The most discussed subject in the wine industry is climate change, and not the story of what’s in your glass. People are gifted with senses and the ability of expression and yet we have become obsessed with what can only be described as an existential threat. As if a winemaker in the Barossa has any influence over the rain, or hours of sunlight, or whatever. They are gifted with fruit and have to make the best of it, whether the vintage be hot, cool, dry or wet. So I think it’s time we start listening to the stories and know that if the wine is fine; there is toil, sweat, risk and centuries of tradition in every drop of liquid.
Eisenstone is new in relative terms, being founded in 2014 by Stephen Cook. Stephen came to winemaking at the age of 39, following a circuitous route that began with banking. He is still working for an energy company, as it’s hard to make a living from wine. I haven’t given up my day job either for the same reasons! Perhaps one day…
I asked Stephen what brought him to the Barossa, since he had many options, being a native of New Zealand:
“It’s always been my ambition to have my own wine brand. I’ve lived in a fair few places, but the Barossa Valley is world class and unique. There is nowhere else in the southern hemisphere with its quality and history. I also happen to love the wine style. The wine style that you would describe as typical has essentially been established for a long time, well before I came on the scene. Wine is big biccies and there is no way we could have afforded to do this in Central Otago.”
I find it interesting that someone from outside the region can appreciate and value the historic nature of the Barossa and the greatness of its wine style. Another New Zealander comes to mind – Pete Schell and his excellent Spinifex.
The Eisenstone wine labels make specific reference to the origin of the fruit – Ebenezer, Greenock, Stockwell or Marananga.
Stephen – “The Barossa history goes back to the 1800’s. I would love to see more conversation around sub-regionality and vineyard sites. The French are hundreds of years ahead of us. Some people are critical of the approach, believing it to be European. The region was originally broken up into parishes, and these are the names of the sub regions. So its tied into the history.”
The early settlers were of course British and German, the latter arriving in the 1840’s. The Barossa may be Australian, but it cannot help but draw its traditions from Britain and Europe. There is a key difference to the tradition of regionality and geographical denominations, however. Barossan wine, the vineyards, soils and their subtle nuances had nothing to do with regionality or any form of classification. The villages, towns and their churches sprang up according to where people settled and not where a vine was planted, so we haven’t gone down the path of obsessive inquisition as to the merits of one sub region over another. The Curator Wine Co. nods to this history also, producing a wine called the Parishes Shiraz, which is a blend of grapes from different sub regions.
The differences of the sub regions or parishes are real. The Barossa Valley has been established long enough for a “typical” wine style to become accepted and for the finest vineyards to have been identified.
Stephen – “I want to make the vineyards the story, and not the winemaker. I’ve had a few people comment that the wine style is old fashioned, but I always take it as a compliment. I want to make a traditional Barossa style. Some people try to over extract or over oak. They make the mistake of doing too much, thinking that if the oak component tastes good, they should add some more oak, and if it’s big, then bigger is better still.”
The oak component in Eisenstone wines is always French, 50% new. With 2 barrels of each wine made, this is clearly a pragmatic and logistical approach. From what I’ve tasted, it’s remarkable how well the oak is ‘judged’ and pragmatism aside, it’s perfect.
Stephen – “Barossa shiraz has got to have some oak behind it. For texture and structure, it just works. With small volumes I’ve got to make a call. I can’t experiment. In many ways it makes it simpler and it fits with what I’m trying to do. Heaps of guys are playing around with bunches, extractions, ferments and formats. My decisions are simple, and because I’m making a traditional style, it narrows the focus.”
With such tiny parcels of wine, there is no room for getting it wrong. Many of the larger producers are able to blend across different sub regions, vineyards and even parcels within individual vineyards, hedging the risk through volume. Eisenstone has no such luxury, and yet the detail, balance, integration and elegance of power is remarkable. All the wines are made in essentially the same way, with the same cooper, size of barrel and mix of old and new. The length of aging may differ, but not much more than a few months. And yet the wines are all different.
Stephen – “We’ve talked about the style of wine being traditional, but there is a lot of variation to the theme. Within the range, they are all different. I sort of think Marananga is elegant, with a more linear and savoury, tight tannin structure. But the parcel of fruit we have is really elegant and bright with very fine tannins, so it’s important to remember that there are differences within the sub regions too. Greenock has rich, deep, red soils. The wines can be luscious, with rounded tannins. They are usually approachable pretty young and a lot of the people in the Barossa reckon Greenock can make the most complete wines. Ebenezer is a little bit more age-worthy. Of course it depends on the block and the age of the vines, but Ebenezer is usually very structured. Stockwell makes a shiraz that is elegant and has a more complex fruit profile.”
