We had the pleasure to spend three hours tasting and talking with iconic Australian winemaker Dave Powell, his general manager Michael Sawyer and two close friends of ours at the Powell & Son winery in Barossa, South Australia.It’s complicated because of the patchwork of history that has led up to the creation of Powell and Son and the extraordinary wines they are making. That history is largely yesterday’s news, but it is also context for the story that was about to unfold for us.
Dave Powell got his start in the wine making world in the early 1990’s working with some of the best in the Barossa: Yalumba, Rockford, Peter Lehman, Saltram, and others. In 1994 he created his own winery, Torbreck, making wine from some of the oldest and best vineyards in the Barossa, South Australia’s most famous wine growing region. The context is that Torbreck rapidly rose to the top tier of Australian wine, with flagship Runrig obtaining top scores, including 100 points from Robert Parker. (We will vouch for that wine; the 2001 and 2002 Runrig are some of the best wines we have ever tasted.) Powell and his partner at Torbreck split in a well publicized and acrimonious legal battle. It is yesterday’s news because Powell and Son are now making wines every bit as good as the wines Powell made anywhere else.
This story is very much the Dave Powell story. It has to be. He is so passionate about making wine that his wines are truly an extension of himself. And Dave Powell is complicated: very complicated.
Immediately you know that Dave Powell is a larger than life presence. He walks up to meet us at the winery and his swagger comes across almost instantly. He is not being cocky (though we are quite sure that has been said about him), he just has a style that reflects a certainty of purpose. He is a little bit guarded at first. Like the vines he tends, his life has been a struggle, and that struggle is very much a part of the end product. We sense that his guard is up not because he feels afraid, he just wants to know if you are wanker or not. He is quick to identify a wanker (we heard about many) and he has no time for them. While he has bluster (f-bombs and c-bombs were dropped frequently) and bombast, it is not an act. It is the real thing: Dave Powell is just that passionate about everything he does.
If all that sounds like a turn-off, it is not. It is just one part of his energetic and very driven personality. That energy and the bombast and swearing that goes with it is just one part of that complicated personality. There is another part that shows a very intelligent, thinking and well-read person. He has travelled the world and tasted wines from all the great regions. He leans toward wines that reflect their terroir and not the winemaker’s hand. He loves the wines of J. L. Chave and Bruno Giacosa. He has plenty of interesting insights about both Australian and American politics. (And yes, Trump is a wanker).
He has an amazing sense of humour…we were in stitches laughing for most of the interview. He is totally unabridged in his opinions and his honesty and his descriptions of people and events are delivered with a comic-genius sense of timing. As we comment about how extraordinary one of his wines taste he just looks at us and responds “yeah, well, as Chave told me it is hard to fuck up good terroir.” He is not sure about biodynamics (“horse shit in cow horns…come on!”) but “would pick on a flower day” (one of the four phases of the biodynamic lunar cycle). His most interesting observation on that topic was “I think biodynamics works well with white wines but I am not sure about with reds. I think the vineyard might get too healthy.” He is a true polymath.
The five of us sit in a room in one of the two old stone farm houses that make up the office and the winery itself. In the adjoining room is Michael, his general manager, working away. He is half in our conversation and half working, grabbing bottles for us and answering some of the questions Dave does not have the immediate detail about. He is also asked frequently by Dave what his thoughts are. Dave’s relationship with Michael stands in contrast to his f-bombs and to his bi-furcation of the world into those who are “all right” and those who are wankers. His tone with Michael is polite and respectful. Clearly Michael is “all right” and he is in no way dismissed as just an employee, as is so often seen when people who become much-feted. It is quite endearing to observe.
The son in Powell and Son is 24 year old Callum. Dave managed to get Callum experience at Chave and other iconic wineries before bringing him on board at Powell & Son. Dave credits Callum for convincing him to make the delicious tasting Roussanne/Marsanne in our glasses (an incredible white that ranks up there with our favourites from Chateauneuf du Pape, the Font du Loup Blanc and the Beaucastel Blanc Vielle Vignes). “I was not really into the idea at first, but Callum convinced me.” We are sure glad he did. We did not get a chance to meet Callum. Dave told us, with emotion clearly coming over his expression, that Callum was on sabbatical, doing cellar work at another Barossa winery. Working with Dave would be incredibly rewarding as you would be mentored by one of the great masters of winemaking. But we can see how it would be difficult too, with the unfiltered talk, and the f-bombs.
