Winery Highlight: Chris Ringland
Post by Chuck Hayward | February 9nd, 2012
Chris Ringland was surely not prepared for all of this. The popularity, the sudden attention. Working away at a rustic winery where time seemed not only to stand still but actually climbed backwards. He spent that time mentoring young winemakers as they learned the secrets of the Barossa Valley–its vineyards, its people, its history. The last thing he expected was an overflowing fax machine…100 point scores from Parker can do that.
Justifiably or not, Chris Ringland’s shiraz was catapulted into the global world of wine and things quickly got out of hand. Insane prices. Incessant phone calls. Lots of pot shots. All of this attention resulted in a wine that became bigger than the man and his vines; all thanks to a wine review. The problem is the score regrettably only reflected the wine in the glass. Where was the story? Who was this guy? Where was the information about his plot of dirt?
The story behind this man and his land reads like the countless others written about vignerons from France, Spain or Italy. Consumers and the trade alike value the handcrafted nature of such winemaking; the idea of the grower intimately entwined with his property, crafting small amounts of wine that speak of vintage and site. Chris Ringland’s wine proves no exception to this artisan tradition – the rustic charm is there in spades. But many in the business refuse to grant to Australia the level of gravitas so easily bestowed upon its so-called ‘old world’ counterparts. Dismissive phrases such as “It’s a Parker wine” or “It’s Australian” get thrown about easily, which only serve to propagate self-fulfilling stereotypes. 100 point Australian wines can do that. Such prejudice just about requires that the stories of these new world winemakers should be told.
For Chris, it all started many years beforehand. At school, actually, where he studied at Roseworthy, Australia’s leading winemaking program in Adelaide. Looking back at his fellow classmates today, you could probably predict his fame. What an all-star class it was, with Rolf Binder of Veritas Winery, Michael Brajovich of New Zealand’s Kumeu River, as well as Peter Barry of Clare Valley’s Jim Barry Winery. His oenologically talented peers were not limited to just winemakers. They included Huon Hooke, now the wine critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and Jane Ferrari, Yalumba Winery’s international brand ambassador. But after he finished his degree, he went home. To New Zealand.
Not long after, he returned to Australia and found himself at Rockford, the Barossa winery that emphasized the preservation of ancient shiraz vineyards and traditional winemaking techniques that were under attack from shifting wine trends. We are talking pitchforks and steam powered presses-type tradition. Between making wine there and mentoring young winemakers like Dave Powell (who modeled Torbreck from his experience at Rockford), Chris found a rundown property in the Eden Valley, a hilly region some 1500 feet above the main Barossa Valley floor. An old wool shed, some even older olive trees and a small patch of ancient shiraz in need of some care. “I thought it was going to get pulled out,” said Chris. It was a vineyard that no one wanted, and it was the plot he purchased back in 1993.
The Eden Valley’s altitude provides significantly cooler temperatures as compared to the warmer valley floor of the Barossa. Eden Valley shiraz is often picked two to three weeks later than its neighbors’ down below and the style of wine it produces is significantly different as well. Here, the shiraz is more refined and focused, with beautifully integrated acids that provide for a long, lingering finish. In cooler years, subtle pepper scents reminiscent of Victorian shiraz will appear. The same wines from the warmer floor, by contrast, generally show a thick, juicy, and more viscous midpalate, as broad aromas of deep prunes and chocolate dominate the aromatics.
Chris Ringland’s vineyard is part of a small stretch of linked properties going south to north that were planted around the 1910s. Ever mindful of the land and its heritage, he christened his plot “Stone Chimney Creek,” after an historic gold mine nearby that was operational in the 1880’s. His site is part of the Flaxman Valley, a unique subregion of Eden Valley with gently sloping plots facing due east to capture the cool morning sunlight while providing for drainage in wet years. Planted on their own roots, these vineyards form a bench that Chris sees as a “golden slope” for the perfect ripening of shiraz. His specific location allows his shiraz to obtain fruit intensity with persistence on the palate, all based on a focused frame.
Over the years, Chris nurtured the vineyard back to health and got to know his property intimately. He prunes the vineyard himself, remembering which techniques he applied to each vine in past years so as to plan for the next crop. “It’s important to be close to these old vines,” Chris says quietly. “They remember what happened in the past.” Even amongst this small seven acre plot, there are enough distinct differences to ensure that each of the eight blocks is picked separately and blended later. “I’m still learning about this vineyard” Chris muses. “It’s important that I get the feeling of this site. It’s exactly what it should be, a beautiful old vineyard.”
In a recent discussion about terroir, Nigel Greening of Felton Road discussed the importance of the human factor in translating a vineyard’s soil and climate into the wine in the glass. Visiting Chris at his property, it was easy to ascertain the man behind the wine and the relationship with his vineyard. In his modern house with its upscale kitchen complete with the latest utensils and equipment, I immediately noticed the fruits of other labors: jars of homemade preserves and overflowing spice racks. Cooking is important to Chris, his way of relaxing and finding balance after his work and travels. We shared a lunch of beef ribs with rice and fresh bok choy. Simple and uncomplicated, like his wines.
Chris Ringland’s shiraz is crafted the same way as that delicious lunch, simply, without much adornment. Grapes harvested when ripe, placed in barrels for 40-46 months and then bottled, released a few years later when ready to drink. New French oak but you’d be hard pressed to find it. Flavors and aromas that continuously reveal new and unique personalities. He surprisingly points to Randall Graham and Sean Thackery as inspirations to his winemaking approach. Not one for grandiose self-promotion, Chris said, “I just want to be a low-key operator.” Low-key indeed. Aren’t all the best wines made that way?