Realizing What Rockford Is All About

by Chuck Hayward

Realizing What Rockford Is All About

Post by Chuck Hayward | September 8th, 2010

the press in Rockford "Basket Press" Shiraz

When I first began to promote boutique estates from Australia, I asked around to see which wines I just had to try: iconic wines that were rare and hard to find.

The name that came up repeatedly was the Rockford "Basket Press" Shiraz. At that point, it had never been sold in the US and only a few bottles had even been brought to our shores. It was almost ten years later when the Grateful Palate arranged to import the wines that I had the first chance to try a bottle. After all the hype and the decade-long wait, I tried some. And in my then-Aussie-wine-infancy, I didn't get it.

one of those old pumps still in use

Rockford was founded by Robert O'Callaghan in 1984, during a dark period in the Barossa Valley, when century-old shiraz and grenache vines, which, due to lack of demand, were being ripped out and replaced with chardonnay under a government scheme. O'Callaghan had left the Barossa's famed Seppelts winery to start a new project dedicated to preserving what was rapidly becoming the lost heritage of the valley--the traditions of winemaking and grape growing threatened by modernization.

His winery was founded in a rough-hewn building constructed by Johann Henschke almost a century ago. With no real money to start a new venture, he got by with old machines being discarded by other wineries as they purchased new equipment. The pumps, presses, and tanks might look like they belong in museums, but they are still in use today.

Rockford's stemmer-crusher

On my first visit to Rockford, I learned a great deal about what the winery has come to mean to the people who live in the Barossa.

While well-known for the wines they produce,what stood out more was how locals appreciated the winery's respect for the way wines used to be made. Most of the grapes were still processed through a small stemmer-crusher (they say it's more like a beater-crusher) that looked impossibly old. The pitchforks were not for decoration, as grapes, stems and pressings were tossed about by manual brute force when not being moved by steam-driven pumps that looked like they could burst at any minute. Used to extract the remaining juice, the hand-cranked press in the corner was one of the first made in the area.

cottage used as the tasting room

It seems incredible that a winery like this could still exist, but it does--due to O'Callaghan's dogged pursuit of tradition. His ability to source ancient-vine shiraz from the old German settlers who had worked the land for generations helped prevent many vineyards from being uprooted. The style of wine he preferred to make was that of the reds he grew up with at tables with his mates and their relatives. Soft reds full of flavor yet not  heavy or overly extracted. Those qualities, unique to the Barossa at the time, gave many young winemakers such as Chris Ringland (of Three Rivers) and Dave Powell (of Torbreck) an introduction to wine making, as opposed to the wine education that universities provided.

After that first visit I realized that to really understand Rockford and why that first wine tasted the way it did, it needs to be experienced first hand.  So I returned there after many years because I really needed to get it. And boy, did I.

Tasting notes to follow... Click here for more pictures of Rockford Winery