When you think of Yalumba do you think of a big corporate brand? For some reason so did I, when in fact it could not be further from the truth! As a family owned winery, these guys punch massively above their weight proving that 'family-owned' doesn’t have to mean local and limited, and that big and established doesn’t have to mean boring or traditional.
I’m so glad I visited this winery to delve a little deeper. Unique and truly pioneering, here are my 8 reasons to love them:
1. Big, but still family-owned in a world of huge corporations
Yalumba is one of the most interesting family wineries in Australia (it is positively dripping in stories) - making ‘everyday’ wines all the way up to super premium - and while they may be big, with a large range exported around the world, they remain the oldest family-owned winery in Australia.
This is important and relevant in a world where huge multi-national wine conglomerates, (the likes of EJ Gallos, Accolade Wines and Constellation wines etc) dominate the major part of what the majority of consumers are actually drinking on a daily basis.
(You can see the family-run ethos and personality in little details you notice as you walk around the winery, from the 'Good News Bell' - 'Pealed with gusto on occasions of Yalumba success', to the VSOP 'Very Special Old People' commemorative boards, (a pun on Very Superior Old Pale, a Brandy classification. Like most heritage Aussie wine producers they started life making fortified wines, until tastes consumer tastes changed).
2. The Victorian founder Samuel Smith must have been seriously #woke
In a patriarchal time when everyone simply named businesses after themselves, Samuel Smith (a brewer who had emigrated from Dorset with his wife and 4 children) was forward-thinking, creative and open-minded enough to name his winery after a beautiful Aboriginal word: Yalumba - meaning ‘all the land around’. I mean, how #woke is that for a Victorian dude?
In fact if you look at the other 12 members of ‘Australia’s First Families of Australian Wine’, they are the ONLY ONE not to name themselves after the first man in classic Colonial fashion. Rather than take inspiration from, you know, the indigenous community or the ancestral land around you...
Kudos to you, Samuel.
3. They bring a new meaning to the expression “Craftsmanship from vine to glass”
This is something a lot of producers say. “Passion from vine to glass”. “Dedication from vine to glass”. Usually it’s just marketing spin. (I know because I literally used to write it). But for Yalumba, they can claim this is a way no-one else can. Yalumba is a fully integrated operation, which makes them very unique:
- They have the well-respected Yalumba Nursery which provides specialist varieties to the Australian market, with a history they can trace back to the early days of Samuel Smith.
- They have an on-site cooperage - one of only 4 wineries in the world to have their own cooperage, which means they have a unique expertise, insight and control over this area.
- They are also an exclusive importer of Reidel Glassware. In fact they were the only cellar door that varied the type of glassware that was being used for each different wine during our structured tasting (see pic below).
So there you go - literally, commitment and craftsmanship from vine to glass.
4. Saviours of Viognier
Hard to imagine now but in the 1980’s Viognier was nearly extinct as a varietal and virtually unknown outside of France where it grew exclusively in the tiny Northern Rhone appellations of Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie. Seeing as Syrah, the Rhone’s other distinctive variety, was doing so well in the Barossa, it’s not surprising that Viognier caught Yalumba’s eye. In 1980 Yalumba oversaw the planting of 1.2 hectares - the first significant planting of Viognier outside of France, when it was still virtually unknown.
Thankfully, since 1980 Viognier has seen a revival as vinegrowers and winemakers rediscovered its heady power; a punchy combination of body and perfume (Jancis Robinson describes it as ‘The Hedonist’s white grape variety’).
For their efforts, Yalumba are now recognised as one of the top Viognier producers in the whole world. Check out The Virgilius Viognier (vee-on-yay) if you ever come across it.
5. Pioneers of Specialist Varietals in a Cookie-Cutter World
Through the Yalumba Nursery, they have become providers of specialist varietals throughout Australia - Vermentino, Prosecco, Marsanne, Roussanne, Pinot Gris - (and Viognier of course). They worked with the Jim Barry Winery for them to become the first commercial producer of Assyrtiko outside of Greece. In a world where the ‘household name’, international varieties too often reign supreme at the expense of diversity and discovery, this is such an important mission.
6. The Reserve Charter and Old Vine Charter
I’ve written before in my “how to choose wine” blog about how the terms Reserve (outside of Italy and Spain where they are written into the appellation system) are rather meaningless terms, often more of a marketing spin than anything else. “Winemaker’s Reserve”. “Special Reserve”, that sort of thing.
