All posts by Ed Merrison

About Ed Merrison

I am a Mornington Peninsula-based freelance journalist specialising in wine and travel. I write for the Guardian, Business Spectator and Winetitles magazines, and offer copywriting services to the wine, food and tourism industries.

A Glass With Jancis Robinson

Jancis through the good-looking glass: Robinson in Melbourne. Photo: Elizabeth Clancy

It was an utter thrill to sit down for a chat with Jancis Robinson during her spring 2019 visit to Melbourne. She was here to attend a Chardonnay visit in the Yarra Valley, promote her range of glassware and launch the 8th edition of Bonnezeaux Gonzo’s favourite wine book, The World Atlas of Wine.
We had a chance to talk on the way up to the Yarra, following a couple of days’ tasting superb wines from her glass with sommeliers in Sydney and Melbourne.
She began by telling me she never imagined she’d one day put her name to a wine glass. When she was introduced to young British product designer Richard Brendon a few years back, she offered up a few thoughts but that was that. She wished Brendon luck and sent him on his way.

BONNEZEAUX GONZO: So, what changed your mind?

JANCIS ROBINSON: He was very persistent. He came back and I realised I had more than 40 years’ experience tasting wines, and some pretty strong opinions about the perfect wine glass.
One of my fervent beliefs is that logically there’s only a need for one glass. I’ve never understood why white is served in smaller glasses than red – except to swell the coffers of glass manufacturers – because white wine’s every bit as subtle and needs the space and all that. The process of tasting white wine is exactly the same as the process of tasting red wine.
And then I’d been noticing over the last few years that Champagne producers – certainly the ones I most respect – all want their Champagnes to be tasted in a proper wine glass rather than in a narrow little flute, which can be jolly difficult to get your nose into. To me, the man who’s revived fine sherry, Jesús Barquín of Equipo Navazos, I remember him saying to me very strongly that he wanted all of his sherries to be tasted in a proper wine glass. And any decent aged fortified, like Port, deserves to have real space to express itself rather than to be crammed into a tiny little glass.

Decision made, then: It had to be a universal glass. Aside from ultra-fine glass to minimise the barrier between wine and taster, what else goes into making the ultimate instrument of drinking pleasure?

I think anyone who understands wine will know why a tulip shape works well, why you want the rim to be narrower than the bowl. And I was pretty adamant that it should be a nice, smooth curvature that really encouraged the aroma up to the nose, however low or high the fill level, and delivered all that the wine has to express to its optimum.
It had to be a handmade, mouthblown glass to be thin enough, but I was also adamant that it had to be dishwasher friendly because I’m no fan of polishing glasses myself. And that’s when most glasses get broken. We’ve had the glasses at home for two and a half years now, always wash them the dishwasher, and we are yet to break one. And we’re quite clumsy.

The imperative to be both sturdy and user-friendly entailed certain design features: It couldn’t be too tall, so as to fit in commercial and domestic dishwashers; the stem – the most fragile part of the glass – could not be perilously thin; and the base had to be relatively broad, to ensure stability. What about the finishing touches?

Richard’s got a brilliant eye and the last refinements were tiny but aesthetically important things I wouldn’t have suggested or noticed but he did. I think people who’ve tried them really do appreciate how they look, and I feel very confident that they look great in any setting, whether it’s a classical setting or a very modern setting.
They also feel nice; the weighting is very good. I would say to have a wine glass designed by a wine professional really does make a difference. The whole point of our glass is that it is for wine lovers. It’s for people who want to get the most out of every glass.

Thus the definitive wine glass was born – but Brendon got his wish, with a few complementary pieces added to the range. There’s the stemless glass – ideal for water, G&Ts or, I suppose, next-level glamping. And then he suggested a decanter?

I said, “No, I think it’s got to be two decanters,” because there are two very different jobs that a decanter does. One is if you’ve got a really old wine with some sediment, you want to pour the wine off its sediment and then protect it from oxygen. So  a tall, narrow decanter with a stopper is needed.
And actually I use a decanter even more for aerating young wine, whether it’s red or white – and I think white wine looks absolutely gorgeous in a decanter. That’s a much broader decanter with a friendly neck which allows you to – I call it “swooshing” – grasp it, swish it about, really aerate the wine and accelerate its development. The young-wine decanter will hold a magnum quite easily, so that’s quite useful. They both reflect the shape of the wine glass, so it’s all a set.

Even if the ultimate wine-lover believes in an ultimate wine glass, I’m guessing there’s more than one grape in your life. What varieties enjoy most regular airplay chez Robinson?

I suppose I do often actively seek a glass of Riesling, as a refreshment or aperitif – and, of course, now we’ve got so many great dry Rieslings from Germany, as well as Australia and Alsace – with food as well. I think they go really well. I admire lots of Chardonnays and I enjoy lots of Chardonnays but they’re not as natural food partners in most cases as a good dry Riesling.

What about reds?

I just like the variety, really. I don’t think there’s anything I would choose automatically. It’s just pretty magical to me that the fermented juice of a single fruit can produce such an extraordinary array of flavours and styles. I suppose the one style of red wine that I probably drink less of is high-alcohol, heavily-wooded young wines.

Between the last update of the World Atlas of Wine and the brand-new 8th edition, there must have been some lesser known grape varieties that have come to the fore. Which of these have the most exciting potential in Australia?

I think there are probably a lot more Portuguese varieties to be experimented with. Touriga Nacional just happens to be the most famous of them but the Portuguese don’t necessarily think it’s the best. There’s Touriga Franca – I don’t know if anyone’s planted that in Australia. There’s a whole host of varieties just in the Douro, let alone in other regions of Portugal, so I would be trying those. And Greek varieties as well. Again I think Steve Pannell’s trialling some, isn’t he? Although of course not all Greek wine regions are boiling hot – quite a few of them are high altitude – but they’re really interesting, with masses of character. And there are presumably some more Italian varieties still to be experimented with, even though I know Chalmers has made a special effort with Italian varieties. What about Corsican/Sardinian varieties…

What is it that makes an Atlas an apt medium to show the story of wine?

I always say there are very, very few things that we buy and consume that allow us to know exactly, from the label, which point on the globe it’s produced in, as well as who produced it and when. Wine is wonderfully geographically specific, and I’m delighted that more and more Australian wine producers are wanting to put geography in the bottle, on the label, and express a place. And then it will take time to establish characteristics and so forth, but it’s such a healthy development.

The Atlas is also an extension of the notion that travel and wine go hand-in-hand, giving us the opportunity to literally taste a region and listen to people’s philosophy on nature and creativity. Are you nourished by the experience of collecting these stories?

Oh, it’s lovely. Wine people do tend to be pretty interesting. There are very few boring people in wine. There are some very strong characters – sometimes too strong – but it’s not a boring world. And it’s a very generous world. People want you to try their wine, they want you to enjoy it, preferably with food. And wine is such a sociable thing. It’s all about sociability, really.

Does everyone always tell you that they’d love to have your job?

I think most people understand that I do quite a lot of work. I spend hours each day on JancisRobinson.com, I’ve got my weekly column for the Financial Times, and then I must say, having spent two years updating the Atlas, I’ve completely forgotten – it’s a bit like childbirth – I’ve completely forgotten what it was like trying to shoehorn two years of updates into my life.

Presumably there are constant surprises to keep the challenge fresh?

Oh, I learn things every day! I suppose that’s one plus point of the world of wine expanding so much, and then there are all the new consumers. I was told solemnly at the beginning of my career that Asians would never drink wine – that there was something about the physiology of the Asian palate that precluded any love of wine and that they would stay with spirits and beer. Well, how wrong was that?

Where have the biggest changes taken place since the last edition of the Atlas?

Everywhere has changed. There’s no stasis at all. And everywhere’s producing better and better wine, which is fantastic for the consumer. We have 68 local experts around the world feeding in suggestions as to how the text from the seventh edition should be updated, and my job is to interpret those suggestions. I don’t accept all of them. The local experts are varied in how much they sell their region and how much they criticise it. I hadn’t realised, until reading closely what the Czech and Slovak consultants fed in, how many new varieties had been bred in that part of the world – and how popular natural wines were there. Although when I was last in Shanghai, I was served a Czech natural wine which I wasn’t expecting!

Robinson models the 8th edition of the definitive wine atlas. Photograph: Elizabeth Clancy

Plenty of exciting developments, then. Any bad news?

