Family-owned Yalumba wines has farmed in Australia since 1849, when Samuel Smith planted his first vines on their patch of the Barossa Valley. I recently met up with the 5th and 6th generations in charge of the company, Robert Hill-Smith and his daughter, Jessica, for a tasting of their ‘pinnacle’ wine launched in 2012, the classic Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz blend, called ‘The Caley’. Selling for around £250 per bottle, its launch pitched it squarely into the elite territory occupied by Australian icons like Penfold’s Grange and Henschke’s Hill of Grace.
The Caley is named in honour of Fred Caley Smith, grandson of Yalumba’s founder, and a horticulturist who travelled the world and was instrumental in developing Yalumba’s vineyards towards the end of the 19th century. Today, Robert says they are best known for their premium reds, but that it is a company that continues to innovate and learn. He admits that the Caley is a determined effort to throw off a reputation of making excellent, reliable wines, but never being part of the Australian elite. “It’s about moving our light from under the bushel, beating our chest a bit, and the 2012 vintage gave us a chance to do that.”
Jessica went on to say that Cabernet and Shiraz were the obvious choices, and agrees that 2012, a “one in 50 years vintage,” was the impetus to finally make their ‘super-claret’, an ode to the old Cab-Shiraz blends from Coonawarra and Barossa that made Australia famous. The winemakers had a blank canvas: “They saw it as a really exciting brief,” says Jessica, especially with the outstanding quality of the fruit. “We wanted a sustainable wine with real DNA to be part of our portfolio,” adds Robert.
There is no specific recipe or source for the wines, but over the four vintages so far, there are a couple of vineyards in both Coonawarra and Barossa, that have become core to the wine, including an ungrafted Shiraz vineyard in Barossa that was planted in 1901 on its own roots and which is dry-grown, without irrigation.
All ferments “begin at least,” with wild yeasts from the vineyard, and ageing is in French oak, about 40% new, coopered on site (Yalumba is one of very few wineries in Australia with its own cooperage). There is some Hungarian oak used too. Cabernet generally dominates the blend for the Caley, but Robert stresses there is no set recipe, the blend being decided according to the fruit given by each vintage. Certainly in these four samples – the complete history of the wine so far – there is considerable variation in style, due both to the climatic conditions of the vintage, and the fruit blend that resulted.