Barossa Valley is the best-known and, arguably, most important wine region in Australia. Any discussion of top Australian wineries or innovative winemakers will inevitably include some of the top names from Barossa Valley. The region is blessed with a wide variety of soils and a long history of family winemaking. At some Barossa Valley wineries, you can go back five or six generations to the area's original German-speaking settlers, ancestors of today's growers and winemakers. Barossa Valley's unique heritage is reflected in its top-quality wines, which come not only from large, long-established wineries but also from a new generation of boutique winemakers.

Barossa Valley, like the rest of South Australia, is phylloxera-free, thanks to a strict quarantine and a strong commitment to working with residents and visitors to keep the destructive aphids out of the state. South Australia even has an official board dedicated to these tasks, the Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia, which works with growers and winemakers to prevent infestations and promote use of phylloxera- and nematode-resistant rootstocks.

Barossa Valley History

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This part of South Australia was first settled by German-speaking immigrants from Silesia (now part of Poland), who fled their homeland in search of a life free from religious persecution. They brought with them not only their language and Lutheran faith, but also their work ethic and winemaking tradition.

Subsequent waves of newcomers to Barossa Valley included both English and German settlers, but it was the German-speakers who put the strongest stamp on the area. German culinary traditions and Lutheranism are still important aspects of the local culture; Barossa Valley even has its own German dialect, "Barossa Deutsch."

The first settlers planted grapes shortly after their 1842 arrival. Johann Gramp is said to have planted one of the first vineyards in the area, near Jacob's Creek (yes, it's real). The Aldenhoven brothers and Joseph Gilbert are also thought to be some of the first growers in the Barossa Valley. Around the same time, Dr. Christopher Penfold moved to the valley, bringing with him some vine cuttings from France. He planted them near his new house and became a grower as well as a physician. Several other vineyards were established in those early years, including Joseph Seppelt's Seppeltsfield and Auguste Fiedler's vineyard, now part of the Château Tanunda estate.

The valley's wine industry grew quickly. Fortunately, Barossa Valley escaped the 1870's phylloxera invasion that devastated neighboring Victoria's vineyards. As a result, growers were able to continue cultivating their old vines rather than replanting them with pest-resistant rootstocks.

In the mid-1980's, South Australia's government convinced many growers to tear out their old vines and replace them with more popular varieties. Fortunately for Barossa Valley's winemakers, Robert O'Callaghan and David Powell of Rockford Winery refused to destroy the winery's historic vines. David Powell then began to make wine from these grapes, eventually leaving Rockford to found his own winery, Torbreck Vintners.

O'Callaghan and Powell may or may not have had second sight, but the future of Barossa Valley did lay with those old vines. Today, shiraz wines from Barossa Valley are the region's most famous export. As the popularity of Barossa Valley wines continued to grow, the region's wineries also grew and changed. Today, wine tourism is an integral part of many wineries' daily activities. Some of the best-known Barossa Valley wineries, such as Seppelt and Wolf Blass, have been purchased by large multinational corporations, including Foster's, Pernod Ricard and Hardys. Others are still family-owned. Newest on the scene are the new-generation boutique wineries, whose impact on the region's future remains to be seen.

Geography, Soils and Climate

Barossa Valley is about 35 miles northeast of Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. The North Para River runs through the middle of the region. The valley's climate is usually described as Mediterranean, but some higher areas could actually be classified as continental. Barossa Valley's average January (summer) temperature is about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. As you would expect, average temperatures are cooler at higher elevations. Barossa Valley's annual rainfall varies from 6.3 inches to about 20 inches per year, depending on elevation.

Barossa Valley's soils vary widely. Because there are so many hills and sub-valleys in the region, you can find many different soil types here, including clay loam, sandy loam, sandy clays and alluvial soils.

Barossa Valley Grape Varieties

As in many other Australian wine regions, diversity abounds in Barossa Valley vineyards. Shiraz is the most-planted variety, of course, but in a part of the world where blended wines are the order of the day, it makes sense to grow a wide range of wine grape varieties. Popular white wine grape varieties include chardonnay, riesling and semillon. Popular red wine grape varieties include shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, grenache and mourvèdre, also known as mataro. As mentioned above, many growers still cultivate old vines, particularly shiraz, mourvèdre and grenache.

Visiting Barossa Valley Wineries

Wine tourism is an essential part of the economy of South Australia. In fact, TripAdvisor named Barossa Valley to its 2008 list of the world's top ten wine destinations. If you visit Barossa Valley, you'll find a well-organized wine tourism network waiting to assist you. You can easily customize your wine tourism experience, selection from options ranging from organized wine tours to a do-it-yourself "Butcher, Baker, Winemaker" driving tour with three itineraries.

As you travel, be sure to soak up some of the local wine lore. One of the region's best-known tales describes how Peter Lehmann saved the Barossa Valley wine industry. Back in the 1970's, growers were producing more grapes than winemakers needed. One year, when Peter Lehmann was winemaker for Saltram, his boss told him to break the agreements he'd made with local growers; the winery just didn't need that many grapes. Lehmann refused; he'd grown up in the valley, his ancestral home, and his word meant something to the local growers.

Peter Lehmann took a huge gamble and bought the grapes Saltram wouldn't purchase. He left Saltram and started his own company, later opening the winery known today as Peter Lehmann Wines. He succeeded beyond anyone's expectations, creating an extremely successful brand. Today the Hess Group owns a majority stake in Peter Lehmann Wines, with Lehmann himself owing the remainder of the shares. You can visit Peter Lehmann Wines and taste wines at the Cellar Door. The winery caters to all types of visitors; the Cellar Door is wheelchair-accessible and features not only award-winning wines but also snack offerings and even children's books for your little ones to read while you indulge. You're welcome to bring a picnic and enjoy the winery's lovely grounds.

Penfolds is probably the best-known name in the Barossa Valley. Penfolds has two Cellar Doors, one each at its Magill and Barossa estates. Here you can taste wines, sign up for a cellar tour and Grange tasting or even make your own blended wine. Advance reservations are required for special tours and the Make Your Own Blend experience.

If you haven't heard of Penfolds, you can't possibly have missed Jacob's Creek. This winery, owned by Pernod Ricard, began as a single planting in the early days of German settlement. Today's winery, which features a glass-sided Visitor Centre, has garnered South Australian tourism awards in the Tourism Wineries, Tourism Restaurants and Catering Services and Major Tourism Attraction categories. Visitors can taste wines and dine in the on-site restaurant as well as take a vineyard tour.

Of course, you don't really need to plan ahead in the Barossa Valley. With over 50 Cellar Doors to choose from, most open every day, you can start out on a road that strikes your fancy and wander from winery to winery. Start your research at the Tourism Barossa website or visit the Barossa Visitor Information Centre in Tanunda after you arrive.

Barossa Valley's Future

With the Australian wine industry as a whole in a state of flux and such a diversity of management structures and wine styles in Barossa Valley, it's difficult to imagine all of the region's wine producers following a single plan of action. Boutique winemakers will probably chart a different course than will Foster's and the other mega-corporate management teams. How each winemaker will handle the current downturn is anyone's guess.

What is certain is that Barossa Valley's best winemakers will continue along the path of excellence they've been on since the day Robert O'Callaghan decided that old vines were worth saving. Let's hope that good marketing, favorable weather conditions and a continued commitment to quality will give the Barossa Valley wine growers and producers the boost they deserve.