northeast Scotland and several of the wines have associated names, e.g., Struie is a 157m high mountain that overlooks Torbreck forest and Gask Ridge is a series of Roman stone burial grounds on the hills above the forest.


NEW RELEASE TASTING

The tasting of this year’s eight new releases was held at Noizé restaurant, London and was followed by lunch with eight vintages already on the market. The food and the pairings were excellent (see menu below). It’s worth knowing that Noizé is happy for customers to take their own wines “for a small corkage” charge.


Scores: 93 and above is gold; 89 and above is silver; 85 and above is bronze.



The Hillside Vineyard Grenache 2021, Barossa Valley

This preceded the new releases and was also served at lunch with wild mushroom open lasagna with cep foam.

A single-vineyard wine from a block planted in 1849 at the historic Hillside Vineyard in Lyndoch, bought in 2002, the southernmost and most significant of Torbreck’s own vineyards. Low yielding, dry-grown bush vines on high, gentle west-facing slopes; mostly dark red clay with shale, quartzite and ironstone. Partial whole bunch fermentation; 18 months in a second-fill 2,400l French oak foudre. After good spring and winter rainfall, the growing season was mild with cool, even temperatures. Ian Hongell describes 2021 as a perfect vintage for both yields and quality.

Vivid deep purple. Lifted, sweet, floral aromas – violets and raspberries – then blackberry, baking spices and graphite freshness. Sensuous, silky wine with very fine tannins and cool acidity. A wine of great purity and length. Can be drunk now but deserves cellaring. Drink to 2031. 15%. 93



Les Amis Grenache 2021, Barossa Valley

Dry grown in the the ancient, devigorated soils of the east-facing Slade vineyard in western Greenock (northwest Barossa). Aged for 24 months in French barriques, 40% new. A perfect year for both quality and yields (see Hillside Grenache above).

Less expressive on the nose than the 2021 Hillside Vineyard Grenache. More savoury, with red berries, graphite, earthy, peppery spices, notes of paprika, cumin, bark and clove. Concentrated, long and savoury with firm but seamless tannins and more marked by its acidity (the pHs of the two Grenaches are almost the same). More backward than the Hillside Grenache. Drink to 2035. 15%. 94



The Struie 2022, Barossa

A blend of 80-year-old Barossa Shiraz (79%) and 40-year-old Eden Valley Shiraz (21%) from elevated, hillside vineyards (proportions vary according to the vintage: 2021 was 57% Barossa and 43% Eden Valley; 2019 was only 8% Eden Valley – see lunch wines below). 18 months in new (25%) and seasoned oak. 2022 was a wet, La Niña year with moderate summer temperatures (very few days above 30ºC) and a hailstorm in late October which put yields below average. Not the best of vintages, but the vines were healthy going into harvest.

Very dark purple. Perfumy, ripe, crisply defined black fruit. On the palate, the fruit is darker and more brooding, alongside black pepper, smoke and liquorice notes. Very intense and concentrated with rich, soft tannins combined with the tension and coolness of acidity. The nose is more Barossa; the palate shows more of its Eden Valley side. Drink to 2040. 15%. 93



The Gask 2022, Eden Valley

Old-vine Shiraz from elevated Eden Valley sites. Completed its malolactic fermentation and was aged for 18 months in second-fill French oak barriques.

Deep purple. Lifted perfume with a scent of iris and black fruit and an undertow of minerally earth. Taut, dark fruit on the palate – both red and black – with dark chocolate, black pepper, allspice and graphite. Power, concentration and bright fruit cooled by acidity and set against a filigree of satin-textured tannins and savoury length. Enjoyable now, but still very young. Drink to 2033. 15%. 94



Descendant 2021, Barossa Valley

A co-ferment of 94% Shiraz and 6% Viognier from a single vineyard next to the winery on Roennfeldt Road, Marananga (western Barossa), which was planted in 1994 with some of the oldest genetic vine material in Australia – cuttings from Runrig growers’ vineyards. Aged for 20 months in second-fill French oak barriques previously used for Runrig.

