Melissa Worrall writes, 'Growing up in Australia’s Barossa fostered my interest in wine. Throughout my career and an international move I have held true to my passion of understanding wine at a deeper level. Wine tasting and assessment have always been my vocation. Today I am a proud wine professional, with 15+ year’s experience in the industry, from cellar to sales, customer service to buying. I do not have any commercial interest in this vineyard but in full disclosure, my employer Enotria & Coe imports Rojomoma's wines.' See our WWC21 guide for more old-vine competition entries.
A sealed road met by a ‘dry weather only’ dirt track leads across the Sturt Highway from Nuriootpa to the tiny hamlet of Ebeneezer. Here, in the Northern Barossa in rural South Australia, the crows caw lazily from the mighty gum trees in the afternoon sun and, other than a distant passing car, all is quiet.
This has been the pace for 150 years. For 135 of those, in what is now the Rojomoma vineyard, the ancestor dry-grown bush vines of Grenache have been bearing witness to the passing of families through their plot. First, from the austere winters of Posen, Prussia, came Johann Friedrich Whilhem Lehmann, who planted Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre, known locally in the Barossa as Mataro. He came, as they all did then, settling in the sunburnt Barossa to flee religious persecution so that he may practice his Lutheran faith freely. St Johns Church, the tiny Lutheran parish of the hamlet, sits only a few clicks down the road from this vineyard, showing the close connection between church and farming for these first European settlers. Johann’s vineyard, planted in 1886, was passed to his daughter, Maria Ida, and then via her marriage into the Krueger family. Maria’s Krueger family descendants live still on part of the property, still amongst the vines.
Originally a train driver and passionate Barossan, Elmore Schultz purchased a parcel of land, including the ancestor vineyard, in 1946 from the Krugers. With his parcel of vines, he became one of the founding members of the first Barossa growers Cooperative, Barossa Valley Estate. The flagship E&E Black Pepper Shiraz still bears his initial, along with the other founding BVE member, Elmor Roehr. Elmore Schultz’s love of trains and community credits him to bestowing the old black steam engine in the beloved ‘Nuri Train Park’, site of many a birthday party and picnics. Incidentally, Elmore also brought the Binder family to the Barossa in 1953, sparking their love of winemaking, and the family started their own project, Veritas/Rolf Binder Wines. By now, the Barossa was a bustling hub of post-war industry, and grape growing was very much a part. The accompanying social revolution was moving the Barossa from fortified to table wine production.
The 1980’s were tough times for vignerons in South Australia, particularly in older, established areas like the Barossa Valley. Over the previous 20 or so years there was a boom in modern, industrial sized vineyards around the Murray River in Victoria and South Australia. With easy access to water (sometimes via channel irrigation), mechanisation of viticulture and varietals selected for high productivity, it was becoming increasingly challenging for low volume, unirrigated, hand-tended vines to compete. Think tomatoes grown on an allotment in Kent competing with an industrial greenhouse in Spain. Add in the low grape prices and high interest rates that Australia was enduring, and it was a perfect storm to create a government-run Vine Pull Scheme. The Vine Pull scheme encouraged, via financial incentive, the ripping out of the oldest most ‘unproductive’ vines (read: old vines) in favour of higher yielding vines. The other option was to leave the industry altogether. At cropping levels of only averaging 2 tonne a hectare, and completely unirrigated, you can see the trouble Rojomoma vineyard was in.
It was in this challenging backdrop that Elmore’s land was eventually subdivided amongst his children and his wildly bearded Kegel* mad son Harry Schultz took over the run of the land in 1980. Harry and his wife Michelle surrendered some of their vines to the Pull Scheme, losing the 1886 planted Shiraz and Marato. Mercifully there was a small movement within the Barossa that saw the value, history and heritage of these already 100-year-old vines. Robert O’Callahan of Rockford Wines bought the fruit from Harry Schultz, ensuring the security of the Grenache. O’Callahan took fruit specifically from old vines and celebrated the intensity, density and complexity that only low yielding, dry-grown, old vines can deliver.
Now, here is when stuff gets even more interesting. I set out to write about these wonderful old vineyards now in the care of Rojomoma. I’ve learned about the Lehmann’s, who planted the vines from the Kurtz-Kaeding family, who are the current custodians. What I have also learned is that, in the Barossa, everyone really does know everyone.
Harry and Michelle Schultz, of Ebeneezer, with a vineyard. All of a sudden, I begin to get images: the orientation; the proximity to the homestead; the colour of the red-brown sandy loam. Memories, these were memories - I’ve been here before. I’ve stood here. I’ve… partied here. Recollections of warm nights rush into my mind’s eye: Xavier Rudd pumping and passion pop (forgive me); Sparkling Ale flowing. More pictures... the smell of bonfire... and a mad Harry Schultz wielding a shot gun from a ride-on-mower because a bunch of punk teenagers were running amok in his vines. His very old vines. I shudder at the thought now, not at the shotgun, but at the ignorance of us kids.
Sam Kurtz and Bernie Kaeding are the keepers of the vines these days, having acquired 6 acres of land from Harry and Michelle Shultz in 1996. At the time, the bush vine Grenache was just 1.49 hectares with some apricot orchard to keep them company. From 1997 to 2005, Same & Bernie invested in planting first Shiraz and Petit Verdot, Cab Sav and finally Tempranillo. They run an endearingly small project from the shed on their property, creating seriously good wines. These are not the ball-buster wines from your Dad’s Barossa cellar. Rojomomas wines are crafted with balance, freshness, tension, as well as depth. Under their care (with their son rapidly approaching age) I am excited to see how the next generation of family tends to these Very Bloody Exceptionally Old Grenache vines of Ebeneezer.
*The Kegelbahn in Tanunda, South Australia, built in 1858, is one of the oldest sporting clubs in South Australia. Amusingly it is also the place of my very first job as a 12 year old – those old wooden pins don’t pick up themselves.
The photos were provided by Melissa Worrall.