Ironing Out The Kinks: Jim Barry The Armagh 1985-2021


It would be difficult to imagine two more different places: The town of Armagh, sitting amongst green fields in Northern Ireland—a centerpiece for culture and religion—and the isolated rolling, occasionally rugged, hillsides of outback South Australia and the Clare Valley. Yet for early Irish settlers almost 200 years ago, a small untamed corner of Clare Valley, which they christened “Armagh,” offered hope for a better life. Vines followed soon after. The Armagh name has proven to be prophetic, as it is now home to one of Australia’s premier vineyards.

Winter hibernation in The Armagh vineyard.

Today, 5,100 hectares are planted in the Clare Valley, a diverse region with elevations ranging from 200 to 600 meters. Located close to an hour’s drive north of the Barossa and half its size, Clare Valley is defined by seasons that take a distinctly more continental turn, with cooler nights and warmer days than in its more famous southerly neighbor.

Clare Valley is the country’s red center and where ocean influences collide. Cool maritime breezes rip up through gullies and valleys from the south, tempering the prevailing heat mass from central Australia that can see temperatures drop from 40 degrees to single figures in a day during the growing season. This dramatic climatic tension, combined with a diversity of sites, allows Clare Valley to grow both fine and detailed Riesling in some areas and deeply flavored Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon in others. But, this is not the openly expressive typical South Australian Shiraz style—the best are composed, intense and brooding wines with a quiet confidence and distinctive slaty/graphite tones.

More than in other regions, choosing the right site is extremely important in the Clare Valley due to the wide variety of soils and the challenging climate, especially during hot, dry summers (although recent vintages have been relatively mild). Water is regularly scarce, providing a generally low disease risk. Shallow, impermeable bedrock is also common, inhibiting deep root growth. A fine balance is required, with the best sites offering both good water availability and drainage and nearby natural waterways proving highly advantageous.

The Armagh Vineyard is just northwest of the town of Clare. There are other exceptional sites in the Clare Valley, most notably the iconic and highly individual Wendouree, planted in 1896, and Penfolds’ Botanic Vineyard. But The Armagh has most successfully transitioned from an Australian benchmark into a wine with significant international appeal. This is the result of an evolution in investment, winemaking and viticultural style, as well as an uplift in the Barry family’s aspirations to craft wines for a global fine wine market.

Jim Barry originally planted The Armagh Vineyard with Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec before adding five hectares of Shiraz in 1968 with cuttings from Wendouree. Cabernet/Malbec blends are a local specialty, and readers can expect to see more from the Barry family. The vineyard sits at 400 meters in elevation on a gentle northwesterly slope that runs down to a small creek. Alluvial, free-draining soils with pebbles and gravel mix with sand and clay that is low in fertility. This is perfect for the region when combined with the nearby natural watercourse, helping to control yields and avoid stress in even the most challenging vintages. The Shiraz vines' first summer (in 1968/1969) was a hot one, and hand-watering was indispensable for the young vines. Jim Barry filled up a couple of 44-gallon drums at home before transporting them two kilometers to the vineyard—a slow and laborious process that ensured its survival.

The genesis for The Armagh Shiraz was a trip to Bordeaux in 1983, where Barry hatched a plan to create an icon from the finest family-owned site. Early vintages from the vineyard had been used for Port, which was not unusual at the time, but even then, at less than twenty years of age, The Armagh plot had distinguished itself as a premier source of fruit.

Nineteen eighty-five marked the first year of The Armagh Shiraz. Early releases mirrored the zeitgeist of the times for big South Australian Shiraz. However, they largely avoided the excesses of oaky notes and alcohol. Intensely flavored, ripe fruit was picked at high but not extreme Baumé (Brix) before a short, sharp ferment in stainless steel at 22 degrees and long maturation in new American oak, generally between 16 and 18 months. While sweet American oak often dominated these wines in their youth, they did generally come into better balance over time, with increasingly sensitive winemaking all around in recent vintages, helping to elevate consistency and quality.

The Armagh remains solely crafted from the original 1968 plantings, with 50% or less of the harvest selected for the final bottling, thanks to a barrel classification. Yields are also small at two tons per acre, with the associated low juice-to-skin ratio holding the keys to the overarching style. Since 2010, there has also been a much greater effort in the vineyard to improve soil health and water retention through the use of mulches, composts and perennial cover crops. Vineyard sorting was also only introduced in 2014 to drop out overripe fruit, providing a more even ripeness without any jammy or Porty characters, lowering average alcohols from 15% to under 14% since 2010, with optical sorting now routine.

Generational change has seen Tom Barry take over the winemaking from his father, Peter, with new perspectives and a more modern viewpoint on quality. Winery updates started in 2006. Since 2008, Barry has added new one-ton fermenters, also allowing better hands-on treatment of small parcels to maximize quality. Thankfully, the oak influence has been pulled back, with American oak first reduced and then eliminated by 2017. High toast Burgundy barriques have been replaced by lighter toast hogsheads, which are now only 60-70% new. Together, these changes are allowing the vineyard and vintage to express themselves better while also removing rustic imperfections through an increase in fruit consistency and, in turn, quality. Top vintages of The Armagh have always been exceptional, but ironing out the kinks over the last two decades has elevated this wine.

I tasted most of the wines in this report at The Armagh, with follow-up tastings in Sydney.

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