In this episode of the podcast we meet Yalumba winemaker Louisa Rose – the company’s head of winemaking – who is the signatory on the newly released Yalumba The Signature 2016.
Yalumba The Signature Cabernet Sauvignon & Shiraz was first released in 1966.
Every vintage has been dedicated to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the culture and traditions of Yalumba, one of Australia’s most important family-owned wineries.
Since joining the company in 1992, Yalumba winemaker Louisa Rose has been honoured as winemaker of the year by multiple organisations.
She is the current chair of the Australian Wine Research Institute and a Grand Master of the Barossa Valley fraternity, Barons of Barossa.
You’ll hear from Louisa how the The Signature traditions began at Yalumba, and the significance of this wine; a Great Australian Red as previously explored with Matthew Jukes on this podcast.
Yalumba winemaker Louisa Rose: Full transcript
YALUMBA WINEMAKER LOUISA ROSE: Well it started in 1966, when the then Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies was at an Adelaide Stock Exchange dinner and the Yalumba 1961 Galway Vintage Special Claret was being served at that dinner. And he stood up and he announced the best red wine he had ever tasted was in fact that wine. I’ve heard anecdotally that in fact he was asked a tricky question by a journalist and that was his answer, for dodging it. But for whatever reason he made that claim. Of course, he’s gone down in the history of Yalumba as you know, what a great sort of you know, unasked for little bit of advertising you might have got. And so, in 1966 we were able to release the 1962 Galway Reserved Claret as it was at the time, and so we changed the sort of the concept of that to be called The Signature. Samuel Smith was the first signatory that went on that, his signature went on that and the story became synonymous with that wine. It’s an announcement which you know, the whole company waits for with bated breath because it’s always somebody that those of us here know. Sometimes it’s a very public person. In 2012 for example, it was our current owner and managing director at the time, Robert Hill-Smith. As I say, you know, sometimes very well known like Robert. But sometimes somebody that’s not so well known. So we’ve had vineyard managers that have worked in the company for over 40 years, that the winemakers and production people of course know but wouldn’t be so well known outside of the immediate wine making area. But it’s always, as I say it’s always a really sentimental thing and quite humbling when it’s your name that’s announced.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now you said in the press release, ‘I can’t quite believe that I’m about to become part of that group’. You’ve been there since 1992, it must be about time by now surely?
YALUMBA WINEMAKER LOUISA ROSE: Well occasionally people would say when’s your name going to be on the back label? I said not for a long time I suspect. Because it is a company where people often spend their career here and their working lives. And there are so many people who have been here longer than I, that I’m still working with. And it’s, not only do we celebrate The Signature each year, but we celebrate people that you know, get to their 21 years of working for the business, and 30 years and 35 and 40 and 45. And every now and again somebody that’s been working for the Hill-Smith family and for Yalumba for 50 years. And so it is full of legends and stories and wonderful people, so I don’t think since 1992 necessarily qualifies for that long. Maybe I’m just trying to pretend it’s not really that long.
Yalumba South Australia
YALUMBA WINEMAKER LOUISA ROSE: Well part of it of course is the Hill-Smith family. You know, people become really loyal to a family that has great vineyards, great wines, great stories. But also that ability to look after people and as I say, the community. It’s part of the fabric of the Barossa. But it is more than that and over the time I’ve been here the business has grown. Its become an international business. Our wines have, not that they weren’t… they were of course being exported before that. But as part of the Australian wine industry that since the 1990’s has also become really prominent on the world stage of wine, it’s been a great opportunity to look at both traditional regions and new regions. To look at, to work with really old vine vineyards and new vines, and new varieties. So one of the varieties that Yalumba is really well known for, for example is Viognier, which is something that we still talk about being a new variety, compared to some of the older varieties we’ve had in Australia for 170 years or more. But Viognier we’ve only been working with since 1980, so tradition and innovation. It’s that wonderful sort of blend of the two, which makes Australian wine but also, you know, particularly working at Yalumba, such a pleasure.
JAMES ATKINSON: I assume that you would have had an opportunity to taste some of the museum Signature wines from time to time. How has that wine evolved stylistically, do you think?
