I’m in the Barossa valley, South Australia, home of St Hugo Wines, gazing over to the adjacent Eden Valley and a parcel of Riesling vines at the Steingarten vineyard. Glass in hand and feeling playful, I bless the vines with a resolute flourish. The wind blows the wine back into my face and I laugh, knowing that now I’ll never forget the place.
Steingarten is one of the portfolio of vineyards under the St Hugo aegis. It’s also the spot where Colin Gramp, great-grandson of Johann Gramp, an immigrant from Bavaria and the founder of the winery that eventually became St Hugo (confusingly, the Riesling is labelled St Helga), decided in 1962 to blow out the soil with dynamite. His intention was to prove that Riesling vines founded on the Mosel variety could thrive here in the schist soil, with its dry ground that requires deep vinous roots.
Fast forward to the present day and lunch at St Hugo’s newly opened restaurant, which was built at its Barossa winery within restored ironstone walls from the 1850s, where I’m drinking the very same Riesling. It’s an off-dry style that would charm anyone into thinking the wine hails from Alsace or Germany rather than South Australia, vindicating with a vengeance the younger Gramp’s foresight.
Moving past the St Helga, I next confront a 2012 Grenache Shiraz Mataro, a 2010 Vetus Purum Shiraz, a 2012 St Harriett Semillon, a 2012 Private Collection Rowland Flat Shiraz, a 2008 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1970 Tawny. The Vetus Purum Shiraz, a dense purple wine with crimson hues and a penetration made subtly stronger by its smoky notes and engaging intensity, is my favourite wine of the session, well paired with a seared Wagyu, grilled Romaine lettuce and Jerusalem artichoke chips.
I share the morning’s Riesling story with St Hugo’s Chief Winemaker, Daniel Swincer, and ask how the Wine Society’s 2011 Young Winemaker of the Year came to Steingarten. “Originally, I didn’t want to be a winemaker,” he replies. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot. But then I realised winemaking was a great job. You get to travel and see the world, it’s agricultural but there’s science involved. There’s a bit of artistic licence in what you do and you get to talk to people about it, so this is a diverse job. I grew into it, essentially.”
Swincer had earlier taken out some barrel samples from the 2017 vintage from various parts of the Barossa, so “we can see what they taste like. Then we get to fly over those same areas in a helicopter to see what they look like from above”. He emphasises that while the company has existed since 1847, St Hugo is its luxury brand and originally it produced only one wine, the St Hugo Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon.
“That was it until 2011 when we released the rest of this range we’re going to taste through,” he says. “The red wines are blends from the Barossa and Coonawarra. We have the cellar door here, our travel retail and then finally our ‘icon range’ – our single-vineyard Vetus Purum wines, launched in 2014. We use mostly French oak and start with the fruit and the vineyard, which is the most important. It’s about the intensity of fruit and the density of the tannin, but it’s not overblown and jammy.”
“Everything starts with the wine,” says Mark McNamara, executive chef of the St Hugo Restaurant, who energises us in a “food philosophy” exercise that prominently showcases how his menu pairing starts with wine, not food. “The essence of this is to discern which flavours are tied to this wine,” he says. “Last night we had Cabernet with lobster and it worked wonderfully, because it’s not about the lobster but the flavours that go with the lobster. We need to find the right affinity and we do this so often that we have this programme about the basic flavours.”
He points to the table, where lines of food items are strategically placed in precise rows that actually tell a story. “Like here we have seaweed, which goes well with Cabernet. We don’t use much vinegar in my cooking except black and brown rice vinegar. We use a teaspoon with five litres of sauce. We much prefer turmeric or verjus, things that have malic or tartaric acid, the same acids you find in your wine.”
McNamara indicates the salty flavours – anchovies, capers, olives, fish sauce and kombu sauce, mushroom sauce and fennel sauce – and fats – coconut, butter and olive oil. “We used to have a pork belly braised with cocoa and verjus and miso, and it was sensational. I’d suggest you try this line here because it’s so pungent and powerful, they’ll stay on your palate for a long time – vanilla paste, lemon zest, fresh thyme. Finally, some fresh green herbs that will be in season – fennel fronds, tarragon and basil. Your feedback is essential to how we’re going to prepare the dinner tonight.”
But before that it’s time for our helicopter ride. The Legacy Wine Experience allows for a tasting of old vintages from the Hugo Gramp Room, followed by a jaunt in the whirlybird. As we judder serenely in the skies above, I look down at the Steingarten vineyard from where I’d started out that morning and I can visualise old Colin Gramp, who’d celebrated his 94th birthday just the day before, smiling contentedly.