Entrepreneurs have one common trait: an unwavering belief in their vision despite the odds and the naysayers. Rockford Wines was started with no money, no customers, and no reputation…just a dream. A tough way to start a winery in the Barossa Valley in the mid 1980’s when the industry was in such poor shape, the government was paying people to pull vines and use the land for pasture! Thirty-five years later, Rockford stands as a testament to one man’s determined focus combined with a steadfast refusal to compromise on his core values.
From the time he started working in the wine industry, Robert O’Callaghan had always dreamed of having his own winery. Before he was able to turn that dream into a reality, he required two things: experience and money. He started his winemaking training in the 1960’s with Seppelts in Victoria. At that time, there were no wine colleges; you learned the process by working for a company and learning hands on from the bottom up. He was with Seppelts for 5 years in Rutherglen when they transferred him to a new position in the Barossa Valley looking after the relationship with the growers that the winery purchased grapes from.
Robert had spent no time in the Barossa before then and quickly fell in love with the region. He was captivated by how careful and fastidious the German families tending the vines were and the vines themselves were not only old, they were beautifully manicured and incredibly healthy. It left no doubt in his mind that this was where he wanted to be. He worked for a few other companies after that for the sole purpose of getting experience and trying to save up some money. But working in the Australian wine industry in the 1970’s and early 1980’s was challenging to say the least. Australian wine struggled to sell overseas because the export market hadn’t been established yet. This led to an oversupply which in turn meant prices dropped to the point that many wineries went bankrupt.
The land prices were so low that when Robert sold his van to buy the Rockford property (which included the original barn and farmhouse), he STILL had money left over. Unfortunately, not enough money to start a business. He had the property and an idea of what we wanted to do but given the state of the industry, no bank was interested in lending money toward starting a winery. He was talking about his predicament with one of his industry mates and his friend asked how much he needed to get started. He replied that $20,000 was all he needed and right then and there his friend wrote him a check for that exact amount. It was an unconditional loan that without it, Rockford likely wouldn’t have happened. That friend subsequently became a shareholder and we suspect he has never doubted his decision!
Robert was absolutely committed what his intentions were going to be with his own winery. First, he wanted to use the old varieties that had been planted for 150 years in the Barossa Valley. Second, he wanted to use traditional winemaking equipment in order to make wines the way he had learned. And finally, he wanted to sell his wines direct to his customers. There were plenty of cynics largely because many had tried to do the same with their wineries and failed. Modernization was also taking over the industry and quickly becoming the wave of the future. While Robert didn’t disagree with the challenges involved, he stuck to his guns and held fast to his vision.
It takes an incredible amount of discipline to retain that kind of vision after 35 years, but the results truly speak for themselves. Rockford still uses the traditional varieties of the region (and has now added Alicante), they still use all the traditional winemaking equipment, and they still sell the majority of their wine direct to their customers as their core business. Exports make up only about 5% of what the winery sells. The winery firmly believes that this model works for them and that it’s sustainable for the long-term future of the winery.
In fact, the traditional winemaking aspect in particular has become a trademark for Rockford, drawing winemakers from around the world every harvest who want to experience if for themselves. The winery has also served as a training ground for many young winemakers who learned their craft there and moved on to their own successful ventures. One of the most notable winemakers to get their start there is Dave Powell, who founded Torbreck and continues to make award winning wines at Powell & Son.
David Kalleske toured us through the winery which has literally become a living, working museum. All of the equipment is original and has been collected by Robert over the years. The original 1850’s Barn is the Cellar Door tasting room and the winery building has been built in the same style using the same materials.
David explains that their traditional techniques begin with their vineyard practices. Everything is hand-pruned and hand-picked, there is no machine harvested fruit. They produce all the red wine at Rockford while the white wine is crushed offsite and then brought back to the winery for controlled fermentation. Looking at the small shed that houses their red wine production, it’s easy to imagine what a hive of activity it must be during harvest. Once the fruit is brought in, they reverse the truck into the driveway and jump in the back with a pitchfork and hand fork all the fruit through the window into the Bagshaw crushing machine that dates back to the 1880s.
