"Some people aren't happy with wine unless it stains their teeth," a bemused sommelier told me recently.
South Australia's Barossa Valley is the capital of big reds in Australia, so it's interesting to get a pulse on what is happening there. Since the peak of the big red boom a decade ago, things have been dialled down from an 11 on the bigness scale (out of 10) to maybe a five or six.
The pursuit of big wines started in the '90s. The fever for them was a combination of winemaking theory at the time, big scores from critics, and a macho drinking culture.
When bigger was always better
Fraser McKinley, who recently won the Young Gun of Wine Award for his progressive Barossan shirazes, started his career at Torbreck in 2003. He recalls the atmosphere at the time: "The biggest wines had the most accolades and hype around them. Bigger seemed to be better, and biggest certainly best."
Things have changed. Dining has become fashion, and women influence a lot of traffic to restaurants. Lighter wines are needed to suit lighter dishes. Health consciousness has made people think more about alcohol. Big wines, even when balanced, are hedonistic drinks – guilty, teeth-staining pleasures enjoyed at home.
No longer are we happy to wait 10 years for a wine to mellow. From restaurants to wine bars and even to retail, we're buying wines to drink now, not to lay down. Cellaring is out; drinkability is in.
Drinkability is in
Whilst there remains a place for concentrated and balanced examples, there's a wave of medium-bodied and even a ripple of lighter reds coming out of Barossa that capture the imagination.
A group of trend setting winemakers are making sexier wines by connecting with old practices in the vineyard and winery because, today, size does not count.
Picking grapes early, the use of whole bunch fermentation, and maturing in old oak are the new trends in Barossa winemaking, all of which is geared to present a more modest wine.
Pete Schell sources fruit for his Spinifex label from around 60 vineyard parcels in the Barossa. "What I've particularly noticed this year is that the younger grape growers are going back to more labour-intensive and traditional methods of managing the vines, to deliver less ripe and more balanced fruit," he says.
"I was taught at Uni to not harvest until all parts of the grape, including the seeds, exhibit fully ripe flavours. But, if I pick fruit based on flavour, then it's too late. I know I've messed it up."
Keeping grapes on the vines longer can lead to more sugars (i.e., bigger alcohol), and can give way to overripe prune characters at the expense of fruit freshness.
Thanks a bunch
Picking grapes earlier isn't the only way to minimise alcohol and weight of a wine. Whole bunch fermentation – where grapes are kept intact and on their stalks for fermentation – can result in lower alcohol as well as less colour extraction from the skins. Additionally, the technique brings very pretty aromatics to the wine.
All of Eperosa and Sami-Odi's wines are 100 per cent whole bunch. Spinifex, Ruggabellas, Frederick Stevenon, Yelland & Paps, Schwartz's "Meta" range, Head Wines, and Shobbrook, are other labels employing the technique, where their percentage of whole bunch in the ferments will change with each season.
After fermentation comes maturation. Barossa was once defined by the use of American oak – which imparts a pronounced coconut flavour. More recently, French oak – which has subtler vanilla character – has become popular. In both cases, the newer and the more wood there is, the more weight is added to the wine through flavour and tannin. But now there's a desire amongst producers for old (as in 'used') oak as they strive for lighter wines with more purity.
"Penfolds only kept oak barrels for four years and then sold their used wood off to Torbreck and other producers," recounts McKinley. "Now, Penfolds aren't selling off their barrels so young."
"I'm still using 13- and 14-year-old barrels."
Old meets young
Generally speaking, maturation used to last 18 months to two years. Now it's six to 18 months. Whilst standard barrels in Barossa are around 300 litres, large wooden vats – usually around a few thousand litres – that enable less oxygen contact are popping up at Spinifex, Ruggabellas, Head Wines and Yelland & Papps.
Shobbrook uses mostly these, as well as a dozen 675-litre ceramic eggs. In further change from the definition of a big red, some "nouveau" style wines just spend their short time in a stainless steel tank. It's all about lighter, fresher wines.
The practices in cold climate regions of Burgundy and Beaujolais are a common source of inspiration amongst these winemakers, a far world from Barossa geographically and metaphysically.
Steve Crawford, a qualified viticulturist who is now making his own wines under the Frederick Stevenson label, told Executive Style: "I pick a lot earlier than other winemakers. I'm the laughing stock amongst them."
It's the crazy ones who change things, isn't it. Here's to them.