Our visit with Allister Ashmead, whose family owns Elderton Wines near Nuriootpa in Australia’s Barossa Valley, was fascinating; a true eye-opener, and a wonderful tasting experience.
Allister’s parents, Neil and Lorraine returned to Australia after a stint in Saudi Arabia. They were looking for a place to raise their children and a realtor suggested they look at a beautiful old home in the Barossa that would do the job, and in grand style. That home is now their cellar door, an exquisite and luxurious building in which to enjoy their wines.
That sprawling, single story home is very much a part of the Elderton story. When Neil and Lorraine purchased the home in 1979, Australia had been going through an extremely challenging period in its wine making history. At that time, Australia was generally thought of as a producer of port, not table wine. Its wines were not generally held in high regard and consequently they did not fetch high prices. Winemaking was not a profitable enterprise and vineyards were being pulled up and re-planted with other crops. In fact, Australia’s government was providing financial incentives to encourage the pulling up of old grape vines during this period which became known as the “vine-pull era”. Over half of the vineyards in the Barossa Valley ended up being removed. So depressed was the state of the Australian wine industry that the sellers of the homestead told the Ashmeads that if they bought the house, they would throw in the 72 acres of old vine Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon for free. Neil and Lorraine looked at the neglected state of those vineyards and thought perhaps with a little tender loving care they could be restored. They bought the house and the surrounding vineyards and thus began Elderton wines, named after Samuel Elderton Tolley, who built the house in 1916 and named the estate Elderton.
Though the Ashmeads had no real training in winemaking (Neil was a civil engineer and Lorraine was a midwife), they began their new hobby by restoring the vineyards, originally planted in 1894, thinking they might be able to sell the grapes. These old vines turned into a treasure. As vines age, they become less productive, but the few grapes that do grow on the vines get all the vine’s nutrients and can produce wonderfully intense flavours from the resulting wines. The Barossa is unique in that the phylloxera louse, which devastated most of the vineyards of Europe in the late 1800s, never did make it to Australia. That is why you will find some of the world’s oldest producing vineyards in the Barossa.
In 1982, just three years after acquiring their new home, Elderton Wines produced its first vintage. Times were still tough for the Australian wine industry back then, so they grew slowly. As Allister tells us this history, we can see that it made its mark on him. While times are obviously very good for Elderton today, Allister expresses a cautious tone that shows he takes nothing for granted. Today Elderton is making spectacular wines that have gained the attention and praise of the international wine press. Three years (2000, 2004 and 2008) The Wine Spectator named them to their top 100 wineries of the year. Decanter Magazine and Wine and Spirits Magazine have also bestowed similar honours. Robert Parker from the Wine Advocate has lavished high praise and equally high scores on Elderton’s wines.
Allister and his brother Cameron have been running the winery since 2003. Their mother, Lorraine, remains on the board of directors and is very active at the cellar door. While Elderton has grown and added new vineyards beyond the immediate family estate (Eden Valley and Greenock), and successfully tapped international markets, it clearly remains committed to family values and their Barossa heritage.
We tasted with Allister in what used to be the family dining room. He told us the history of his family starting in the wine business from the very spot where they first drank the wines they made. The beautiful homestead was converted into the Cellar Door in 2017. It is such a beautiful space, we can only imagine what it must have been like to have grown up in it as a home! It works perfectly as a Cellar Door. The feeling is luxury without stuffiness. The tasting bar at one end is open and light, displaying their various bottles. At the other end is the former dining room, now a tasting room or private dining area. In between is the beautiful original fireplace, faced by leather couches. A perfect place to relax and enjoy a glass of wine. The success of their Cellar Door is shown in the numerous awards it has received. We think it is a wonderful tradition in Australia to provide awards not just for wines but cellar doors as well. We hope that tradition spreads to North America.
Elderton is a must-stop destination if you are visiting the Barossa Valley. The wines are first class right across the board and their cellar door creates the perfect ambience for enjoying a relaxing glass of wine.
