It played out like a like a lost season of the ’80s TV soap, Dallas. Barossa born and bred David Powell spent a stint as a lumberjack in Scotland in his youth before returning to his vine-roots to become a cellar hand at Rockford Winery and eventually forging the mighty Torbreck wine business, named after his lumberjack days, from scratch. Then he lost it all in August 2013 when his business partner, American billionaire Peter Kight, “ousted” Powell to take control of the brand. A full on he-said-she-said public battle ensued and, let’s just say, the accusations were salacious enough to make even J.R. Ewing blush. A year after parting ways, Kight then shelled out, by all accounts, a very large sum of money to purchase what is referred to by the locals as, “Australia’s most expensive vineyard.” Formally known as Gnadenfrei Vineyard, located next to the Gnadenfrei Church in Marananga, it is now better known as The Laird Vineyard, Kight’s lock, stock and barrel flagship. And, over two years on, the Torbreck portfolio remains largely the same, while Powell’s influence on the wines he named after his old lumberjack days increasingly fades. But what, many avid followers ask, has happened to David Powell?
In September 2015 I caught-up with David Powell and his son Callum, a young, talented winemaker in his own right, still studying oenology at Roseworthy, in Barossa. As I drove down a dirt road in Lyndoch towards the address I was given, it was like going back in time. In fact, I hardly recognized the newly renovated, original Torbreck winery when I arrived right in front of it. I had last visited it some years ago when doing a tasting with former Torbreck winemaker Dan Standish, during a stint when he was making his own “Standish” wines there. It was pretty much just a shell then. There is something very sentimental about Powell and his son doing-up the old Torbreck place for their new project, although I never thought I’d be using the word sentimental in the context of David Powell.
I’ll let my tasting notes of the bottled wines speak for themselves. After the tastings, I asked Powell, “What’s different?” Powell commented that he had no interest in doing the Torbreck thing all over again. “It’s back to basics for us,” Powell said, including his son as a full partner in this project – a “father and son work ethic. We’re working with small parcels and a focus on Barossa – but not just Barossa Valley – with an emphasis on Eden Valley.” Now there’s a surprise! Powell focusing on the generally cooler climate, more restrained expressions of Eden Valley? But it works, with all that power for which Powell has perhaps been best known now being expressed as bright, polished intensity.
“Our focus is on finding great vineyards and fruit. We’ll be naming the single vineyard wines after the founders who originally planted the vineyards in order to pay homage to them. We haven’t named them all yet though because we’re still researching the history of some of the old vineyards.” These single vineyard flagship wines include two Shirazes, one coming from the “Steinert” vineyard of 120+ year old vines in Eden Valley, and the other a yet unnamed wine from a vineyard of old vines located in Marananga in Barossa Valley. There will also be a single vineyard Grenache coming from the 100+ year old Barossa Valley vineyard that was formerly the basis of the Torbreck Les Amis label. The Steinert Shiraz was produced from 2014, while the first vintage of the Marananga Shiraz and the Grenache will be 2015 (both currently still in barrel).
2014 was the first vintage for “Powell & Son,” the wines soon to be released. This was what winemakers euphemistically label a “challenging” year. I’ve referred to it as a rollercoaster vintage in my other South Australia reports, its mid-season marked by scorching heat waves, followed closely by bucketing rain. My most recent Barossa tastings in September 2015 suggest that while they were some very good to excellent wines made in 2014, it is not a consistent year in terms of quality. Powell comments, “2014 wasn’t a bad vintage, but you had to know what you were doing. Generally it was more of a Grenache year. Eden Valley Shiraz was more successful than Barossa Valley.” And 2015? “2015 was near perfect and gave decent yields,” he grins, in typical David Powell fashion, daring me to disagree. I can’t; the barrel sample tasting I conducted with Powell of his 2015s revealed some incredibly exciting wines in the pipeline. David Powell is back.
2014 Powell & Son Riesling The 2014 Riesling is both pronounced and expressive with a lovely honeysuckle and orange blossom nose plus an intense core of lime cordial. Dry, light to medium-bodied and elegant, the palate slowly opens to reveal nice vibrancy and texture, with a long and minerally finish. 300 cases produced.
2015 Powell & Son Riesling
The 2015 Riesling is a step-up from the previous vintage, offering gorgeous floral, jasmine and lemon drops notes with hints of crushed stones, beeswax and yuzu. The palate is intense, zesty and very tightly knit with tons of freshness and an appealing steeliness carrying the taut flavors to a long finish. 600 cases produced.
2014 Powell & Son Barossa Valley Shiraz
Deep garnet-purple in color, the 2014 Barossa Valley Shiraz has notes of crushed blackcurrants and blackberries with suggestions of tar, licorice, black pepper and dusty earth plus some raw meat notes. The palate reveals a concentrated, very serious wine for the “entry level” with savory, muscular fruit supported by nice freshness and a firm backbone carrying the long and chewy finish. It would benefit from another year in bottle. 600 cases produced.
2014 Powell & Son Grenache Shiraz Mataro
Blended of 70% Grenache, 25% Shiraz and 5% Mataro, the 2014 Grenache Shiraz Mataro gives a lovely perfume of kirsch, anise and cloves over a pronounced core of mulberries, black cherries and black berries plus some mincemeat, chocolate box and loam nuances. Medium to full-bodied, the palate is surprisingly fine and elegant, with youthful brightness supported by firm, grainy tannins and it finishes with great freshness, plus tons of spiced orange notes. 450 cases produced.
2014 Powell & Son Barossa & Eden Valley Shiraz The deep garnet-purple colored 2014 Barossa & Eden Valley Shiraz is beautifully perfumed of black raspberries, crushed blueberries, black cherry pie, violets and anise with a meaty undercurrent and hints of lovely fallen leaves and potpourri. Elegant, lively and vibrantly fruited in the mouth, it has ripe, fine, firm tannins and great length with a touch of herbals coming through in the finish. Give is another 2-3 years in bottle. 600 cases produced.
2014 Powell & Son Loechel Shiraz
Coming from the western section of a single vineyard in Eden Valley of 70 year old vines, the deep garnet-purple colored 2014 Loechel Shiraz offers wonderful depth of expression and complexity. Black plums, blueberry pie, roses and tar intermingle with sage and dark chocolate nuances. Full-bodied, taut, rich and voluptuous but in no way heavy, some toast and spice notes compliment the fruit on the palate, framed by lovely fine tannins, finishing gracefully yet with great persistence. 250 cases produced.
2014 Powell & Son Steinert Shiraz
This single Steinert vineyard wine along with the upcoming (from 2015) yet to be named single vineyard wine from Marananga (Barossa Valley) are the Powell & Son flagships. Coming from a single vineyard of 120+ year old vines in Barossa’s cooler Eden Valley, the 2014 Steinert Vineyard Shiraz is a very pretty wine possessing a deep garnet-purple color and lifted nose of kirsch, crushed red currants and black raspberries with suggestions of wild thyme, lavender, black pepper and cloves. Medium to full-bodied, it has a firm backbone of grainy tannins supporting elegant yet intensely flavored fruit with great harmony and freshness to the very long finish. Note that while I didn’t produce a note for it, a barrel tasting of the 2015 vintage of this vineyard and the single vineyard wine from Marananga revealed two very profound 2015 wines in the pipeline.