Very dark ruby (rather than purple). Very aromatic with high-toned black and red berry fruit, cake spices, a garrigue herbal note and just a hint of apricot. Lush and ripe with fleshy tannins and a strikingly creamy texture. Generosity and power but with rigour and precision. Drink to 2036. 15% 94



The Factor 2021, Barossa Valley

Old Shiraz vines, many planted in the 19th century and some on their own roots – “clonal time capsules” as Torbreck puts it – from Gomersal, Krondorf (to the south), Marananga, and Greenock (to the north). 24 months in new (40%), seasoned and second-fill French oak barriques.

Very deep, slightly purply red. Aromas of black cherry and blackberry. Dark fruit intensity and concentration on the palate with savoury, almost smouldering black tapenade and liquorice. Satin-smooth tannins and neatly turned acidity. Drink to 2040. 15.5%. 94



Runrig 2021, Barossa Valley

An old-vine Shiraz blended with 2% current-vintage Viognier after the Shiraz has aged for 30 months in French oak barriques (50% new, the rest second and third fill). From six vineyards, three of Torbreck’s own and three growers, planted from 1858 to the early 1900s and all dry-grown.

Expressive, lifted aromas of black fruit with a hint of ripe stone fruit overlaying bitter chocolate. A generous, rich palate with fruit of great purity, intensity and definition; notes of baking spices and liquorice and fine-grained tannins beneath extraordinary silky smoothness. Layered, very long and will probably still be going well in 2050. 15.5%. 97



The Forebear 2019, Barossa Valley

The first release of a new-single vineyard Shiraz from Block 6 of Torbreck’s Hillside Vineyard. Planted in the early 1850s in sand over deep loam and red clay, it’s Torbreck’s oldest collection of vines. Beginning in 2014 under the same viticulturalist as now, Nigel Blieschke, the project has been a 10-year journey. The hand harvested fruit is destemmed into open-top fermenters where it stays for 6–7 days with twice daily pumpovers. It’s drawn off skins when primary fermentation is almost complete, basket-pressed gently for 8 hours and then run into new French oak barriques for 24 months’ ageing when primary fermentation is complete. Blended and bottled without filtration or fining and matured in bottle for 36 months before release.

Enticingly sweet, briary, blackberry fragrance. Plush yet precise on the palate, with black and red fruit intensity, cocoa, mocha, black pepper and some graphite. Perfectly judged and integrated acidity and tannins. Very long and refined. Drink until 2040? 15%. 97



The Laird 2019, Barossa Valley

Single-vineyard Shiraz from the 2ha, dry-grown Gnadenfrei Vineyard in Marananga (western Barossa) planted in 1958 with an original Barossa clone. The 2019 vintage was a triumph of quality over adversity, although not a triumph of quantity. Volume was down 55% thanks to continuous summer heat and drought, wind and hail at flowering and three major frosts. And this is a low-cropping vineyard at the best of times. Aged for 36 months in new French oak barriques coopered by Dominique Laurent and known as ‘Magic Casks’.

Deep purple. Resonant black fruit on the nose – black cherries and blackberries with blueberries. Immensely concentrated, dense palate; opulent fruit, spice and coffee-chocolate flavours with seamlessly assimilated oak and substantial tannins polished to smoothness. Drink to 2045. 15.5%. 96+



LUNCH WINES

The Steading Blanc 2022, Barossa Valley

Served with gougère and cheddar

A single-vineyard Rhône-inspired blend of 62% Roussanne, 28% Marsanne and 10% Viognier from Torbreck’s Descendant Vineyard on Roennfeldt Road (western Barossa), first planted in 1994. The Roussanne was tank fermented, the Marsanne and Viognier fermented spontaneously and slowly and rested on fine lees for 8 months in a mix of seasoned and new French oak barriques.

Lifted and fragrant with spring flowers, apple, Asian pear, herbs and ginger. Supple and silky with a fresh, strikingly mineral finish. Will be more interesting in a couple of years. 13.5%. 90+

Gougère and cheddar


The Steading 2018, Barossa Valley

Served with open lasagna of wild mushroom, cep foam

A multiple-vineyard blend of Grenache (53%), Shiraz (28%) and Mataro, aka Mourvèdre (19%) from vines ranging in age from 40 to 150 years. Malolactic and 20 months’ maturation on fine lees in 4,500l French oak foudres. A dry spring and summer in 2018 gave small bunches, small berries and low yields of high quality.

