|Man and vine – Peter Barry in the vineyard|
Serendipity is a wonderful thing.
Last week, just 10 days after stepping off Santorini, I managed to land myself in Australia’s own little slice of Greek wine. A local piece of Santorini even, smack-bang in a most unlikely place – the middle of Australian Shiraz and Riesling country.
The Clare Valley is genuinely a very long way from the Cyclades (literally and figuratively) too. But seeing a Santorini-inspired, basket-pruned Assyrtiko vine at Jim Barry’s Lodge Hill vineyard was a sight for jet-lagged eyes.
Even better, there is a great story behind how these three hectares of vines came to be in the Clare. It all started, apparently, with a glass of chilled Assyrtiko enjoyed by second-generation vigneron Peter Barry on a trip to Santorini, nigh on a decade ago (2007). Maybe it was that magical view over the caldera, but he found himself instantly intrigued:
‘It was like nothing I’d ever tried before’ Peter said.
Arriving back in Australia, Peter found that it was a no-goer – no Assyrtiko here at all. That inspiration, however, kicked off a quest to import it privately. With help from the good people at Yalumba (whom not only distribute the Jim Barry wines but have a sizeable vine nursery program) the process was put into gear. Argyros Estate in Santorini supplied the cuttings and before you know it they arrived in Oz.
Now typically the biggest issue with importing new vines into Australia is that they don’t always live. The Department of Agriculture quarantines new cuttings, plants them in a controlled area and then steps back and see what happens. If the cuttings die, don’t quite take or are declared to have a virus or anything wrong with it, they are destroyed. End of story.
A secondary problem with such a process is that it takes years. Years of waiting, only to find out, in some cases, that you’re vines died within 24 months after ‘something happened’ and it’s time to start all over again. In can be heartbreaking (and there are some horror stories out there).
In this case, Peter and his family at Jim Barry Wines were lucky. Those Assyrtiko vines were bloody healthy and grew like nothing else. When Peter finally planted the cuttings in September 2012 he was able to use very healthy stock, taken from a thriving mothervine, to plant out half a hectare (incidentally on a spot near where the family first stuck their first Sauvignon Blanc vines back in the 80s).
Now, three years after planting these brand new cuttings, the Barry clan has two vintages of Australian Assyrtiko in bottle. There was only enough to make 42 half bottles in the first 2014 vintage, but this year, with an expanded planting, there was juice for 2,600 bottles.
|A challenging bugger to prune|
Interestingly enough, the variety might genuinely ‘go alright’ in the Clare Valley. The numbers on this year’s Assyrtiko harvest make provocative reading – 13.8% alcohol, pH 2.98 and TA 6.6g/L. Not bad at all. In fact, the Assyrtiko came in with more acidity than the Riesling planted alongside it (which goes into the Jim Barry Lodge Hill label).
While hanging out in the vineyard last week I managed to taste both the as-yet-unreleased 2014 and 2015 Jim Barry Assyrtiko. The 2014 wine didn’t impressive much, carrying little of the varietal impact and tasting quite innocuous. But the ’15 was a much more superior wine, proudly carrying that intense pear character that I saw in the better wines from Santorini. Honestly it tasted more of the Clare Valley than Assyrtiko though, a nod to how young the vines are, and with more acidity than most of the Greek examples I tried.
While I didn’t come away clamouring to get on the Aussie Assyrtiko train, I can see why Peter Barry is excited. So excited, in fact, that there are 9000 more Assyrtiko vines going in this year, with 7000 planted in a classic bush vine, basket-pruned Santorini style.
Speaking of that distinctive pruning, Peter says he sent some of his team to Greece this year to really learn how to do it. Tricky stuff apparently, but he is investing in it as, for now at least, Jim Barry Wines will be the only winery in Australia with a local Assyrtiko.
Will it flourish given that the variety will thus be exclusive? Only time will tell, but if those grape numbers are anything to go by, there is certainly some promise in Clare Valley Assyrtiko.