YALUMBA WINEMAKER LOUISA ROSE: That’s a really good question. So I think evolve is a great word because wines do evolve. You know, every wine evolves and the great wine brands of the world are not static. If they were, they would lose their relevance and I think evolution of wine styles and sometimes you know, revolution is important as well. The Signature has always been in that, what we talk about you know, and we don’t use the word publicly really anymore. But that sort of claret style, so that dry red style that Australia was really well known for right through the 1900s and of course into the 2000s. In the case of The Signature, it’s usually been a Cabernet Shiraz blend and it certainly, it is since the mid-90s it’s absolutely been from the Barossa. Usually had Barossa fruit in it. But the early signatories were blends of, you know, often of different regions. Often of Coonawarra Cabernet and Barossa Shiraz. But as the world has become more focused and the Australian wine industry absolutely on regional wine identity, its evolved into becoming a Barossa wine. And the evolution of the use of oak in wine around the world has also been part of the style of that wine. So it had a phase there through the 90’s, like many Australian wines did, of using a lot more new oak. And even though new oak is still an important part of the wine, it’s now only about 25% of the wine. So that evolution has continued. And while its always had a significant amount of oak, made by the Yalumba coopers and Yalumba, it’s one of the unique things about Yalumba – we have our own cooperage here. We have our own coopers and we make a significant percentage of the barrels that we need. The Yalumba signature these days is only matured in Yalumba coopered oak. And it’s a mixture of oak from France and Hungary and America, so it’s not, we don’t just focus on one company. But we do focus on it all being bent and toasted here in our Yalumba Cooperage.
JAMES ATKINSON: You mentioned how The Signature is made in a claret style. Maybe you could just give me a bit more detail around how you would describe what an Australian claret is, because it’s a term that gets bandied around a fair bit. But when you actually read up on it, it’s also kind of vague I find as well, in terms of the varieties that you can use the breadth of you know, stylistic range there is under that one sort of nebulous term.
YALUMBA WINEMAKER LOUISA ROSE: Yeah, and I need to be quite clear that claret is now a protected word and has been for a couple of decades. And it’s part of the word the Europe has as a collective term and it typically refers to wines coming from Bordeaux into England. So it was very much, that was what a claret was. But like most of those what are now protected words and descriptions, like Champagne and Burgundy and Port and Sherry, and all of those words. Australia used them for many years to describe our styles of wines. However, it’s so much a part of the history of Yalumba and if you go into our museum that you mentioned earlier. We have a beautiful collection of old wines, many of which are labelled claret. You know, right back to the early 1900s – those Galway clarets that I referred to before. In Australia and particularly at Yalumba, were usually blends of Cabernet and Shiraz. Where Cabernet gives us structure and aromatic that you would expect. I always think about Cabernet being a serious variety, it’s got that lovely sort of tannin structure. Cooler flavours and light sort of greener, the mulberry, you know sometimes minty, sometimes eucalyptus sort of characters. Often that dark chocolate, but a very sort of serious, you know, stand up straight sort of variety. And then Shiraz being a bit softer and a bit rounder, a bit more fun. And you know, in my mind I think about Shiraz wrapping around the Cabernet and giving it a cuddle and saying you know, don’t be quite so serious Cabernet. We can make a really long-lived wine together, but one that is eminently drinkable from the day it is made for, in many cases for 10, 20 plus years.
JAMES ATKINSON: They fell out of favour for quite a while didn’t they, Cabernet Shiraz blends?
YALUMBA WINEMAKER LOUISA ROSE: Yeah I think the problem was as Australians we were drinking styles. But in some cases you know, we were seeing our parents drinking styles. So wine is also about fashion and generationally you know, we want to do something different to what our, the previous generation did. So that I think is always part of things perhaps, as you say, falling out of favour. But then you know, as we, we signed that bi-lateral trade agreement with Europe in the early 1990s I think, when that was signed. Late 80s, early 90s and that is an agreement to phase out some of those descriptions and some of those stylistic terms. Australia became more focused on labelling by variety. And labelling by blends was just a bit more of a difficult story. So many wines that might have been blends in you know, in prior vintages, became single varietal wines. And Shiraz became the darling of a lot of Australia, and particularly in the Barossa. And you know, a lot of wineries stopped making the blends. So Cabernet Shiraz, Cabernet blends in some cases became straight Cabernets, depending on where they were from. Others became straight Shiraz. So it was only sort of the die hard people, you know, like Yalumba – not exclusively, but we were certainly one of the champions of maintaining that blend. And The Signature has been the champion of those wines over the years for us.
JAMES ATKINSON: Do you remember any internal conversations around the importance of that blend historically to Yalumba?
YALUMBA WINEMAKER LOUISA ROSE: Absolutely. And that’s you know, one of the reasons we’ve been so keen to maintain it. Not just the conversations, but because of the continued family ownership. Our archives, our museum of wines, you know we have the ability to go back and look at all that history, to see that we’ve been buying Cabernet from Eden Valley growers for example, since the late 1800s and blending it with Shiraz. We see those wines, you know, we don’t have wines from the 1800s in that style in our museum, but we certainly do from the early 1900s. You know, we know we were buying Cabernet grapes and wines from friends in Coonawarra in the 1920s to blend with Barossa Shiraz and you know, we taste those wines I’d like to say regularly. It’s perhaps not as regularly as we’d like, we don’t have a lot of them left but we do see them in our special museum tastings over the years from the 1940s and the 1950s. And those wines are amazing and you know, we know the history, we taste the history and it all sort of bundles up into how, you know, the styles that we want to make now and as you said before, that evolution of wine to make sure that not only are we respecting history but we’re making wines that are really relevant to today and to the future. And you know, for the next generation as they come around. How do we make it relevant and not been seen as something that’s old fashioned and seen as part of history?