Life for all of us is complicated and certainly Dave Powell’s life has been complicated. While those complications have taken much away from him, they have also given much too him. He has seen some of life’s great peaks, travelling the world and being celebrated as being someone who is at the top of the winemaking craft. He has also seen the worst of lows: two divorces and losing his winery. But as we first said, that is yesterday’s news and Dave has risen up from those difficulties and learned from them. He has the courage and wisdom to talk openly about them. Today he seems content. His wines at Powell & Son are as good as any he has made in his past. And he is once again in the limelight in the winemaking world, receiving enormous scores and selling out his production. He told us that wine making is his passion and he will keep doing it until he dies.
We will definitely visit Dave Powell again on our next trip back to the Barossa. We hope that Callum will be there with him. It would be nice to know they had solved that complication.
All of the wines in the following tasting notes were raised in the same fashion. Each vineyard that produces grapes for these wines was tended by Dave and Callum. Vineyards are farmed using either organic or biodynamic processes. Vinification utilizes minimal intervention and traditional methods. Grapes are basket-pressed and the juice placed into concrete fermenters where they receive regular pump-overs. Elevage occurs in new and second-fill French oak barrels in a variety of sizes: large foudres, barriques, and puncheons manufactured by Dominique Laurent. The foudres which hold 45hl are specially manufactured for Powell & Son with extra thick staves. The result are wines that speak very much of place, have impeccable balance and were an absolute joy to drink.
2016 Powell & Son Eden Valley Riesling
Grapes come from one of the higher elevations (460m) within the Eden Valley. This Vineyard in an area known as Flaxman’s Valley has 80 year old Riesling vines grown in the traditional rod and spur method (known to produce better results from very old vines). Very dry with quite a saline expression of lime, granny smith apple and melon. Medium body and medium acidity, this wine showed its Barrossa heritage and proves wrong the nay-sayers who think this region is too hot to produce great Riesling.
Very Good/Excellent – (AUD$30 – the AUD & CAD trade about par)
2017 Powell & Son Roussanne Marsanne
Wow, what a stunner this was! Roughly a 50/50 blend this was a top Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc look alike. Gorgeous notes of apricot, peach compote, honey and hints of spice. The texture is decadently rich but retains enough acidity to remain properly defined. The finish goes on and on. Though known for their reds, the Powells are clearly masters with the white varieties as well.
Excellent+ (AUD $50 – this is very good value, especially when compared to prices from the Rhone Valley)
2016 Powell & Son Riverside Grenache Shiraz Mataro
Raspberry and black cherry dominate the profile of this delicious blend of 2/3 Grenache and roughly equal parts of the other two varieties. Low tannins (or perhaps they are just very ripe) and medium acidity make this very drinkable now while the balance shows the potential to develop further in the cellar. Dried herb notes come up on the finish and bring complexity.
Very Good+ (AUD$50)
2016 Powell & Son Barossa Valley Shiraz
Blackberry, blueberry and baking spices infuse this beautifully textured and completely delicious wine! Ready to go right now, it will still be in fine form for another decade, but when it is this good, why wait? Gorgeous mouthfeel and great complexity from the savoury cedar and tobacco notes.
Excellent (AUD $30 – very good value)
2016 Loechal Eden Valley
From 50 year old vines at the southern end of the Eden Valley. Blackberry and dark plum notes come through with great intensity. The nose gets added lift from the violet and other floral notes. Very complex, there is a wonderful spice component to the wine that goes from baking spices to black pepper. Everything is there and in just right proportion. On the finish we pick up hints of olive brine and smoked meat, evoking flavours of the Northern Rhone.