Sherry! Poor, poor sherry, which is Spain’s most distinctive wine. They’re still struggling. In fact there used to be a map of the sherry vineyards in old copies of the Atlas. In the sixth or the seventh edition we were pressed for space and wondered whether people were really interested, so we didn’t include it. In the eighth edition we’ve reinstated the map as a mark in the sand about how important sherry should be, and there are signs of a few green shoots there. But the sad thing is, if you were to compare the extent of the vineyards as they used to be, and the extent now, it’s very dramatic. I think they’ve shrunk by two-thirds or something.

In addition to the map updates and modified lists of notable producers for each region, what else is new in the 8th edition of the World Atlas of Wine?

I thought it was high time to completely revamp the introductory pages, not least taking into account climate change and weather, really, which is so important. Those pages are completely new.
We’ve also got a couple of pages on wine and money, because wine has become, sadly, an investment vehicle. So there are quite a lot of charts like the index of how the average price of fine wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, California and Italy have risen, comparatively. You can see how and when Burgundy has overtaken Bordeaux. We also compare vineyard land prices around the world, and I thought it would be fun to have a graphic that shows how many hours the average person would have to have worked to buy themselves a bottle of first-growth Bordeaux in each of the years that the Atlas has been published.

One last question on the meaning of wine in the today’s world: With all the dreadful news out there at the moment – all that fuel for pessimism – does wine stand up as a celebration of humanity?

There’s still not much diversity among the people who work in wine. I think we ought to work on that a bit more. And maybe we should add the caveat that wine producers of the world could be, should be, more conscious of sustainability. There are far more things to consider, quite apart from cutting down on agrochemicals, to take a more holistic approach to not just waste but employees, finances, whatever – rather than churn out the returns for shareholders as reliably as possible.
But then I think wine has an elemental aspect to it, and hence all these rich businessmen wanting to start their own vineyard and winery. And it’s got a strong link to religion, the Eucharist and all that. It does seem a rather beautifully simple thing that you plonk a vine in the ground and it can eventually yield this liquid that can transport you to amazing mental places. And I love the annual miracle of a vineyard that is little black stumps in the middle of winter and then becomes so luxuriant in spring and then summer, and drips with these ripe grapes and then turns these gorgeous colours.
It is all wonderfully sociable and all pretty nice…

**Disclaimer: This article first appeared on the website of CellarHand, which is both the author’s employer and the Australian importer of the Jancis Robinson Collection.**

A Sense Of The Famiglia

It’s like synaesthesia. Whenever I hear the Vajra name or taste the wines, I see a riot of colour. It’s like drinking in the cheerful hues of the labels and stained-glass windows, or splashing through the poetry-soaked palette of the Barolo landscape.
Giuseppe Vaira reckons he wasn’t brainwashed. I don’t think I was either. It’s just that every interaction with the wines, the place and the people has felt like tracing another vivid detail on the same seamless canvas.
Fluidity and fusion are in G.D. Vajra’s DNA. A good dose of that genetic material was dished up by one Aldo Vaira, the flock-defying, tractor-loving intellectual who founded the estate in the early ‘70s. “I feel like I’m still discovering my father, but I guess it’s a journey like all human relationships,” says eldest son Giuseppe. “It’s a very alive relationship; it’s not like something stuck in a moment that’s always the same.” Aldo is cast as a multifaceted, nuanced character. “He can be strong in situations that would make other people feel weak. Very at peace, very hopeful, very faithful; he’s not going to give up,” says Giuseppe. “On other occasions when you want him to be more forceful, he’s not. When it comes to human relationships, he’s one of the most delicate, sensitive people I know.”
This gentleness may sometimes do a disservice in the short-term – the family’s lost out on acquiring coveted vineyard to more assertive rivals, for instance – but it’s a corollary to another virtue that’s stood G.D. Vajra in good stead in so many ways. “It took me time to realise that patience is incredibly important. I think it’s possibly the most important lesson I’ve learned from him,” says Giuseppe. “That certainty that things will happen over time, but at a time we do not decide. He doesn’t try to force the situation.”

However acute Aldo’s influence has been, it’s only half the story. “I can’t see Vajra as a one-man show,” says Giuseppe. “It’s always been a two-person show.” His mother Milena was raised on the plains some 20 miles from Vergne, by a family of cattle farmers. Agricultural accomplishment abounds on that side, too, with the grandparents’ house still filled with trophies from prize-winning Piedmontese veal. Milena wanted to work the land, too, but back in the ‘80s her best hope was as a farmer’s wife. “She realised she needed to go to college first to make a stand for herself if she wanted to be what she wanted: not just a wife but someone who shapes reality through work.” As fate would have it, she fell in love with a handsome professor of viticultural sciences nine years her senior. They soon married with Milena still in her early ‘20s. And there she was, shaping a reality she hadn’t foreseen, on a wine farm in Barolo. “She really complements our dad in the sense of her charm, her passion, her drive and energy.”
Aldo moved back to the fields in the late ‘60s, at a time when contemporaries were leaving the countryside in droves. What drew him was the spell of the land and the freedom of farming. As Giuseppe points out, there was always a creative aspect to this. “It was not about bucolic, untouched wildlife; it was nature as farming – so it was interaction between nature and humans.” And then the magic of making wine sprung from elevating that interaction into a form that would carry new significance and personality. “Eventually each bottle is like a picture, is a shot taken with a certain time and exposure and light,” says Giuseppe. “In other words, framing a moment – a certain grape and vintage.”

The artistic metaphor is apt. The family’s dedication to allowing every one of the Langhe’s great grapes shine in their own right – Moscato, Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo and Freisa – is rooted in a sense that the portrait of home would otherwise be unfaithful. A wholehearted portrayal is called for – but equally important are aesthetics. “Life is beauty at the end of the day,” says Giuseppe. Art and literature were omnipresent growing up, and every winter holiday’s itinerary featured visits to exhibits and local museums. “I never felt we were forced or brainwashed into this. Our parents just wanted to show their three little children what is beautiful about life, and then it grew spontaneously.” He and his siblings have their own tastes but common to each is a capacity to appreciate. It’s something Giuseppe wants to instil in his young children, too. “I’m not dragging them into museums at the age of four or five just because. But when you see something nice, you just point it out – whether it’s a mountain or a sunset or a starry sky.”
With all the art, then, where does the technical stuff come in? As a student, Giuseppe was actually on the path to medical school, and was only assured he could hack it in the family business when the combined nerdiness of vine physiology and wine science promised enough to feed his inner geek.
The precision of the wines makes clear that creativity and technical nous are evenly matched here. The marriage of the two is evident in ways methods have been adapted and equipment customised. But, Giuseppe says, aesthetics come first. “The bottom line is: ‘What is the wine we’d like to produce? What is the wine we’d like to drink?’.” And from there, the Vairas work backwards, weighing the options and possibilities, wondering what they can improve, what they can do differently and what they need to learn to get them to that goal. “I think it’s science at the service of a dream, rather than the other way around,” says Giuseppe. “Which I also think prevents us from going to extremes. Sometimes the extreme in winemaking happens when you fall in love with a technique – or a technical detail – but then what you pursue is that detail, losing control of the galaxy surrounding it. Wine is a galaxy, made up of many stars, so if you get too much into one detail, the risk is that you lose the orientation that only happens if you line up all the stars.”

What’s so telling at Vajra is that the children were left to gaze at the stars and find their own way from so early in the piece. Unlike so many European estates where the older generation brooks no dissent and clutches rigidly to the reins for as long as possible, Aldo and Milena’s children have long been encouraged to enquire and experiment. “Even today when we have more responsibilities, I don’t think there are many fathers or winery owners who allow the freedom he allows us. Sometimes he can already see that we might fail with our judgment, for lack of experience, but that’s exactly what he encourages: for us to have our own experience.” Giuseppe thinks this unique chance to question and learn is the reason he, Francesca and Isidoro are working together; had they felt pressed into it, they’d likely have walked away.  “I think having the chance to be ourselves and to make free choices is part of why we could eventually fall in love with this,” he says. “And now in the details of the work I realise how precious it is. I also realise how much of a sacrifice it is. For our parents to let us to take decisions and do trials – and it’s not just now that we’re over 30, it’s been for the past 10 years, so from a fairly young age – it’s definitely a sacrifice of their own power to steer the situation. But it’s a huge component of us growing our own experience. I’ll never be thankful enough for that because if you don’t go through that phase of learning through also failing sometimes, you just don’t grow. There’s just no other way around it.”
Now around his mid-30s, Giuseppe has made sacrifices of his own. Much of his 20s were spent split between the winery and overseas, and he still clocks up serious air miles pouring wines. The world has changed since this was a small gig, when domestic drinkers soaked up almost every drop, and Aldo and Milena knew just about every customer by name. “It’s a joy to meet the people who would drink our wines,” says Giuseppe, and he is clearly buoyed by their gratitude – plus it gives the vineyard team in Vergne a lift to know that the fruits of their labour are being gleefully lapped up on all corners of the globe. “But I’m a countryside kid; I really love my home and love staying home. And especially now being married with our children, there’s no other place I’d rather be than with them,” he says. “That being said I also have this impression: Sacrifice is never betrayal.”
And I suppose Aldo wasn’t betraying his own vision when he bestowed such freedom on his children. Likewise, Giuseppe – and you can well picture the scene of an 18-year-old Italian kid, sweating in the vineyard during summer while friends lounge about, play football, ride bikes and head to the pool to meet the girls – knows the worth of his toil. “When you embrace a sacrifice, whatever it may be in your work – not accepting a compromise; not looking at your watch because you need to refine what you’re doing; going one step deeper into details – yes, it takes something away from you, but it gives a lot in return.”
You can pack a heap of history into a glass of wine, we know. And the G.D. Vajra stamp is deceptively simple shorthand for all the profound and unhurried thoughts that have arisen here in Vergne – inspired by the land, refined by time, balanced by the will and wit of kith and kin.  