All the Eisenstone wines are from established old vine vineyards. Old vines is an obsession in Australia, more so than elsewhere. Old vines are more likely to produce fine wines, but Stephen was able to shed new light, for me at least, on this subject:
Stephen – “The older vineyards, being around for a long time have a track record of producing great wines. But it’s not just the age of the vines. A lot of the older clonal material is very different to newer clones. Many new vineyards are being planted with clones that have lots of tannin, colour and intense flavours. The older clonal material tends to make wines that are intense and powerful, but very elegant and complex. They are easier to drink, still full bodied, and more age-worthy. The wines are better, and I think it’s this clonal material that is just as important to the story as the age of the vines”.
I asked Stephen if, after tasting the finished product, he would do things differently:
Stephen – “I’m pretty happy with the style. Making a traditional style of wine is in some ways easier. The decisions made have been made over many vintages, so you are guided by history. Andrew Wigan would always say don’t reinvent the same mistakes. The last thing you want to do is chase fashions. Even the large companies are trying to innovate and making new styles of wine. It’s like performance art. I get that in some markets you’ve got to do that. I still think it’s great that someone’s doing that. But you spend a lot of time chasing around, trying to be new and the next day it’s something else”.
The range of Eisenstone wines focuses on the differences between vineyards and sub regions. Many of the world’s great wines are single vineyard or regional blends – do you think one is more important than the other?
Stephen – “No. The two most famous wines from these parts are Grange and Hill of Grace. They are very different. Grange is very consistent, as you would expect from a blended wine, with so many potential components. Grace tells a different story, being a single vineyard. Their emphasis is different and so is their story. Both are important and there needs to be room for both approaches”.
And the future? Would you look at other varietals or wine styles, vineyards or regions?
Stephen – “My hands are pretty full with what I’m doing. If I was to do something different it would be Grenache. Next year I’m releasing a 2019 Koonunga, made from 60 year old vines. I’ve also picked up a little parcel from Gomersal. The vines are only 10 to 15 years old. It’s hard country so the yields are small. There is an area of the Barossa called the Western Ridges, that runs along the western flank of the Barossa. They have deep red ironstone soils, and I think we are going to hear more of this region in the future. I’d like to do something there”.
Whenever I talk to a wine producer, I always ask if there is another wine region or wine style they would like to work with. Money, no object, and all the freedom in the world. Stephen was emphatic:
“I love the style, so no. I guess I could say Burgundy, but no. I’d buy some Grange blocks”.
The next release of Eisenstone wines won’t be until August 2021, and I asked Stephen what the wines, all from the 2019 vintage, looked like:
“I couldn’t be happier. Intense aromatics, flavours and structures. I haven’t tasted them for a while and will be going to have a look at them next week, prior to racking and bottling in December”.
Are you nervous, not having tasted them in a while?
Stephen – “Absolutely. It was easier to start with, submitting the wines to James Halliday and Winestate, and their reviews have been very positive. We are looking to broaden our distribution and get the wines tasted by some of the more prominent international critics. With the favourable reviews from James Halliday, more people are noticing. Success has made me more nervous”.
I have not decanted any of the Eisenstone wines, which at this early stage in their life, is possibly a mistake.
Stephen – “I do advocate decanting. I usually open a bottle and have one glass, finishing the wine on the second night. The second night is the best. Loving the wine style, the plan was that if I couldn’t sell the wine, at least I’ll be able to drink it”.
When I imagine classicism, I think of familiarity and consistency. There are an infinite variety of potential methods and styles available to wine producers in the Barossa, but the best of them have kept the process simple. They know that the style is a product of a remarkable combination of circumstances that has culminated in Australia’s greatest red wine.
The wines of Eisenstone are breathtaking – rich, full bodied, luscious, deep, complex, traditional, tannic framed and immensely elegant. For me the most important aspect of these wines is their total dedication to tradition and sense of place. Furthermore, they are utterly drinkable, despite their sheer presence and gravitas. Stephen Cook is undoubtedly a virtuoso of the classic Barossa style and Eisenstone is nothing short of a bravura performance.