Cabernet Shiraz blends
JAMES ATKINSON: You must have noticed though that within Yalumba, the conversation around the Great Australian Red that Matthew Jukes and Tyson Stelzer have sort of started has probably helped that whole style come into favour a little bit more recently.
YALUMBA WINEMAKER LOUISA ROSE: Yeah, I think, and they’ve done an incredible job in doing that. It’s always really helpful if you’ve got you know, more than just one company or one wine to focus on that, that’s for sure. And those two have done a great job. That great Aussie red has been a great story, it’s been a term that many of us have adopted in our vernacular to talk about it. And the other thing of course about that, about the blend of Cabernet and Shiraz, is that it is pretty much you know, an Australian blend. It’s not something we’ve, you know, copied another region or another country doing in Europe. Which does give it a sort of special place in our hearts.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now you mentioned earlier on, The Signature should be wine that’s drinking really well upon release. Has that been something that Yalumba’s become more focused on in recent years as you know, people cellar wines less and less I think as time goes on, don’t they?
YALUMBA WINEMAKER LOUISA ROSE: I can’t believe that it hasn’t always really been important for wines to always be delicious and drinkable. And I say that because great wines are always great, you know they don’t suddenly become great. Wines don’t suddenly become in balance at a certain amount of time. You know, when I hear people say you know, this wine will you know, don’t worry it will evolve and it will be beautifully balanced in five years-time. You’re going well how can it be balanced in five-years’ time if it’s not balanced now? You know, I know as a winemaker that you know when wines are going to be fantastic. Unless you do something wrong and make a mistake, you can tell when you’re tasting the grapes. You can tell from the really early times during fermentation and as those wines age. And sure they evolve, and but you know they’re in balance and they’re delicious and they’re great from the day that they’re made. Where in that age of a wine, you know, whether it be one year, four years, ten years, 20 years; you know, people enjoy the most is a very individual thing. It’s a very personal thing. But it is about, wine should always be delicious and drinkable. And I can’t see that winemakers wouldn’t have always thought that. Certainly there have been changes in styles and wines you know, have evolved through perhaps being more alcoholic or more tannic, or having more new oak or less new oak and all those sorts of things. Which change the expression of a wine at a given time in its life, but I can’t believe that winemakers haven’t always wanted people just to open their wines and enjoy them. And I’m not sure you know, we talk about not cellaring wine as much as we used to, but I still think that cellaring wine is probably a fairly small percentage of people. I think most people, certainly they do now and I don’t really think it would have changed all that much over the decades. I think most people would just buy wine and assume that they can just open it and drink it. And why shouldn’t they? Everything else we do in life is you know, about buying something and doing it. You don’t go and buy your Maserati and say well I’m not going to drive it for two years, because it will drive better in two years’ time.
Yalumba The Caley
JAMES ATKINSON: In recent times Yalumba’s actually released another Cabernet Shiraz blend, which is The Caley. Tell me about the origins of the Caley, because that’s become a really important wine for Yalumba as well.
LOUISA ROSE: It has and The Caley is a wine that we released first in 2017 from the 2012 vintage. So the ’12 vintage is our first release and we’ve just released our fourth release of the 2015. And The Caley is another Cabernet Shiraz blend and it is a blend of Coonawarra Cabernet and Barossa Shiraz. So I mentioned before, in our history often signature and some of our other wines were blends of different regions. And Coonawarra Cabernet and Barossa Shiraz is a blend that we’ve known for 100 years or more, you know what a beautiful blend it could be and it was. Our decision to make The Signature a Barossa wine was about the beauty of Barossa and single region, but in the back of our minds since the mid-90’s, you know, we knew what a great blend also Coonawarra Cabernet and Barossa Shiraz were, for different reasons and all of those things. And we, they’re the two regions. Coonawarra and Barossa that Yalumba have huge history with, huge knowledge of. Absolutely understanding the beauty of Cabernet from Coonawarra and since the early 90’s we’ve owned, we have owned Cabernet vineyards in the Coonawarra, as well as purchasing grapes. So we really felt in 2012 a magic vintage, that the time was right to start to explore that beautiful blend of the two regions again. Coonawarra Cabernet has its own expression, which is a bit different from Barossa Cabernet. Barossa Cabernet has lovely aromatics, it’s got those sort of dark chocolate sort of characters. Coonawarra Cabernet also has that lovely sort of expression that comes from more of the maritime influence that Coonawarra has, even though it’s not that close to the sea. It’s about 80km from the sea. It’s still you know, such a beautiful low altitude area. It gets a huge influence from the sea fogs that come right off that Southern Ocean. And that gives it that beautiful sort of oyster shell, sea spray character that overlays it. So a different expression of Cabernet to the Barossa, you know a very aromatic with its sort of mulberry and mint characters. So blended in with Shiraz, you know, we just think that makes a wine that’s you know, that’s at a different spectrum to what The Signature is. And The Caley typically has a higher percentage of Cabernet in it than The Signature does. The Signature is always Cabernet dominant but usually somewhere in the 50%. For example, the ’16 Signature is 53% Cabernet. But the 2015 Caley which we’ve just released is 74% Cabernet, so it’s still that blend but it has a slightly higher fingerprint of Cabernet influence in it.