Likewise, ‘Old Vine’ or ‘Vielles Vignes’ is unregulated and could mean anything. In Australia some vines are 160+ years old but elsewhere you may find a bottle labelled ‘Old Vine’ is made from vines planted only 30 years old.
The more indiscriminate these terms become (in a landscape that can already be confusing enough), the less meaning they carry, and the more the wine industry falls into its own trap of confusing, alienating and, at worse, deliberately obfuscating consumers.
Well Robert Hill-Smith, 5th generation proprietor, has thrown down the gauntlet to the Australian winemaking industry, setting out The Yaluma Old Vine Charter and The Yalumba Reserve Charter giving meaning and definition to these otherwise nebulous terms, and encouraging others to follow suit.
This is truly pioneering behaviour and so fantastically true to their roots and spirit as a company.
Especially given that Australia has many Phylloxera-free regions with truly old vines, (which you simply can’t find in many parts of the Old World - ironic? Yes!) it’s amazing that noone has taken the lead on this before: as Robert Hill-Smith says: “We hope that through this overdue initiative, recognition of our Australian viti-vini history, survival, heritage and provenance may be proclaimed and celebrated!
7. They invented a totally new barrel called an Octave
Because, why not? Really just a fun nugget for any fellow wine geeks out there and perhaps a remnant from a time when heavy oaking was more de rigeur but still, cool to see.
Called an ‘Octave’, this 100 litre barrel is totally unique to Yalumba and smaller than the traditional French Barrique. They use it in the making of the deliciously spicy ‘The Octavius Shiraz’.
You can see it standing next to a traditional French Barrique and a Hogshead in the picture to the right, for comparison.
8. Yalumba connects right back to the roots of Australian winemaking
Samuel Smith received some Shiraz cuttings from James Busby, via John Howard Angas (one of the forefathers of Australian wine and for whom local town Angaston is named). These were cuttings from those original Shiraz vines brought to Australia from the Northern Rhone, on the First Fleet, (I actually can’t write ‘First Fleet’ now without thinking of this fantastic ad - too funny).
These precious cuttings were nurtured by Samuel Smith, and eventually planted in his ‘garden’ in 1849, going on to thrive in the rich Barossan soils and Mediterranean-esque climate.
Seeing as, after these cuttings left for the new world, the phylloxera bug basically wiped out all the vines in Europe, you can see why there is something quite precious about these ‘original’ vines.
Yalumba pay tribute to this French, Rhone-connection through their Samuel’s Garden range, which features other grape varieties that we associate more with the Rhone than anywhere else - Roussanne, Viognier, Grenache and Mourvedre.
A word on South Australian Shi-raaaaaaaaaaahhzzzz
Another little connection to the Rhone I found in South Australia was the pronunciation of the word Shiraz. They seem to pronounce it ‘Shiraaaaaahzz, (more like arse), rather than Shiraz, in a more clipped way (like ass) as they do in NSW. Doesn't this sound a bit closer to the French Syrah? Syraaaah... with the long vowel. Anyway, I digress.
Yalumba Wines to look out for:
Yaluma The Caley Coonawarra & Barossa Cabernet
Yalumba The Octavius Shiraz
Yalumba The Signature (Classic Aussie combo of Cab Sav and Shiraz)
Yalumba The Menzies Cabernet Sauvignon (Coonawarra Cab)
Yalumba The Virgilius Viognier 2017
Yalumba Y Series Riesling
Yaluma FSWw8B Botrytis Viognier (yes they have to help the Botrytis along a bit, but its sooo good)
Yalumba Antique Tawny NV
Diffusion brands to look out for:
If you see any of these brands, you know you’re supporting Yalumba
Dunes & Greene
Pewsey Vale Vineyard (Eden Valley Rieslings)
Running With Bulls (Spanish varietals: Verdejo, Tempranillo, Garnacha)
Rogers & Rufus (Rosé)
A huge thank you to Amanda Willoughby who looked after us so incredibly well and had us entertained with stories and tales for hours at the cellar door!
If you're ever in striking distance of the Eden Valley, be sure to check out their various offering for structured tastings and experiences, from sampling wines in the vineyards themselves to exploring the on site cooperage. Heaven!