***Disclaimer: This article was first published on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is both the author’s employer and the Australian importer of the wines of G.D. Vajra & Luigi Baudana***

The Mount Mary Mantra

The see-saw fortunes of fad chasers can make for entertaining viewing, but in an age of flip-flop “leadership” and obsequiousness to “opinion- shapers”, it can be good to remember those who stick to their guns and keep hitting the target.
Few Australian estates match Mount Mary – newly crowned Halliday Wine Companion Winery of the Year – when it comes to showing the courage of their convictions. The tenor was set by Dr John Middleton, and has continued as the reins have passed through the generations to his grandson, current head winemaker Sam. “I think his staunch belief in what he was doing from a winemaking point of view was pretty amazing,” says Sam of the man who planted the vineyard in the early 1970s. “I remember sitting with him by the fire one day, and it was a time when the industry was changing a little bit and fads were coming in and out, and he just looked me in the eye and said: ‘We’re going to keep making the same style that we’ve made for the past 30 years and if palates change, we’ll go out of business’.” It struck a young Sam as extreme but has come to make perfect sense as he’s grown into the role of leader. “It’s a reminder that if you’ve got confidence and real passion in what you’re doing, people are going to follow and are going to like it.”
Fittingly for a Middleton, you sense that Sam did not simply take his grandfather’s word for it; rather, it appears to be the land and its wines that have convinced him that the good doctor was right. “I’ve learned a huge amount about the site from tasting the wines,” he says. “We’re trying to make subtle, restrained, food-friendly styles of wine that age well and show liveliness and vibrancy but still restraint – and I think that’s what our site does really well.” In fact, the site itself has eased the strain of upholding the estate’s legendary reputation since he took the helm in mid-2011. “It’s another reason why I don’t get too stressed with feeling the pressure and expectations,” he says. “I think we all know at Mount Mary how important the vineyard is, and if we get that right, the winemaking’s pretty easy.”

People who drink Mount Mary wines have also given reassurance. The wines don’t come cheap but in some ways the equation is simple. A ruthless insistence on quality has gone hand-in-hand with the Middletons constancy of style, and the range is neatly delineated and firmly established. There are four wines made under the Mount Mary label, two inspired by Burgundy and two by Bordeaux. In the former camp are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, in the latter the white and red blends Triolet (Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle) and Quintet (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec). All the fruit comes from the one site in Coldstream, where all the original vines are planted on a north-facing slope on sandy clay loams over Silurian limestone. The wines set out, says Sam, to reflect the site and the season, and Mount Mary’s followers tend to appreciate the vagaries of nature. “They’re not just looking at the quality of the wines from year to year; they’re looking at how the wines have changed from year to year, and how the seasons affected those wines. That’s a big part of allowing us to do what we do, I guess.”
He sees an instructive moral in the story of the Chardonnay, a wine that – like everything at Mount Mary – has held its course and let the waves of fashion wash over it. “It’s funny to talk to people about our Chardonnay now because 20 years ago people thought our Chardonnay was really lean and tight, picked too early and whatever else,” he says. “Now we’re on the opposite end of the scale where we’re probably a bit richer, riper, with more structure to our Chardonnay than a lot of other producers currently. I guess my grandfather was a trailblazer in a lot of ways in terms of that style of Chardonnay, and it’s really en vogue at the moment.”
That’s not to say that Sam’s been resting on his laurels. Quite the contrary. “I’m very conscious of wanting these ‘modern-day’ Mount Mary wines to sell based on the quality that’s in the bottle,” he says. “I don’t want these wines to only sell on past history and reputation. I want these current wines to be the best wines we’ve made. If I was too worried about the past, I wouldn’t be spending enough time and energy thinking about how we’re going to improve things. I’m not interested about trying to keep the reputation where it is, because I want to improve it.”


Improvements have been small but constant, says Sam. He credits his father David and sister Claire with getting the business into good shape and says he learned “huge amounts” during three vintages as assistant to Rob Hall, his predecessor as head winemaker. Since then, Sam’s status as a member of the family has allowed a certain flexibility in questioning practices and implementing tweaks. These have been minor but myriad, in both the field and cellar. All have been made with an emphasis on a healthier vineyard and gentler ways in the winery to coax out its spirit. The team has sown cover crops in every second row to build up organic matter in the soil and attract beneficial insects to help with pest control. Cover crop under the vine row helps with weed control, and straw and compost mulches under vine row conserve soil moisture and improve its structure. In the winery vibrating sorting tables have replaced receival bins with augers, gravity is used a lot more to move wine and peristaltic pumps have replaced harsher mono versions.
The estate, whose Pinot is voraciously lapped up every year, has moved decisively to deal with the threat of climate change to the viability of early-ripening varieties in this, a relatively warm pocket of the valley.  Enter Marli Russell, the project named for Dr John’s wife. In 2008 and 2009 David Middleton and Rob Hall added Rhône varieties to complement the Burgundy and Bordeaux contingent. In went Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. The first wines were made in 2014, with a second lot following in 2015, both released earlier this year. “I love it,” says Sam. “It’s thrown up more surprises than I thought it would. With the Grenache in particular we’ve been able to get that riper than I expected, which is good. I think the reds are going to keep improving but I think we’re making some great white Rhône blends from those varieties.”
Thus the estate advances at a measured pace, with pros and cons meticulously weighed.  The approach is empirical, as befits an estate founded by a doctor of resolute purpose. Sam’s a chip off the old block in this regard. Where the hares leap from bandwagon to bandwagon, Sam’s happy to be the tortoise, strolling along with a healthy sense of scepticism. “I’m absolutely 100% up for experimentation and doing different things but at the end of the day it has to make a better wine,” he says. “The whole thing’s just lost and gone a bit silly if you’re just doing stuff to say that you’ve done it, rather than doing stuff to make a better drink.”

With some young winemakers you sense the passion bubble over like a shook-up Pét-Nat. That’s not Sam. But this deeply committed character derives serious pleasure from his work. The connection to the family vineyard is key. “That whole notion of being able to make a product from that one site, that reflects a season – it’s a time capsule that we can keep, if we want, for ever and ever – that really excites me, and being able to offer that and give people enjoyment from that product is something that really excites me,” he says.
The success of the estate, both past and present, must be deeply satisfying. But while Mount Mary’s style and values are here to stay, it’s the future that holds the real excitement. “I’m really passionate about it being a family business and playing my part in hopefully continuing the story and improving it where I can,” says Sam. “Having something that I can hand to the next generation hopefully in a better state than I found it is something that really excites me as well.”

