Masters of Barossa Shiraz: St Hallett
Helen McCarthy has had a love affair with the Barossa and Eden Valleys throughout her winemaking career.
“The diversity that exists in the Barossa region is magical…soil, climate, flavours, style,” she says, adding, “The other thing is that Eden Valley, in particular, is spectacularly beautiful.”
So when the opportunity came up to join one of the region’s most venerated brands, St Hallett, as senior winemaker, Helen jumped at the chance.
“The focus on being Masters of Barossa Shiraz really appealed to me,” she describes. “My career up to now has seen me make everything from sparkling to fortified, across multiple regions and varietals. This role allows me to take a deep dive into Barossa Shiraz.”
In fact, Helen now has the privilege of working with some of the world’s oldest Shiraz vines on St Hallett’s Old Block vineyard.
The Lindner Legacy
This revered site was planted back in 1912 by Pop Lindner, the second generation of his family to call the region home after his father Johann, a Silesian farmer, arrived from Europe back in 1838.
Pop was a butcher and it was out of his old slaughterhouse that his son Bill, who’d trained in winemaking at Orlando, started making wine in 1944. Bill named the winery after explorer John Hallett, adding the title of saint to reflect his strong ties to the Lutheran church.
From his old Austin truck, Bill sold flagons of ruby port to local pubs, along with Sauternes, Sherry and even sticks of mettwurst fermented in red wine.
The road ahead for St Hallett was tough, but with grit and passion, Bill, eventually joined by his three sons, persevered. Then thanks to an injection of much needed cash from an uncle, Dickie Lindner, in 1972, this humble brand was set on a course to prosperity.
Some of the breakthrough wines for the brand were the Oakbank Centenary Port, the Perth Cup Port and the Melbourne Cup Port. Then came the first Old Block Shiraz in 1980, crafted by winemaker Robert O’Callaghan.
Of course, the St Hallett team had a long-held fascination with Shiraz dating back to the 1960s. This continues today, with them prizing the flavour variations that the unique terroirs of the diverse Barossa region create.
To that end, they take care to keep the fruit from each individual vineyard separate during the vinification process, from crushing the fruit to fermenting and barrel ageing.
Pivotal to St Hallett’s success with Shiraz has been winemaker Stuart Blackwell, who first joined the winery in 1972, before working in South Africa, then returning in 1984. He’s seen St Hallett evolve its range from fortified to table wines and it has been Stuart’s abilities and commitment that have seen the Old Block Shiraz and Blackwell Shiraz held in such high esteem.
Today, Helen McCarthy is passionate about preserving Stuart’s legacy and continuing to foster his relationship with St Hallett. “I have the greatest respect for the styles that have developed over time,” she says, “I have no plans to make any significant changes to these styles (I’m thinking Faith, Blackwell and Old Block in particularly).”
But that’s not to say Helen is not keen to make her own mark and it’s with Shiraz that she wants to break new ground.
“Before taking the role at St Hallett, I thought I had a good handle on what could be done with Barossa Shiraz,” she describes. “I was wrong, we’ve only just scratched the surface, I’m excited to see what we can do to push the boundaries over the next few years.”
This she’ll accomplish through new wines, explaining, “I’m extremely excited to be working with our new releases. Particularly Higher Earth Syrah, an Eden Valley Shiraz which is made in a northern Rhone style.”
The 2020 Release
November 2020 saw Helen represent the inaugural vintage release, which will see St Hallett’s new releases available for tasting on the same day, every year. The 2020 release featured five wines, three of which were brand new.
Of the old guard, there was the 2018 Blackwell Shiraz, which Helen describes as a “really generous Barossa Shiraz with lots of blackberries, really silky tannins and great length.”
Then there was the 2016 Old Block Shiraz, which Helen says is now sourced from growers in the Barossa and Eden Valleys. The vines have to be on their own roots and at least 40 years old with the result being an elegant yet generous Shiraz with really supple tannins.
The new line-up included the 2018 Higher Earth Syrah from the Eden Valley. This, Helen says, makes it more of a Syrah than a Shiraz style. While the 2018 The Mighty Ox, she says, “shows our passion for the Barossa and is a bit of a nod to old school Barossa – it’s big, it’s generous, it’s rich.”
And finally came the 2015 Planted 1919 Shiraz, which Helen says, is “The most luxurious Shiraz that St Hallett has ever made.” It’s crafted from the best parcel of the vintage and Helen explains that they take pains to ensure they don’t lose the vineyard.
While Helen is today’s public face of St Hallett, she’s eager to give credit to the whole team. “Every one of the team members (from growers, winery staff, planning and marketing to bottling and distribution staff) are integral to us making great wine,” she says.