Excellent/Extraordinary – (AUD$125)
2016 Powell and Son Steinert Flaxman’s Valley Shiraz
Here the dials get turned way up and the result is an absolutely stunning Shiraz that has to be tasted to be believed! The complexity of the wine is amazing as we pick up blackberry and plums and black cherry too. Each sip seems to bring out new dimensons. The mouthfeel is something else: rich and textured and oh, so smooth. There are very ripe tannins present that you might not even notice due to the seduction-factor of the texture. The balance here is so precise with every note in this wine played to compliment the other notes and not stand out on its own. The wow factor here is unmistakeable. Every bit as good as any of the Runrigs we tasted from the early 2000s. No question this is one of the world’s great wines.
Extraordinary – (AUS $750 and worth it)
2016 Powell & Son Kraehe Maranaga Shiraz
Even bigger and darker is the Shiraz from the Marananga area of the Barossa, known for powerful wines coming from vines planted over 100 years ago in its deep red, iron-rich soils. And this wine is very powerful, but still very balanced. This is the wine we would most recommend that you put down and cellar, probably for a decade or more. While it is clearly an exceptional wine and delicious today, it is still forming and developing and its best days are yet to come. Blackberry and black cherry flavours abound and get support from the black pepper and cedar notes coming through on the finish. Both this and the Steinert are classically Barossa wines, if one were to draw a comparison, the Kraehe would be a top Hermitage and the Steinert a top Cote Rotie.
Extraordinary – (AUD $750)
May 29, 2020
Very late to this post – just stumbled across it while looking for something else – but thought it was still worthwhile to comment. A bit like Dave, who approaches people these days with a guarded air, I did the same while reading your post, waiting for the other shoe to drop as it has so often in articles about him. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that you’ve caught the essence of his personality and character. Dave is still an unstoppable force of nature but, contrary to his outer shell, you’ll never find a more generous, conscientious, caring, and yes, entertaining individual anywhere. His wines always reflect the passion he brings to his craft.
I have had the privilege of being his US importer, both for Torbreck, during turbulent times, and now with Powell & Son wines. Powell & Son wines reflect Dave’s depth of experience. They’re nuanced, complex and getting even better with age.
May 29, 2020
Thanks for stopping by to read the article. Meeting Dave (and Michael) was one of the most fascinating and enjoyable interviews we have done. We agree with your comments about Dave; he is the real deal, a bit gruff, but an absolute delight to spend time with. And as you know only too well, his wines are brilliant.
February 7, 2019
A confident man who believes in himself is what I get about Dave from your article! Had to laugh, Mark would agree completely on the cow horn topic.
I’d be curious to know his thoughts on copper sulfates, understanding his vineyards probably don’t have a lot of mildew problems. Am I correct thinking such a discussion would contain bluster and bombast?!? While I live where I am now I can dream about tasting his wines!
February 7, 2019
We can guarantee that you’d get an honest answer! Some great questions & we only wish we had more time with him. Hopefully another chance affords itself? As for the wines, that is the main criteria for us–they are among the best we’ve ever had!
February 4, 2019
Wow! Sound like some amazing wines! Quite a character too. I’ll have to keep an eye open at least for some of the double digit priced ones here in the US.
February 4, 2019
We promise you they are well worth it. Amazing wines across the board!
February 2, 2019
What an intense interview! I love the write in labels on the higher end wines! I assume this is because they are small batch. The interesting contradictions on Biodynamics, I find amusing and they hit a little close to home. Thinking cow horns are hogwash and believing in flower days…why is it that biodynamics brings out the contradictions within ourselves?
Such a fascinating personality, and how amazing to taste his wines with him.
February 3, 2019
Fascinating doesn’t even begin to describe him. He’s extremely intelligent, wicked sense of humour and his wines are among the best we have ever had. It was an honour and a pleasure and certainly among the most memorable interviews we’ve done to date.
January 30, 2019
wow! and worth it!! holy cow about $543 US!!! I would love to sample that!
January 30, 2019
It was an awesome interview and his wines were equally as good. He certainly spoiled us in both departments!