Meet the Winemaker: Tom Barry (Jim Barry Wines)

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Vintage Cellars
February 24, 2019
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This year marks the 60th anniversary of Jim Barry wines, one of Australia’s great family-owned companies, now in the capable hands of its founder’s grandson.

For the hard-working Barry family, 2019 will no doubt continue to see them travelling the country and the world extolling the virtues of all things Clare Valley and, in particular, the region’s benchmark riesling and shiraz. These two grape varieties are synonymous with both the area and the Barry name, headed by the exquisite The Florita Riesling and age-defying The Armagh Shiraz, both made with grapes from old vines. The Armagh is a landmark, the archetype Australian shiraz style.

Third-generation Tom Barry was awarded GT WINE Young Winemaker of the Year in 2013, while still in his 20s. Now in his 30s, and together with his brother, Sam, and sister, Olivia, he is quietly assuming control at Jim Barry Wines, while also working on a side project, Clos Clare. He combines tradition with innovation — not an easy balance to get right - pursuing the timeless beauty of great Clare riesling together with new varietal upstarts, such as assyrtiko.

What drew you to the wine industry?

Well, I think it was the fact that it was our family business and keeping the generational aspect to the business was very important. Ever since I finished my studies in 2009, I was really interested in getting my teeth into the business. I wanted to help Dad out and get amongst it. I’ve done a couple of vintages in Australia at other wineries and a few vintages in Germany and Austria, so I had an idea of what was going on in the wine world, apart from what we’d been doing at Jim Barry for the past 50 years.

Do you have a mentor?

It’s probably Ernie Loosen (Dr Loosen). He does with German riesling what I love to do with Clare Valley riesling - he keeps pushing his wines domestically and internationally, getting people worldwide to understand the style. He’s actually more of an inspiration than a mentor. He comes out every year and we are working on a few little things together. I can’t say too much, but we will do something. It will be a riesling of some description, so that’s exciting.

How do Australian rieslings compare with those produced in other regions around the world?

To me, they are very unique in their acid profile and the fact that we can ferment them very dry and it works well. Most regions outside Australia carry higher sugars in their rieslings, and to an Australian palate are definitely sweet.

I think our acid profile helps to define Australian rieslings and, while our commercial rieslings might need three or four grams (per litre) of sugar to give them a bit of lift and palate weight, they are still on the dry side.

What sets Clare Valley shiraz apart from shiraz produced elsewhere?

I think the natural acidity that helps with our riesling also helps with shiraz, producing a real freshness to the variety. That’s why they age so well. With The Armagh Shiraz, you can pull out some wines from the late 1980s and early 1990s, and they still look really fresh. We know Clare is a great area for shiraz, but it’s probably down to winemaking too. We are quite reductive in how we handle our reds and that bodes well for them living for a long time. We also produce a medium-bodied, spicy shiraz that a lot of consumers like.

The Armagh is a crazy wine. We might have 30 or 35 different shiraz ferments out of a vintage; all tasted randomly and blind. Glasses just keep bouncing around and it’s always The Armagh that has something crazily special about the intensity and concentration. Yet people tell me it can be quite delicate too, and I think that finesse comes from the vineyard.

How did your side project evolve?

Dad and his brothers bought The Florita Vineyard in 1986. They sold a section off the south-western corner, with a house and four acres of riesling, to a local artist and he started Clos Clare. In 2007, the owner came to us to buy it and that allowed Sam and me to get out from under the Jim Barry umbrella. We keep it small and make a riesling, shiraz and grenache.

Excluding your own Clare Valley backyard, which Australian wine region excites you?

The wines I have enjoyed from the Canberra District I absolutely love. Because of my love of riesling and shiraz, I probably gravitate to that area. Tasting Tim Kirk’s Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier and his rieslings last year was a highlight. It’s definitely an exciting style. Nick O’Leary at Nick O’Leary Wines is doing some fabulous things in the Canberra District, too.

What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the Australian wine industry?

Australian winemakers have been allowed to express themselves with different varieties in different regions over the past 100 years, and a lot of people have really homed in on what works for those regions. I think that’s been a strength. We’ve had that freedom; we haven’t been controlled or heavily regulated by old wine laws like the Europeans.

The weakness has been our low-end commercial wines. In export markets, that’s what Australia is known for. It’s like the beer industry being known only for Foster’s. It’s great to spread the message at the start, but it can hurt our reputation down the track when we are all put into the one basket.