***Disclaimer: This article was first published on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is both the author’s employer and the Victorian & NSW distributor of the wines of Mount Mary.***

 

Sleight Of Shand

Tim Shand has an alter ego. There’s Tim: Offspring of two teachers, incisive, earnest looking – even a touch of the nerds about him. Logistics whizz; lob a few moving parts at him and he won’t flinch – just knock up something tidy in no time.
And then there’s Shandy: Impish grin, sense of mischief, sub-surface surge of quiet confidence. Bit of a smart-arse; probably rubs a few people up the wrong way. Intuitive, impulsive, and with more flair than perhaps he realises.
Talk to him and you sense the tension between Tim and Shandy, something akin to the counterbalance ‘twixt smooth fruit and acid cut, has always been there. Head winemaker at Punt Road in the Yarra Valley, Shand is palpably intelligent but hardly covered himself in glory in his formative years. Irked by academic parents peering over his shoulder, he squeaked through school and got into an arts degree in his hometown of Perth in Western Australia. Free to get up at midday and drift on down to the pub, he failed everything in the first year – and chucked it in.
Truth was, he didn’t know what he wanted to do, except travel. He had family in Zimbabwe and fulfilled a dream to travel the length of Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town. Towards the end of a great year, reality hit – “the anonymity of going through Heathrow, horrible hostels and having no money” – and he knew he was coming home to nothing.
“What that taught me was that the world actually didn’t give two shits about me, and if I didn’t get my skates on, I was going to be in deep poo,” he says.
He had no connection to the vine – “bad wine, horrible beer and West Coast Coolers” had been the staples growing up – but knew he wasn’t cut out for academia or a desk job. It was 2000, a time of optimism in the WA wine scene, and he was vaguely aware of a dynamic industry down in Margaret River. He duly enrolled in a winemaking degree at Curtin University, chugging through the course but essentially grounded in his old Perth life, working part-time in a pub and drinking with his old mates.

The change came when he got his hands dirty during his final year at Curtin. “I just went to the Halliday Wine Companion because I didn’t know shit, and looked up 5-star wineries – there weren’t as many then as there are now – and I just called them and asked to do vintage. The only one that got back to me was Leasingham in the Clare Valley.” He had a ball at Leasingham under Kerri Thompson (aka KT) and when he got back to WA, his campus had been moved to Margaret River. Finally he cut the Perth apron strings and became bound to wine.
Shand went back to Hardys-owned Leasingham in 2004 as trainee winemaker and reckons boldness “way beyond my ability” accelerated his learning curve. This chutzpah, part ignorance and part derring-do, cut both ways. “I drove a forklift into their most expensive red ferment – a two-tonne ferment, pierced the tank and it all just pissed down the drain – because I was arrogant and I wasn’t being careful,” he recalls. On the flipside it’s what gave him the nerve to ask KT to sit in on her monthly tasting with the group winemaker, for whom dogsbody Shand had readied 100-odd Cabernet and Shiraz samples. “So I worked night shift, he arrived at 9am and I went into this tasting that was going to take six or seven hours. I must have looked like death warmed up. He kind of looked at me like, ‘What are you doing?’” But Shand managed to make a couple of pertinent comments, and the fact he’d skipped a sleep to be there left the boss impressed. That connection helped Shand secure a vintage in Hardys-affiliated Veramonte in Chile and, when he got back, a place at Hardys’ Yarra Valley sparkling specialist, Yarra Burn.
Sharply contrasting vintage experiences in the Haut-Médoc and the Côte de Nuits may reveal something about the Tim Shand dichotomy. He managed to “bore” the late Paul Pontallier into offering an incredibly rare opportunity at the first-growth Château Margaux. It was a disaster of grand cru classé proportions. Shand grudgingly admired the viticulture but was deeply unimpressed with everything else. “It was awful. I wasn’t allowed to do anything, they all hated me,” he says. “It was three months of torture. I used to call my wife in tears.”
He left feeling utterly rejected by France but gave it another shot with the Seysses family of Domaine Dujac. They took him in the following vintage, and it was a totally different story. “I went in ’08 to stay at the domaine with this lovely family,” he says. “I swear to God, I was there for two months and can almost remember every day and every experience. It was like some sort of blessing. I worry about going back to Burgundy because it was perfect in every way.” Those halcyon days in Morey-Saint-Denis were also instructive in winegrowing generally, and Pinot in particular.  “It was an open palette. It was a conversation rather than a recipe at Dujac. It was so interesting, so terroir-driven, so transparent.”

Like France, Shand’s time at Giant Steps in the Yarra Valley proved intensely bittersweet. On the plus side, he learned precisely what it took to make top-notch Australian Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Cabernet. He’s also unstinting in his admiration for the “creativity and innovation” of 2016 Gourmet Traveller WINE Winemaker of the Year Steve Flamsteed. “What it is, is having the courage to put yourself out there and back your talent.” says Shand. “It’s his gut. It’s an understanding of aesthetics matched with high energy and intensity, is where his success lies.”
Ask Shand about his own strengths, and he’s typically candid. He reckons he lacks originality and doesn’t see artistry in what he does. “To me, winemaking is not an art. I think it’s a trade. It’s arguably more like being a 
jeweller or a carpenter. I think if you’re telling people you’re an artist, you’re a bullshit artist.”
Instead, he feels he’s good at the boring stuff and owes his success to his work ethic and high standards. “In terms of wine and vineyard and people, I know what good looks like and I know what bad looks like. I kind of understand the standard and I know how to meet it,” he says. “There’s the right day to pick the grapes, there’s the right way to make it, the right oak, the right bottling date. That’s kind of par; anything below that, you’ve f***ed it up.”
I put it to him that the
tradie analogy doesn’t really hold up. I assume, perhaps naively, that there’s less site and vintage variation in planks than Pinot Noir. The last few harvests in the Yarra have yielded many exceptional wines but could hardly be described as uniform. Many reported being turned inside out by fast and furious, topsy-turvy 2016. Shand, on the other hand, was in his element. “One of my skills is, having all of those factors in my head, I can balance them out to the right outcome. Calculations, priorities – that’s what I think I’m good at: bringing a lot of things together,” he confesses. “And wine is a lot of things. It’s agriculture, it’s marketing, it’s sales, it’s logistics, it’s science. You bring them all together. That’s what I think I like about it, and I just can’t fathom people who don’t bring things together.”
Evidently Shand’s developed a knack for bringing things together nicely. He’s widely credited with winning Punt Road promotion to the Yarra Valley’s premier league, a feat illustrated by its silverware haul at last year’s Royal Melbourne Wine Awards: best single-vineyard wine, best Shiraz and trophy for viticultural excellence. Gary Walsh of independent review site The Wine Front says Tim is “turning out some of the best value, and most interesting, wines in the country” under the Punt Road and Airlie Bank labels. Tim puts it down to having everything in the right place, in moderation. “All of the interest with none of the nonsense, at a good price,” he says, citing his highly original and widely loved Airlie Bank Franc as a case in point. Made with 100% whole bunch carbonic maceration, it’s hardly the most conventional crowd-pleaser.

If that’s the Shand standard, what makes for greatness? “A wine not made to instantly ingratiate itself,” he muses. “When I taste a Wendouree, or a grand cru next to a 1er cru, I taste profundity. I taste a confidence. It knows what it is. There’s a comfort in its own skin. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand about wine: that less is more. My place in it all is to keep doing the boring stuff, and authenticity will shine through.”
Straight-talking and clear-sighted he may be, but perhaps Shand overlooks the role played by his inner rogue. The youthful rebellion, the pierced tank, the misadventure in Margaux – all these point to a non-conformist side that lends tension to Shand’s universe.
Some are apt to use the terms tension and balance interchangeably in tasting notes, but to me they’re not the same. The latter hints at a pleasing harmony, and is a wonderful thing. The former, running closer to the edge, is more daring, more intriguing. And you sense that the two sides of the imperfectly balanced Tim Shand give you the latter.
Dr Tim ensures order and completeness, and the mercurial Mr Shand takes it a little further, deeper.  It’s compelling viewing and can lead to profundity – with the emphasis on “fun”.