The Bagshaw crusher is belt driven by a 1912 Kaesler Brothers single cylinder petrol motor (built in Handorf in the Adelaide Hills), “because it’s handpicked fruit, we’re dealing with bunches of grapes, so we use it to separate the berries from the stems to get just the juice and it does an amazing job. When people see it working it’s almost silent and you just see all the stems being spat out onto the ground and all the juice and fruit falls into the pit underneath and then we pour into the fermenters. It’s unbelievably efficient and very simple.”
250 tonnes of grapes go through the machine during a typical vintage and it takes a few weeks versus hours if they were to use its modern counterpart. The juice is then open-fermented in slate containers. The challenge of those slate containers is that they’re porous which means they must apply a wax seal. So, each year before harvest, they use a blow torch and scraper to remove last year’s wax, then re-apply the wax which is made up of paraffin and beeswax. They leave the fruit on the skins in the fermenters for about a week and do a pump over every morning and every afternoon. After a week on the skins all the colour, tannin and structure that they want has been extracted and the juice is then pumped out of the fermenters into the tanks. All that is left are the skins which require someone to jump in with a shovel and shovel it into the basket press, conveniently located between the 3 fermenters.
The beauty of the basket press, according to David is that it’s a static press which means there’s no movement when you’re compacting the fruit, “You don’t macerate the skins and don’t crack the seeds so it’s a really soft process. In terms of efficiency it’s not as efficient but we’re not here for efficiency, we’re here to make the sort of wines that we want.” Every red wine is made the same way using the basket press (not just their best-known wine, the Basket Press Shiraz) and the only 2 concessions they’ve made that aren’t traditional are the use of cultured yeasts and refrigeration.
As we walk into the barrel maturation cellar, David tells us that as per traditional winemaking, Rockford uses very little new wood in their wines, “We use a lot of large, vat, and old wood barrels for ageing our wine and we use the really old barrels for Port.” He points out the 2500 litre barrels, the Port barrels and some that are over 100 years old and starting to bulge. They use mostly French or American oak and try to keep everything separate to allow for some age prior to blending. Again, not the most efficient way of doing things but it allows them the flexibility of blending the way they want.
To walk through Rockford is to take a step back in time. We’ve rarely come across a winery so entirely dedicated to traditional methods at every step of the process. Robert has coupled those methods with the same meticulousness and fastidiousness he witnessed by the German growers when first introduced to the valley and the result are wines of exceptional quality. Oenophiles and wine enthusiasts alike will be glad he stuck to his guns. Once you taste Rockford wines, we have no doubt you’ll appreciate them a lot more knowing all the care, attention, and sheer labour that has gone into each bottle down to the berry.
2016 Eden Valley Riesling
Green apple and pear dominate the profile of this juicy wine that offers plenty of backend acidity. Hints of mineral and stone add complexity. This wine has both body and texture but stays true to the variety’s characteristics.
Very Good+ (AUD $24 at the cellar door)
2018 Alicante Bouchet Rosé
Cherry and watermelon are joined by a nice spicy streak. This wine is Rockford’s biggest seller and it is easy to see why. Refreshing acidity and good body combine to make a versatile rose that works well as an aperitif and would be a great match with shellfish and other lighter fare.
2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Rifle Range
This full body Cabernet Sauvignon is a great example of what Cabernet from the Barossa can become in the hands of a talented winemaker. Black cherry, currant and blueberry flavours dominate and pick up complexity from the woodsy, cedar notes and hints of earth. The tannin is present but ripe making this delicious now but full of promise for future development. Terrific balance and very seductive texture.
Excellent (AUD $51 at the cellar door)
2015 Basket Press Shiraz
This is the wine that made Rockford’s reputation. A beautifully balanced Barossa Shiraz, it is rich and full without at all being heavy. Blackberry flavours and aromas are joined by baking spice notes with cracked pepper coming through on the finish. Like the Rifle Range Cab, it has a beautiful texture, thick and round but still with some drying tannin to keep everything structured. There is incredible depth to this wine that will no doubt reveal even greater complexity as it unfurls over the years and perhaps decades to come.
Excellent+ (AUD $125 wine club members only)