How one of Australia’s leading wine regions is experiencing a ‘Ginaissance’

Across Australia and around the world, the Barossa Valley is synonymous with wine.

Revered by connoisseurs and wine-mums alike for the famed Barossa Shiraz, it’s also recognised for output of quality Grenache, Riesling and Mataró (otherwise known as Mourvèdre).

The Barossa’s rich history as a wine region provides a steadfast tourism industry for South Australia, and the nation more generally. The flat expanses and the rolling hills that form the edge of the Valley provide not only a uniquely ideal environment for grape growing but also a picturesque setting for cellar doors.

The region’s abundance of family-owned wineries – some dating back to settlement – provide an intimate experience for tourists to feel at home.

A simple Google search for “Barossa winery” will bring up sites like Red Balloon and Groupon offering winery tours, wine tastings, and even winemaking classes.

But the same time the Barossa Valley was establishing itself as a wine region in the 1840s, gin was exploding in England.

Before the turn of the 19th century, gin suffered a disastrous public reputation and was said to be  “the principal cause of all the vice and debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people” by a Middlesex magistrate; the infamy of gin owing to affordability and easy production among the impoverished populations.

Often, home brewers added turpentine and sulphuric acid for taste and higher alcohol content, exacerbating health risks and drunken violence.

With the Charles Dickens-endorsed invention of gin palaces circa 1828, the life-ruining reputation of gin had been utterly gentrified in the 19th century.

The Barossa Valley has a lesser known history of spirits distilling. As told by Neil Bullock, Managing Director of the Barossa Distilling Company.

He says, “traditionally Brandy was distilled by numerous wineries, either for use in fortification or as a standalone product”.

Seppeltsfield – now a dynasty of the Barossa wine market –  was initially settled with the intent of tobacco farming; as the grape-growing industry proved more lucrative, the Seppelts family business ventured into brandy, gin and vermouth production.

Although there is a connection between Seppeltsfield and gin, Seppeltsfield Road Distillers is an independent distillery. “Whilst there is always the occasional visitor who gets confused between Seppeltsfield Wines and Seppeltsfield Road Distillers… we are named after the picturesque, palm-lined road that our business is situated,” says brand and communications manager Daniel Hill.

In the Barossa Distilling Company’s gin distillery door The Distillery, you can visit the historical site of the Old Penfolds Distillery, including one of three Coffey stills left in the world.

As a region, the Barossa Valley also provided an ideal environment for growing botanicals for gin.

This tradition is continued by Diane and Steve Stewart – a viticulturist and a distiller –  behind Black Cat Gins, who grow and source their botanicals locally. They grow a variety of citrus, herbs, sloe berries, lemon myrtle and aniseed myrtle to use as botanicals in their gin batches.

In recent years, gin has enjoyed a resurgent wave of popularity. Known as the “ginaissance”, this phenomenon has commonly been attributed to three things: a foodie craft drinks market, the spirit’s versatility, and its affordability.

Although it’s a drink heavily entrenched in English history, Australia has been taken by storm, with more than 150 distilleries nationwide.

In the Barossa, a thriving small-batch gin distilling market serves not as a counterculture, but as a complementary culture within the established wine region.

Many Barossa gin distillers use locally-sourced grape spirit bases, with Seppeltsfield Road Distillers using a grape spirit base from distilled recycled winery waste as a “blank canvas” for their gin.

This collaboration between gin and wine is front-and-centre in Barossa Distilling Company’s Barossa Distilling Set, utilising Barossa grape spirit, white Frontignac, and Shiraz fruit in their Budburst, Generations and Barossa Shiraz gin respectively.

For the distillers, the experience of drinking the gin is just as much of a priority as the taste.

As a versatile spirit, even people who don’t enjoy gin can enjoy any number of cocktails and at the scenic distillery doors across the Valley.

For those who do, distillery doors also offer tasting flights, bespoke packages, and even a gin class, organised by Durand Distillers for people wanting to create their very own craft gin.

For Black Cat Gins, their target market seems to encapsulate the Barossa gin market – “gin drinkers who are adventurous but looking for authentic, classic gins – keen to try something beyond the mainstream.”

For staff at Seppeltsfield Road Distillers and Barossa Distilling Company, their gin distilleries have no “typical visitor”, but find a fascinating array of people of different ages, backgrounds and tastes making their way through their doors.

Just as visitors to the Barossa can look forward to being immersed in the history of family wineries, they can also be a part of a gin revival.

Image by Liam Fiddick