***Disclaimer: This article first appeared on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is both the author’s employer and the Australian distributor of Punt Road and Airlie Bank wines.***

Emma: The Full English

“Emma, your brains are not your asset. Your personality and your looks are your assets.” It’s hardly the advice you’re holding out for the day after a double magnum of ’79 Krug has persuaded you to ditch your old life and make a break for the wine business. Whatever else it might be, it’s also way off the mark. Emma Rice is sharper than a swig of Cumbrian Cabernet.
She’s since proved it beyond doubt, having twice earned the UK Winemaker of the Year title and turning Hattingley Valley into a spearhead of the world-class English sparkling scene. It takes deep pockets and nerves of steel to compete when operating in a fledgling industry in a marginal climate. It also takes raw smarts on a grand scale to pull the strands together to create a rich and seamless tapestry. And Emma wouldn’t flinch for a second.
Perhaps all that time spent in the pub initially concealed some of that cleverness; certainly it was enough to sharpen her pool skills at the expense of a university place. Instead she did a catering course and started out in hospitality. Then that fateful Krug came along. “I thought, ‘This is why people spend money on wine’, and I’ve been hooked ever since,” she says.
Furious, though, with the aforementioned job-hunting tip, Emma quit her service role and got a job at Oddbins, before working her way up to the position of sales and marketing coordinator at London-based Burgundy specialist Domaine Direct. Things went a step further when she scored an editor role at Mitchell Beazley and Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book became “my baby”.  “I got so inspired reading about all these wine writers and photographers who were off travelling, looking at wineries and talking to winemakers. I just thought, ‘I want to do that. I don’t want to be sat in an office in Canary Wharf anymore’.” Amid the magic of that little book, the expanding section on English wine caught her eye. Within it, Plumpton College loomed ever larger. And then, in 2003 at the age of 29, she moved to Brighton and joined the first intake to graduate with a full degree in Viticulture & Oenology.

emma-staff-training-city-wine-shop
Her first job after Plumpton was supposed to be as lab intern at Cuvaison, in Calistoga at the top end of California’s Napa Valley.  Upon arrival she immediately showed the blend of pluck and savvy that’s taken her so far, so fast. “I got there and they said, ‘Well, the oenologist left last week, so now you’re the oenologist. There’s your lab, we’ve got 1,000 tonnes coming in, we’ve got 12 different winemakers, off you go’,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh, OK’. No idea what I was getting myself into.” It was supposed to be a three-month gig but she ended up staying two years. “That was fantastic – a wonderful lifestyle in California. Good wines, nice people. I would’ve stayed there if I could’ve done, but my visa ran out so I had to move on.”
Next destination was Tamar Ridge, then owned by fallen Tasmanian timber giant Gunns. This wretched stint (“The worst experience of my life. Working there was horrible”) turned out to be a blessing in disguise. After just three months, she chucked it in and went back to Blighty to regroup.
This was 2008, and in the intervening years the English wine industry had taken off. Emma seized the opportunity to start her own lab and consulting company, Custom Crush. She also appeared on the radar of ex-City lawyer Simon Robinson, who’d planted a vineyard on his King’s Farm property in Lower Wield, Hampshire. “He asked me to build a winery for him,” recalls Emma. “Every winemaker’s dream is to start from scratch.” So it was that Hattingley Valley was born, with a cutting-edge winery that could accommodate three times the production of the estate’s own vineyard. Just like in Napa, Emma wasn’t going to let the enormity of the task stop her. “I was inexperienced but I was a damn sight more experienced than anyone else. It’s all relative,” she says. “If I’d stayed in California I would not be head winemaker at a winery now. In such a small industry – such a rapidly growing industry with so few qualified people – I was catapulted ahead of where I should’ve been at the time. There was a certain amount of bravado involved when I started out my business.”
A dose of bravado is prerequisite in a climate where wine-growing is as risky and expensive as it is in the UK. This is a place where it rained for 28 days straight in June 2012, a year in which Hattingley Valley made not a drop of wine. This vintage just gone, yields were slashed in half, largely down to a lethal frost that also hit the Loire and Chablis. “Jim, the vineyard manager goes from the severe highs of ‘Oh my God we’ve got a fantastic crop out there’ to ‘Oh shit, it’s going to be frosty’. Managing him and his emotions is one of my biggest jobs.” The whims of nature add to the already considerable costs of a fine sparkling wine program. Emma estimates that Hattingley Valley’s own vineyard output from 2016 exceeded £3,000 (about AU$5,125) per tonne of grapes. To put that into perspective, that same vintage Australia’s cool to temperate regions averaged less than AU$1,200 per tonne.
So what’s England got going for it? Well, there’s the soil for one thing. The South Downs, where many of the best vineyards of Hampshire, Kent and Sussex are to be found, sit on the same chalky soils on which Champagne’s fame is built. As for the climate, it’s cool and capricious but conditions are held by many to mirror Champagne 20 or so years ago. Climate change may continue to play into English hands.  The growing season is longer, too, with British pickers traipsing out in their jeans and thermal underwear a good couple of weeks after their Champenois counterparts. Long, slow ripening gives the grapes depth of flavour that belies their modest sugar levels. It’s more than mere curiosity that’s led the likes of Pommery and Taittinger to dip their toe into English sparkling.
One way of mitigating against the fickle weather is to source grapes from different parts of the country. Emma has something of an advantage in this. Custom Crush, which she operates from the Hattingley Valley site, takes in grapes, juice and wine from clients right across the country. She also sits on the management committee of the UK Vineyard Association “because I’m nosy and I like to know what’s going on”.  She’s firmly opposed to rushing into stricter appellation system that would apply a straitjacket to English winemakers while they’re still getting to grips with the tools at their disposal. “We do a lot of experimentation at Hattingley, which is great, given we’ve got carte blanche to try things.”
Hattingley Valley embraces the freedom of the English Quality Sparkling Wine designation, which means the wines are made from UK-grown grapes from the same principal vine varieties as Champagne, and using the same “traditional method”.  The estate has 26 hectares of its own but also takes in grapes from vineyards spread far and wide under various contract winemaking arrangements. “It’s brilliant for me as a winemaker because it gives us a wider palette to choose from when it comes to blending.  It’s very much on the Champagne model.”
Site selection is crucial to any winegrower that aspires to greatness, but it’s arguably more so in such a precarious environment for ripening grapes. “If you don’t get that right, then you don’t stand a chance,” says Emma. Hattingley Valley’s two main sites both sit on solid chalk, about 20 to 30cm down.  The eponymous vineyard at King’s Farm was planted in 2008 on clay-loam topsoil, at an elevation of 180m. It’s a beautiful site, if a touch exposed. “It produces fantastic quality fruit in terms of ripeness and fruit flavours but the yields are just ridiculous. They’re just so small.” The other key vineyard is Cottonworth, at 40 to 70m elevation. Again, it has loamy topsoil, this time strewn with hunks of flint known as Hampshire diamonds. “That’s our grand-cru site. There are four distinct parcels which produce fantastic quality fruit – some of the best in England, I’d say.”
vineyard-from-insty
A defining characteristic of English sparkling wine is the piercing acidity. Winemakers from more conventional climes struggle to get their heads round the numbers. The grapes might be ripe enough to give 11% alcohol while acidity soars at 17g/L. “They can’t comprehend it; it would never happen that you’d get that that much acid and that much sugar at that pH level,” says Emma. “There’s disbelief that it can happen in grapes, but it does in England. In very few other places would you get figures like that, and especially along with the flavour development we get.”
That invigorating acidity is a virtue but only if coaxed into balance. The intensity of flavour in the grapes is one factor in this endeavour. Another is the texture that Hattingley Valley builds into the wines through various techniques. After the fashion of Champagne houses like Krug, Jacquesson and Bollinger, the team doesn’t shy away from exposing the juice to oxygen, which renders it more robust but softer. In a similar vein, Hattingley uses a portion of barrel-fermented wine in all of its cuvées, with old oak favoured because feel, rather than flavour, is the point. That said, the team takes the unusual step of putting the pressings in newer oak. This more phenolic part of the juice is handy for lending weight to the wines, which the acid is more than capable of carrying. Then there’s the use of acid-softening malolactic conversion, which select parcels undergo. Last up comes a well-judged squirt of dosage for taut, knife-edge balance.
emma-at-pws
The result is wines with great fruit purity, unexpectedly rich mouthfeel, and complexity from skilful blending of varieties, vineyards and winemaking parcels. As for that fabled acid, it gives them tremendous zip but comes across as fine and lingering.
Medals alone don’t tell much of a story, but it’s a measure of their pedigree that all three of the wines now available in Australia – the 2013 Classic Cuvée, 2013 Rosé and 2011 Blanc de Blancs – all won gold at this year’s Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships (the latter two were also best in class). This competition, the brainchild of Tom Stevenson, one of the world’s most-respected Champagne authorities, in fact propelled Hattingley Valley to global fame a couple of years back when its 2011 pink fizz won the trophy for best vintage rosé from anywhere.
It all goes to show that looks and personality can go a long way. Seriously, though, what has been the secret of Emma’s success? She had her first inkling that she might have the knack back in Calistoga. This mere novice from across the pond, green as a Hampshire paddock in spring, had the Californians remarking how good it was to have someone in the lab who knew what she was doing. “I thought, ‘Well, I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m taking each day as it comes and hoping for the best and reading a lot of books’.”
Logical, methodical and matter-of-fact, Emma reckons much of what goes into making good wine is sound organisation and logistical nous. Press her, and she’ll just about admit that there’s more to it than that. “It’s in the tasting, I think. It’s in the blending. I don’t know how that happens, it just happens. It’s almost an instinct… That sounds a bit arsey, doesn’t it?”
She feels that she and her peers are exploring the frontier of winemaking. “It’s still a very exciting project at Hattingley Valley and it’s still very exciting being part of English wine generally.” It’s also a thrill to represent England abroad with the wines now available as far afield as Canada, Japan and Scandinavia. There are no illusions about the size of the task; the wines have to prove time and again that they warrant Champagne prices, when their French neighbours enjoy an enormous head-start in tradition, know-how and reputation. In spite of tremendous support from British wine writers, pubs, merchants and top restaurants, there are still people in Rice’s homeland who either don’t know they make wine, or else have been put off in the grim past by some German hybrid rotgut. “It can be a bit depressing sometimes when you come across people you think are relatively cultured and well educated and they still haven’t tried an English wine or think it’s all crap and acidic and nasty and they don’t want to drink it,” she laments. “Whereas if people try our wine, or Ridgeview or Nyetimber or one of the serious winemakers, then they understand that this is serious wine, especially if you can get them to taste it up against Champagne, blind, and they can’t taste the difference or they think ours is the best.” Ultimately, she’d love to see anyone who usually grabs a Champagne for a special occasion switch instead to English. “We want people to take it seriously because we’re making serious wine. This is not just a bit of fun.”
Of course there’s a lot at stake, and it’ll take plenty more time and effort to make English sparkling the toast of the wine world at large. But attitudes are changing fast, both at home and overseas, and the progress in quality has been little short of astounding. “I never ever thought, when I went to Plumpton to train as a winemaker, that I would ever live in England again. I thought I’d be living my life and career abroad,” Emma reflects. “Now I work half an hour from where I grew up. It’s very cool. I’ve got the best job in the world, really.”