From a magnum. Deep colour. Black fruit and blueberries, spice, coffee and smoke aromas. Dark, bright mulberry and black fruit on the palate with black pepper and earthy spice complexity. Generous and dense with a fine tannic structure. Currently in a very good place. Drink magnums to 2028; bottles to 2026. 15%. 94


Loin of venison, grilled hispi cabbage, beetroot sauce


The Struie 2019, Barossa

Served with loin of venison, grilled hispi cabbage, beetroot sauce

A blend of Shiraz vines averaging 50 years old from higher, cooler sites: 92% Barossa Valley, Western Ranges, and 8% Eden Valley from a single vineyard. Aged 20 months in new (20%) and seasoned French oak. Heat, drought and hail slashed volumes in 2019 (see The Laird above).

Very deep purple. Intense, bright, crisp and precise black fruit on both nose and palate, with spicy, slightly liquoricy undertones and dark chocolate giving both depth and breadth. Ample smooth tannins promising a long life. Drink to 2034. 15%. 94


The Gask 2021, Eden Valley

Served with loin of venison, grilled hispi cabbage, beetroot sauce

Old-vine Shiraz from elevated Eden Valley sites, aged for 18 months in second-fill French barriques. An excellent vintage for both quality and quantity.

Opaque dark purple. Lifted, fresh, floral aromas and pure fruit expression – raspberry, blueberry and darker berries – layered with bitter chocolate, allspice and a hint of umami seaweed. Lovely depth and precision with a backbone of fine tannins. Drink to 2035. 15%. 95


Boeuf bourguignon, pomme purée, red wine sauce


Runrig 2014, Barossa Valley

Served with boeuf bourguignon, pomme purée, red wine sauce

A blend of 98.5% Shiraz and 1.5% Viognier from six vineyards (in Lyndoch, Rowland Flat, Greenock, Seppeltsfield, Moppa and Ebenezer). Completion of malo and ageing on fine lees for 30 months in French oak barriques (42% new and the rest second and third fill). A hot dry summer was relieved by a cooler period after early February rain. Wine made by Ian Hongell’s predecessor.

From a magnum. Very youthful appearance. Riper and oakier aromas than previous wines, but a whiff of green leafiness too. Dense, ample, powerful palate: black-cherry jam fruit with a slightly baked edge interleaved with spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin), rich chocolate and coffee oak and full ripe tannins. Complex, but chunkier, not as fine textured and without the lift and elegance of later wines. 15.5%. Drink to 2030. 93


Runrig 2018, Barossa Valley

Served with a selection of cheeses

A blend of 98% Shiraz and 2% Viognier from six vineyards (Lyndoch, Rowland Flat, Moppa, Ebenezer, Light Pass and Greenock). Completion of malo and ageing on fine lees for 30 months in French oak barriques (50% new, the rest second and third fill).

Very dense, dark purple. Intense, lifted fruit aromas of black fruit and blueberry with spicy liquorice. Beautiful clarity of expression and black fruit purity on the palate enriched by cocoa and pebble-smooth tannins. Great intensity and staying power. 15%. Drink to 2045 96+


Runrig 2020, Barossa Valley

Served with a selection of cheeses

A blend of 98% Shiraz and 2% Viognier from six vineyards (Lyndoch, Rowland Flat, Moppa, Ebenezer, Light Pass and Greenock). Completion of malo and ageing on fine lees for 30 months in French oak barriques (50% new, the rest second and third fill).

Very dense, dark purple. Vibrant, headily perfumed fruit on the nose; a hint of incense. Vivid, intensely concentrated fruit on the palate – blueberry, blackberry, cassis, plum – with sandalwood, dark chocolate and effortless, confident tannins. An extremely impressive wine from a difficult, low-cropping vintage that saw strong winds at flowering and a very hot, dry December and January. 15.5%. Drink to 2045. 97


The UK importer of Torbreck wines is J E Fells


Photographs taken in a rather dark basement by Joanna Simon



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