Dave Powell hasn’t changed. The loud, opinionated, chain-smoking winemaker who founded cult label Torbreck in the Barossa two decades ago — and acrimoniously parted ways with the company in 2013 — is back with a new brand, a new set of wines. And he’s still loud, still opinionated and still rarely without a fag. Only this time round he also has a new collaborator: his 22-year-old son Callum.
When I arrive at the Powell & Son winery in Lyndoch, in the wide open country of the southern Barossa, Powell senior is leaning against the stone wall of a converted 1840s farm cottage, the winery’s office and tasting room, cigarette in hand. After the usual expletive-laden greeting (I’ve arrived a bit late), he introduces me to Callum and another man, Paul Breen, general manager of Powell & Son and owner of one of the Eden Valley vineyards that supplies grapes to the new venture.
“Paul and I have been mates since kindergarten,” says Powell. “He was with me for years as general manager at Torbreck. And that’s the last time I’m f . . kin’ mentioning Torbreck today.”
It isn’t. As we head into the winery to taste the raw 2016 vintage whites and reds from tank and then work our way through the 2015s in barrel in the cellar, Powell talks about Torbreck a lot. Which is hardly surprising: for almost two sometimes-turbulent decades it was his life. From the moment the first Torbreck wines burst on the scene in the late-1990s they — and their maker — attracted a lot of attention: powerful international critics such as Robert Parker in the US lauded the rich, seductive, full-bodied styles, encouraging Powell to raise the prices of his top wines, build the business rapidly and travel the world widely and flamboyantly.
It’s not surprising to find parallels between the former and present labels: each relies on grapes sourced from loyal local growers, and the wines are arranged in a clear price/quality pyramid, with larger volumes of lower-priced grenache blends and shirazes on the bottom and decreasing volumes of increasingly expensive wines the further up you go, culminating in a single-vineyard shiraz priced extravagantly at $750 a bottle.
There are important differences, though: a (very good) riesling has been introduced into the Powell & Son range and there is more emphasis on the finer, more savoury flavours of grapes grown in the cooler, higher Eden Valley. It’s symbolic that while the top $750 Torbreck shiraz, The Laird, is sourced from a vineyard between Marananga and Seppeltsfield — the heartland of full-bodied, powerful Barossa reds — the top Powell & Sons shiraz, Steinert, comes from an old vineyard high in the Flaxman’s Valley subregion of Eden Valley (though a richer, Marananga-sourced shiraz called Kraehe will be introduced to sit alongside the Steinert from the 2015 vintage).
And the other difference, of course, is Callum. Now finishing his third year of the winemaking course at Adelaide Uni, and with years of experience helping his father in the winery, Powell Jr has already notched up vintage in France’s Rhone Valley working for legendary producer JL Chave — an experience that turned him on to the quality of the marsanne and roussanne grapes (both originally Rhone varieties) growing in the Barossa.
“I reckon we can use them to make a good Barossan white,” says Callum, taking a sample of lovely, crunchy, intense 2016 roussanne he’s made and splashing it in my glass. “I really like roussanne and I think it’ll go really well blended with some marsanne we’ve fermented in oak.”
Callum is also a big fan of the Eden Valley. “Because it’s part of the Barossa, many people expect shiraz from Eden Valley to be a 16 per cent alcohol monster,” he says. “But because it’s higher and cooler, the wines are different — still ripe and flavoursome, but they don’t punch you in the face.”
Powell Sr reckons the time Callum spent in France, working with Chave making syrah (the French name for the shiraz grape), helped him appreciate Eden Valley: “He sees more expression of syrah-like characters in the grapes grown up there,” he says.
As he lights another cigarette, Powell tells a story of the moment he knew his son would follow in his footsteps.
“Callum and his younger brother and I had dinner at Aria (restaurant in Sydney),” he says. “Callum was 16. I bought a 1990 Bruno Giacosa Barolo — one of the most expensive single vineyard nebbiolos. I had a glass, Callum had a glass, I went to speak to (chef) Matt Moran and when I came back to the table the f . . kin’ bottle was empty. He said, ‘That was good, Dad. Did it cost much?’ I said, ‘About a term’s f . . kin’ school fees.’ ”
Callum laughs. And then wistfully says: “What I’d really love to do one day is find a little half acre of perfect land in Eden Valley and plant nebbiolo.”
Now that would be different.
Powell & Son – the wines
2016 Eden Valley Riesling $30: This is an absolutely stunning young riesling: scintillating citrus, precise juicy lime and a more-ish, thirst-slaking quality found in the best examples of this grape grown in the Eden Valley. The 2015 vintage, from the same 80-year-old vineyard, is also a lovely, fragrant wine and is well worth buying, but the 2016 is in another league.
2014 Barossa Valley Grenache Shiraz Mataro $50: When I first wrote about Torbreck back in 1997, the wine that impressed me most was The Steading, a humble, earthy grenache blend aged in big old barrels. So it’s good to see a similar styled wine released under the Powell & Son label: it’s an approachable, supple, mellow red with a seductive sprinkling of woody spices (cloves, cinnamon, fenugreek); good now but will also cellar well.
2014 Loechl Eden Valley Shiraz $100: Made from shiraz grapes grown in a 50-year-old vineyard in Eden Valley, this is quite a voluptuous wine, showing a fair bit of rich dark oak influence, but underneath all the braggadocio there’s a fabulous, compressed, savoury quality to the tannins — a sinewy vineyard/regional character that I also tasted in the 2015 Loechl out of barrel and the newly fermented 2016 out of tank.
2014 Steinert Eden Valley Shiraz $750: So is it worth the money? Is this, a first release from a new company (albeit one headed by a winemaker with a 20-year track record, and made using grapes from an acclaimed 120-year-old vineyard), really worth 750 smackers? It is bloody marvellous: a wild cavalcade of dark, brooding, hedgerow berry fruit, heaps of deeply seductive dark oak and then this incredible, enfolding blanket of fine but persistent, savoury tannin. And Powell tells me he’s almost sold out. So some people must think it is.