***Disclaimer: This article first appeared on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is both the author’s employer and the Australian importer of Hattingley Valley wines.***

Maps & Legends

It doesn’t look like much – a tatty little paperback with smudges of colour seeping through the grazes of its cover – but there’s perhaps no book that’s had a greater influence on my life. It was a Big Bang moment when the Usborne Pocket Atlas of the World turned up in my Christmas stocking as a kid in England. There and then, the universe unfolded into infinity. My imagination exploded.
It had all the usual headline stuff – continents, oceans, countries and capitals – but what really got me were the details. After the depiction of each region, there was a double-page spread on its currencies, populations, largest cities, industries and products. The diversity made me dizzy. All those languages and currencies. Pre-Euro, Europe alone was swimming in exotic money – francs, marks, pesetas, escudos and lire. The facts on industries and products were particularly evocative. It was somehow refreshing that the USA – which seemed to have the 1980s in its pocket – was actually not number one in everything. Bigger and wealthier than Brazil, but the latter had way more sugar and coffee. (No mention of wine there, though. That was France.)
Some lessons from the book:

1. The world is massive
2. There are many differences
3. These are interesting
4. Different places grow and make different things
5. There is more than one way to be ‘rich’
6. I gotta see some of this for myself

Simple points, but they sank in deep. I read Modern Languages at university, cycled round the world and became a journalist. These days I live by the beach on the Mornington Peninsula with my Australian wife (she wishes I hadn’t learnt point 5), work for a wine importer and have just completed my WSET Diploma.
The Diploma is the fourth and final level of a global course run by the London-based Wine & Spirits Education Trust. The course covers every aspect of wine in its still, sparkling and fortified guises – from viticulture and winemaking to business and culture, with most exams split into a tasting and theory component. It’s thorough and demanding. Not hard exactly, in that students are not set up to fail; if you do the work, you should go OK. But it’s the work that’s the hard bit.
usborne-atlas
From where I live amid sea and vines, it’s more than an hour’s drive to the city where I work most days. The question of how to cover the hours of study on top of full-time work and full-on family (a six-, four- and one-year-old when I started the course two years ago) had to be solved somehow. The only way was to breathe life into the dead time of commuting.
Late at night I’d record myself reading the key texts, then play them back in the car next day. My basic, bloody-minded method was to start with the course book, back it up with the corresponding pages of The World Atlas of Wine, and then hammer the points home with the Oxford Companion to Wine. I made no attempt to jazz up my presentation; it was about ploughing through. On an on I’d trudge through heavy yawns and the stumbling of a torpid tongue. More than once I fell asleep, map in hand, another lost explorer defeated by exhaustion.
The revelation came in the car. The course book itself is dry as the most mouth-sucking Chablis (but nothing like as palatable). Every time I hit a passage from the atlas, however, the pace picks up and the flat-lining delivery jolts into peaks and troughs. It’s the invigorating force of passionate, purposeful prose.

“Certain wines have within them a natural vigour, an inbuilt eloquence, that expresses as nothing else does the forces that made them,” writes English wine writer Hugh Johnson in his foreword. “You cannot trace a strawberry to a field, or a fish to a stream, or a gem to a mine, in the act of enjoying it. It is possible with wine, and not only to the place where it was made, and to the fruit that gave it flavour, but to the year the fruit ripened and even to the vintner who conducted operations. Does anything else so fully justify an atlas of its origins?”

Without doubt the aptness of an atlas to tell wine’s story is part of it. But listen again to the cadence of Johnson’s sentence, its articulacy and sheer good sense, and you see why he and co-author Jancis Robinson are such brilliant guides on a tour of the world of wine.
They transformed the freeway into the Rhône, the Rhine, the Danube and the Douro. Towering above me were the Mayacamas, the Vosges, the Hottentots Holland and the hill of Corton. You see the sights and hear how geography, geology, topography and climate intertwine. History and tradition are seamlessly woven into every tapestry. Fortunes rise and fall, pioneers are praised and the odd admonishment is dished out. Thus Germany is chided for confusing people and Italy for its leniency towards “dreary” Trebbiano Toscano.
chablis-shotThe writing is rich and respectful, precise but not stiff. It’s inviting, flinging open its doors and impelling you to stay. Always authoritative, it wears its learning lightly.
“The element you will find missing from this book, for lack of space, is an attempt to describe the beauty of its prime subject,” writes Johnson in his foreword. It’s one of the few things I disagree with. Take this, for instance: “In one of the marriages of grape and ground the French regard as mystical, in Beaujolais’ sandy clay over granite the Gamay grape, undistinguished virtually everywhere else, can produce uniquely fresh, vivid, fruity, light but infinitely swallowable wine. Gouleyant is the French word for the way fine Beaujolais slips ineffably down the throat.” Or, on Middle Mosel Riesling: “The greatest of them, long-lived, pale gold, piquant, frivolous yet profound, are wines that beg to be compared with music or poetry.”
This is the kind of nourishing sentiment that prevents the intense, gruelling nature of study from sucking the fun out of wine. Like the best hosts – and the humble winegrowers who entreat you to drink deep from their well of hard-won wisdom – the authors of The World Atlas of Wine make you feel utterly at home no matter where in the world you are. I’m grateful to them for carrying me on their fluent, cultured tide to the latest port on my journey.
Anyway, it’s almost time for a glass of wine. I wonder what to have? “There is a sad segment who never want to pay more than the minimum for their drink, or indeed their food. Battery chickens were invented for them – and indeed battery wines,” writes Johnson. “For those who travel, though, those who eat out, cook, and share pleasures with friends, it is choices that matter: the choices between flavours and cultures.”
When I think of that dog-eared atlas from all those years ago… What choices it inspired!