JAMES ATKINSON: The vintage of the Signatory bearing your name is the 2016, tell me about that vintage for Yalumba?
LOUISA ROSE: So the ’16 vintage was you know, it was quite a benign vintage really, which is what we love. You know, we had what we like in winter which is some good rains. We had you know, warm, even dry springs. So no frost, which is always good. And quite sort of even temperatures so it was fairly dry, we had a little bit of summer rain in a fall. Which is not unusual for us, we don’t, we are a very dry Mediterranean summer climate here which is perfect for grape growing. But every now and again, we will get that little bit of tropical weather than comes down and just freshens everything up. So that happened in January, which was perfect. And really it was just one of those lovely vintages where everything worked well, everything came in at the right sort of pace and we’ve made some delicious wines from it.
JAMES ATKINSON: A vintage befitting your name then.
LOUISA ROSE: A perfect vintage.
My favourite wines: Yalumba winemaker Louisa Rose
JAMES ATKINSON: Now, what about outside of Yalumba. What are the wine styles that you’re most excited about drinking at home and what is your cellar look like at home?
YALUMBA WINEMAKER LOUISA ROSE: My cellar, yes well. I’ve always had this dream of actually cataloguing my cellar and knowing exactly what’s in it, and I’ve never quite gotten around to do that.
JAMES ATKINSON: Well if you have a need to catalogue it, then that’s got to be a… it must mean yours is a lot bigger than mine is.
YALUMBA WINEMAKER LOUISA ROSE: It’s got all sorts of things in it. So it’s got everything from German Rieslings, which I absolutely love. You know, that beautiful sort of tension between acidity and natural residual sugar. And you know, the purity of those wines through to some of the older regions of Europe. But then it’s got a huge, it’s got a lot of Australian wines in it as well. It’s got everything from Pinot Noirs from Tasmania, to you know, full-bodied red wines of the Barossa. When I’m drinking at home, if it’s something I just need a glass or two of while I’m cooking it’s probably an Eden Valley Riesling or a Barossa Grenache. But you know, that smorgasbord of beautiful sort of foods and options we have for cooking with in Australia is, should be reflected in your choice of wines and it is for me as well. I’ve said this before and I don’t practice it probably as well as I should. But seriously, you could drink a different wine every day and probably never have to come back and drink that same wine again. The options of wines and styles and varieties out there is so enormous, and you know, it’s a real privilege for us in Australia I think to have so much availability of great wine.
JAMES ATKINSON: What’s coming up for you over the next few years? What are the projects at Yalumba that you’re most excited about working on?
YALUMBA WINEMAKER LOUISA ROSE: Good question. This concept of making sure that you know, wines are relevant. The stories and the history are incredibly important as part of the fabric of what we’re doing. But that doesn’t, your wines don’t stay relevant without a lot of work and that involves continuous improvement in vineyards, making sure that the old vine vineyards stay really healthy. That we’re not inadvertently introducing pests and diseases to them. They are, they’re like looking after antiques some of those vines. So that’s a really important ongoing project. Maybe doesn’t sound quite as sexy as new varieties and things like that, but incredibly important. You know, as is continuing to make sure that wines and wine balance and the oak that we’re using you know, is making the best wines that we can. So knuckling down and just continuously improving is sometimes as important a project as something as exciting as a new variety.
JAMES ATKINSON: That sounds like a good note to finish on. Thanks so much for joining me on the Drinks Adventures podcast and congratulations again on being the signatory on the new release 2016 Yalumba Signature.
YALUMBA WINEMAKER LOUISA ROSE: Thank you very much and I hope you have the opportunity to enjoy the wine.