2018 Eden Valley Riesling
One of the great learnings of our trip to Australia was that this is definitely not a climate that is too hot to do aromatic white wines like Riesling. Yes, these are different than the Mosel, but they are authentic and delicious expressions of the grape. Elderton’s Riesling offered green apple, pear and a minerally streak on a medium light body. Fermented completely dry, the wine has a beautiful texture that is elegant and sleek. Medium acid prolongs the juicy finish.
Very Good/Excellent (AUD $25 at their cellar door)
2017 Eden Valley Chardonnay
Notes of peach and guava gain added complexity from the hints of caramel on this beautiful expression of Chardonnay. Vanilla and almond join the fruit notes making for added complexity. The balance of fruit and structure is exactly where you want it to be. There is great mouth feel delivered by the medium+ body of this wine which is balanced by perfectly judged acidity.
Excellent (AUD $25 at their cellar door – particularly good value for this quality level)
2016 Estate Shiraz
The blackberry and black cherry fruits dominate the profile and are supported by notes of black pepper. A decadently rich mouthfeel accentuates the mocha notes we pick up on the finish. The wine spends a week on the skins which allows it to extract just enough flavour and keeps everything in bounds. 20% new oak adds texture but not flavour, letting the vines shine through.
Very Good/Excellent (AUD $28 at their cellar door)
2015 Ode to Lorraine
This blend of 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Shiraz and 5% Merlot is a stunner! As the name implies, it is an homage to Allister’s mother. Notes of blueberry and black currant dominate the flavour profile. The finish is long and tinged with baking spice. The texture has to be experienced to be believed. This is a wine that can certainly be enjoyed now but we imagine even more goodness could come with additional cellaring. We would love to gauge reactions if this were a ringer in a blind tasting of Napa Cult Cabs!
Excellent/Extraordinary (AUD $50 at their cellar door – this is particularly good value for this quality level)
2016 Grand Tourer Shiraz
Tasted alongside the Lorraine as a comparison, this is dedicated to Allister’s father, Neil. It turns out that Neil was a big car buff, and loved to go out for a drive. The capsule has on its top the depiction of a gear shift knob. Lots of black fruit flavours infuse this elixir of Shiraz. This is done in the traditional Barossa style which reflects the hot dry terroir of the region. Not the overdone fruit bombs of yesteryear that gave the category a bad rap, but a full bodied, intensely flavoured, big wine that retains proportion and is the perfect accompaniment to lamb or grilled steak. Power and grace.
Excellent+ (AUD $50 at their cellar door)
2015 Ashmead Cabernet Sauvignon
100% Cabernet Sauvignon from 80 year old estate vines cropped to a very stingy ½ ton of fruit per acre. The wine spends 18 months in 100% new oak. This is big and bold showing lots of rich blueberry and blackberry in an intense and powerful style. This power asks for cellar time to really show its best and integrate those tannins. But its black currant and blueberry combined with earthy tones show the complexity and flavours now that will make it hard to keep in the cellar.
Excellent/Extraordinary (AUD $95 at their cellar door)
2014 Command Shiraz
This is the wine that the Elderton reputation is built upon. There is serious wow factor in this 100% Shiraz coming from 125 year old estate vines. This is up there with the top Shiraz wines in the country. Blackberry, boysenberry and blueberry all come to the fore at different times as the wine evolves in your glass. One thing that stays constant is the other-worldly texture of the wine. How can something this big and powerful still come across as elegant too? The near perfect balance lets the big fruit and very plush texture stay defined by the ripe tannins and medium acidity. Definitely structured for the long haul, this is likely to develop further for another two decades.
Excellent/Extraordinary (AUD $125 at their cellar door)
3 – 5 Tanunda Rd, Nuriootpa 5355
Tasting Room Hours:
Weekdays 10am – 5pm/Weekends 11am – 4pm
Public Holidays 11am – 4pm (Closed Christmas Day & New Year’s Day)