Dream Weaver

Geoff Weaver is a man of conviction. You’d have to be to ask one of Australia’s most famous winemakers for a job before you’d so much as crushed your first grape. Or to borrow, in the early ‘80s,  $100,000 at 20% interest to sink into a vineyard in a region with no vines. Or to get out and hand-plant it in your spare moments away from your full-time gig, which just happens to be making a sizeable chunk of all Australia’s wine. But Geoff – sportsman, farmer, artist – has faith in the ideal that honest toil yields eventual rewards.
That belief has been endorsed by the news that Geoff’s Sauvignon Blanc is Australia’s best, as judged by the nation’s foremost wine authority. His 2014 Ferus took out the trophy at the recent James Halliday Wine Companion Awards. He’s picked up more than his fair share of accolades in his 40-year winemaking career but that doesn’t stop Geoff greeting the latest with characteristic humility. “I’m really delighted that James has picked out our more subtle, understated styles,” he says. “I’ve always felt that as a small winemaker, you can’t be all things to all people, and you’ve got to stand for something. We do what we do; we’re not trying to match popular trends, we’re just trying to do the best thing that we can do.”
Such is his affection for the Lenswood site where the wine was grown, that it’s hard to imagine Geoff anywhere else. But there was nothing inevitable about the cricket- and footy-crazed kid’s journey into wine and the Adelaide Hills. The first seed was sown at school where he discovered an affinity for botany and geology, and struck up a fateful, lifelong friendship with Brian Croser. The two of them went on to study agricultural science together, but Geoff finished the course with no clear idea what to do next. His curiosity was piqued on visits to McLaren Vale to see his buddy Croser, who’d landed a job at Hardys. His football coach also worked in wine and helped Geoff pen speculative job applications to luminaries such a Karl Seppelt, Colin Gramp and Max Schubert. He recalls a spur-of-the-moment decision to take a post-footy drive to the home of Penfolds. “It was 5 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and I just parked and got out and was having a look around when this guy walked out the main door. I thought I’d better come clean, so I went over and said g’day and we just got talking and I said, ‘As a matter of fact I’ve just written to your company about a job’.” It turns out it was Schubert himself who’d walked out the door, and he offered Geoff a job there and then. “I was this kid with stars in his eyes driving down the main drive at Magill thinking, ‘I’ve got a job in the wine business!’”
Geoff with Ferus
He ended up turning down the creator of Grange to take a job with Orlando (now Pernod Ricard Winemakers), who offered to pay him $30 a week and send him to Roseworthy Agricultural College to get his winemaking qualification. For a kid with no money and a beat-up, windscreenless Vauxhall Viva, the offer was too good to pass up.
He learned a great deal under the tutelage of Mark Tummel and Gunther Prass but was persuaded to join Croser at Hardys in 1975, only for his mate to move on within months. “I thought, ‘Shit. I’m a young kid and I really don’t know my way around but I’m in charge of 3% of Australia’s wines here’,” he says. Geoff being Geoff, he dealt with it. Initially in charge of the Hardys whites, taking in brands such as Siegersdorf and Old Castle Riesling, he worked his way up to the position of chief winemaker in 1987.
That, though, was five years after he’d passed a more cherished milestone. He and his winemaking pals had long been pooling their pennies to taste the world’s classic wines, delving into their detail, striving to unlock the DNA of their greatness. Australian whites, in particular, looked clumsy, alcoholic and short on aromatic finesse in comparison. Geoff became convinced that the key was a warm site in a cool region, which led him to the hitherto unplanted Adelaide Hills. Days were spent scouring the rolling landscape for the right spot, thermometer dangling out of the car window. “The deal was that we felt we could push back the frontiers of Australian winemaking. At that time we were dominated by the traditional areas of Barossa, McLaren Vale – Yarra was pretty new, Tasmania was pretty much unheard of and Margaret River was just really starting, and we felt the Adelaide Hills could do a lot.” And there it was: the rundown, 70-acre hobby farm that was his destiny. “My dream had always been to be a small winemaker and in 1982 we bought land at Lenswood. We had no money – of course you don’t have money – and the interest rates were 20%. I had two partners and we cobbled together $10,000 between us to buy a $110,000 property.”
Even then, it almost didn’t happen. The bank almost pulled the plug. Others caught wind of the winemaker sniffing round for vineyard land and threatened to buy it from under them. But Geoff, whose guileless Aussie vernacular is punctuated with surprising literary allusions, was resolute. “I’d been reading Émile Zola’s The Earth and I realised those French guys, they fight tooth and nail to do stuff, and I realised it was a life-changing moment. We were out on a limb but I knew we had to do it.”
That’s when the hard work began. Hardys was going full throttle, and weekends were given over entirely to his own patch – at the expense of his beloved footy, cricket and wife Judy, who that same year gave birth to their first child, Alexandra. With no machinery and no money to buy any, this meant begging, borrowing and burrowing away with his bare hands – as well as those of his father, Henry (pictured below), who spent thousands of hours at his side. Playing over and over in Geoff’s head, as he traipsed up and down the furrows, was an adage he’d read on a Vincent van Gogh sketch of a man pulling a harrow: “If one has no horse, one is one’s own horse”.
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Geoff and Judy’s mettle was to be tested again in the most dramatic of ways, long before a drop of wine had been made. The Ash Wednesday bushfires of February 1983 ripped through the region and destroyed all they’d done. Again, though, Geoff was sanguine. “It’s like playing footy. You get a whack, you’ve got two choices. Do you get up or do you capitulate?” he says. “Well, I thought, we’re not capitulating. We didn’t. I said, ‘It’ll be a Garden of Eden one day; it’ll be beautiful’.”
And so it has proved. “It felt really right from day one. I’ve never regretted where we’ve chosen. We’ve been very fortunate, we’ve got beautiful soils – sandy loam over bright-coloured orange/ochre clays – and enough water in the soil, but with good water and air drainage.” The roots go deep in search of moisture, to which Geoff attributes the intensity and vitality of his wines. He also sees the naturally low pH of the wines as contributing that savoury, stony character that some are moved to call minerality. He capped the plantings at 35 acres under vine, from which Geoff produces Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir plus two iterations of Sauvignon Blanc – one reared in nothing but stainless steel, and the wild-fermented, lees-stirred, old oak-aged Ferus. The dappled light and low yields of this dry-grown site produce exactly the kind of wines he’s looking for. “What I want with the Sauvignon Blanc is that juicy, zingy quality; that supple, almost sweet middle palate coupled with that gentle, dry, acid austerity – but not aggressiveness,” says Geoff. He appears to have hit the mark, with Halliday declaring him “a master of his art”.
It comes as no surprise that Geoff highlights the invaluable support of friends along the way. Chief among them are old pal Brian Croser and Martin Shaw, who’ve allowed him to compose his wines under their roofs at Petaluma, Shaw + Smith and, nowadays, Tapanappa. And all this time, he and Judy have battled away to pay down the debt. “If there’s a tortoise and hare story, we’re definitely the tortoise. We’ve just plodded along trying to make the best wines we can.”
These days Adelaide Hills is well and truly on the map for exceptional cool-climate wines. Shaw + Smith have enjoyed great success and there are those like Tim Knappstein and Stephen Henschke who, without conferring, had the same idea at roughly the same time as Geoff, the three of them ending up practically next door to one another. And then there’s the boundary-pushing new-wave producers such as Gentle Folk and Commune of Buttons.
Quick though he is to point to the prowess of others, his thoughts are often confined to what’s right in front of him. He loves to paint and ponder the joys of life and family in the solitude of his Lenswood home. “It’s just so grand to be there. It’s beautiful to be engaged in what’s essentially an agricultural, horticultural and artistic pursuit in this glorious countryside,” he says. Often at day’s end he simply sits atop the hill and takes it all in. “How blessed are we to live in this great country and to have the opportunity to do these things?” he wonders. “It’s just fantastic.”

*A version of this article appeared on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is both the author’s employer and the Victorian distributor of Geoff Weaver wines.

Theresa’s Top Honour

Theresa in the footy dugout

“I felt so at the right place. I saw my mum and my uncle and they all said ‘Go away. Take some time off. Do whatever you want’. Nobody said ‘You have to do it’. None of the family said that. I had to actually convince them that I wanted to stay, that I wanted to be there. I just felt at home.”
It was the moment that Theresa Breuer’s fate was sealed. May 2004; she was 20 years old and her father Bernhard had just died suddenly. Setting aside the tragic circumstances that led to her premature accession to the helm of the family estate, these were enormous shoes to fill. Bernhard Breuer was one of Germany’s most respected winegrowers and perhaps the doughtiest campaigner for its dry Riesling in the global arena.
Barely a decade later, this slight and smiling 31-year-old has been named Winemaker of the Year by influential European magazine Falstaff. It’s an outstanding achievement, and one that honours her clarity of purpose and sensitivity to the people and land around her.
“Precise” is her word for what’s she’s striving for. And though she’d never claim making great wine is easy, she constantly stresses the simplicity underlying this pursuit. After all, her forebears – especially her father – discovered and distilled the precious attributes of these grand cru sites of the Rheingau.
GB_Weinberge_BergRoseneckIMG_9662 COMPRESSED
These have been nurtured even more closely since Theresa took over. A move to organic viticulture began a decade ago, and since 2011 all vineyards have been farmed 100% organically. The winery is certified sustainable and a member of Germany’s FAIR‘N GREEN scheme. She’s had to add a couple more vineyard workers and the rest now have to toil even harder. It’s paying off, though, with a more motivated team and better growing environment. “We’re just paying so much more attention. We’re a bit more on the spot with everything we do,” she explains. “There are more plants growing, the colour of the leaves is different. There’s a change going on. Really I hope we’ll get healthier fruit. I think less botrytis will be the result as the grape skins are developing a different structure, and you can see the soils are healthy again. I just want to make sure we can go on making wines for the next, I don’t know, 300 years.”
Theresa espouses “boring winemaking”. There’s no fancy technique or technology here. The cellar beneath the town of Rüdesheim is lo-fi in the extreme. When it does get rebuilt, temperature control will be one of the few concessions to modernity – but “just so we can continue to be boring”.
The treatment of the estate’s pinnacle wine, from the Schlossberg vineyard, sets the no-frills template followed across the Georg Breuer range. The family owns seven discrete plots from the bottom to the top of the vineyard, with altitudes varying from 90m to 350m. Each plot is picked by hand in separate lots on different days. The grapes are immediately whole bunch-pressed and then vinified separately. The seven wines are aged in separate old barrels. “We then start to pick out what we want. We want to be really precise on the style of the vintage.” Anything seen as less than the perfect expression of time and place doesn’t make the cut.
An incredibly close bond underpins this stylistic exactitude. Theresa’s faithful accomplices are Markus Lundén and Hermann Schmoranz. Markus was a sommelier and Georg Breuer fanboy who began an internship March 2004, two months before Theresa took the reins. Hermann was an engineering student when he joined the estate as part-time tractor driver in 1987. Ex-somm Markus is driven by flavours and sensory responses, while Hermann (pictured below) has a way with nature. The former is now happily ensconced in the cellar, the latter in his element in the fields. They are collectively the keeper of the house. “It’s been the three of us since my father passed away,” says Theresa. “There’s not been one cellar tasting where one of us was missing. We would never do a blend if one us is not in shape. It has to be the same team every time.”

HERMANN SCHMORANZ compressed
Along with her uncle Heinrich, Hermann (pictured above) played an especially important role as the bridge between Bernhard’s era and Theresa’s stewardship. “He was always like a second father for me,” says Theresa. “On the other hand he was extremely sensitive in teaching me everything but also asking for decisions. He told me the options and asked for a decision, which is I think a huge thing for a grown-up man, having this little girl there and fulfilling a role that I was not fit and able to do at all. So he really helped me through that whole process enormously.”
Theresa never got to work with her father on a similar level but she was picking grapes and helping in the winery before she even started school. She loves being in the vineyard, and the harvest days of her childhood were happy ones. “That was also the only period when my father was really home, because he was travelling quite a lot. Picking grapes was actually a chance to see him.”

Bernhard black and white COMPRESSED
Forthright, pioneering and something of a rebel, Bernhard (above) was OK with not being friends with everybody. “What I’ve learned from many people who were close to him and who’ve maybe not been friends but respected him in a really intense way, is that he really stood up for his ideas,” says Theresa. “He had a plan, and if the whole gang wasn’t following, it wasn’t a problem for him. He wasn’t one of those guys who needed to have 20 people around him because he was really strong in his beliefs and strict in the way he followed them.”
In his memoir A Life Uncorked, English writer Hugh Johnson writes fondly of those principles. “The purity of Rheingau wine was his passion,” he wrote of Bernhard Breuer. “He longed to know how best to express the terroir of his family’s vineyards.” Johnson recalls a frank, somewhat eccentric tasting with Bernhard and Heinrich, where the Breuer brothers opened unwanted orphan bottles of poor vintages going back to the 1920s. Sure enough, clear site signatures announced themselves but another motif emerged that was equally powerful: that of the grower’s humility towards his land. “It is the polar opposite of the race for high scores and gold medals that consumes the wine world today,” wrote Johnson. “Does it earn the farmer a living? Self-esteem, satisfaction and fascination, yes, but not necessarily a new Mercedes every year.”
Theresa Arbory laughing 2016
You see the same humility and tenacity in Theresa, who was honoured by Falstaff for furthering the estate’s reputation and maintaining the rare purity of its Riesling. “You start to pay so much more attention to things and you start to know the land you’re working with,” says Theresa. “I’ve done 12 vintages now and there are so many open questions, but it’s great to create a catalogue of references.”
That catalogue is being compiled year by year by the faithful Breuer team, which extends well beyond the inner circle of Theresa, Schmoranz and Lundén. Several others have been there for 10 years and they’re engaged, energetic and helping to shape the future. She wants them to stay together and keep improving together – which is easier said than done. “I’m not a fan of ‘bigger is better’,” says Theresa. “I think there’s so much more to being more precise, just figuring out the sensitive things. There’s so much more to go for, and if we realise that it will be cool.”

*A version of this article appeared on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is both the author’s employer and the Australian importer & distributor of Georg Breuer wines.

Viva AWIWA!

Isn’t that nice? They’re letting the girls have a go. And all by themselves, too, to make sure they win!
The inaugural Australian Women in Wine Awards (AWIWA) are with us – and some mightn’t know what to do with them. “My first thought was: What a lot of sexist nonsense,” confessed wine writer and convert Winsor Dobbin. How many others questioned whether these were a “necessary” addition to the wine calendar, or deemed this women-only competition self-defeating, serving to undermine the very people it purported to champion?
I wouldn’t normally advocate this as a philosophical response… but you needn’t think, just act. Because the question here is not “Do I believe in gender-specific awards” but “Do I appreciate the contribution of women – their ideas, their gifts and their company?”
If the answer to the latter is “yes”, then shouldn’t something be done to boost the participation of women in wine? As it stands, we’re being cheated of our fair share of the fairer sex. AWIWA organisers say – and the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia doesn’t dispute it – that women make up between eight and 10% of the Aussie industry, with some areas such as viticulture in decline.
But hang on a moment – don’t we already have a chance to celebrate women through the myriad shows and competitions already doing the rounds? Yes, we do. Women have previously been named Winemaker of the Year, Sommelier of the Year and Dux of the Len Evans Tutorial. The present Chair of Judges at the Sydney Wine Show (Sam Connew), Gourmet Traveller WINE Young Winemaker of the Year (Gwyn Olsen) and Wine Communicator of the Year (Jeni Port) are female.
Even beyond these examples, I don’t think any of us would struggle to think of women whose wines we love, whose judgment we value and whose example we admire. But this is exactly the point: if we treasure them, why aren’t we doing all we can to ensure they’re able to participate fully?
The Australian Women in Wine Awards are the brainchild of Jane Thomson, a former Wine Communicator of the Year and founder of the Fabulous Ladies’ Wine Society. They’re designed to “acknowledge and reward the work of women in the Australian wine industry, and industry leaders who champion equality and fairness for all in the workplace.” Thomson in turn was inspired by the Women of the Vine Global Symposium, the first edition of which took place in Napa in March this year. That symposium served as the launch pad for the Women of the Vine Alliance, which states as its raison d’être “to support, advance, and connect women in the wine industry worldwide through education, advocacy, training, mentorship, and steadfast confidence in the value of women at every position in the field”.
The “field” of course extends beyond the scope of AWIWA’s initial four-category format, and organisers say they’re open to expanding it depending on the success of the inaugural awards. Beyond the winemakers, viticulturalists and business owners, there are those who work in finance, distribution, marketing and operations who are worthy of recognition. One sign of this broader thinking is the inclusion from the outset of the Workplace Champion of Change award. Open to both businesses and individuals – male and female – it recognises those who’ve provided outstanding support for women or have led the way in implementing female-friendly work practices.
Likewise it’s up to both sexes get behind the awards. I’ve spoken to women winemakers who are rightly proud of their achievements – and those of their female peers – but who are loath to identify as “women winemakers” because they feel their gender is irrelevant to what they do. Nor would they wish to give the impression they got where they are despite being a women (let alone because of it). But again, this misses the point. It’s not about playing the chick card. It’s about flying the chick flag.
Adelaide-based viticulturist Mary Retallack sits on the advisory board for the Women of the Vine Global Symposium. She’s proud of the way the US venture encourages women to seize opportunities and be more active in decision-making. Likewise, it lends them much needed support, “so we don’t lose women who are at the top of their game,” she says. “Initiatives like this mean women have ready access to mentors, can connect with peers more effectively, contribute sooner and more effectively.”
What she says goes to the heart of AWIWA’s importance. It’s not a perfunctory pat on the back; these awards should serve as a reminder of the talent pool we have and mustn’t squander. A reasonable number of women enter the wine industry and many go on to achieve top honours. But look again at those (admittedly rough) numbers: female participation at just 10%? It’s a huge imbalance and drastic waste of potential.
These awards ultimately aim to redress the balance and chase that potential. We can’t hope to be at the top of our game without promoting diversity – something Oliver’s Taranga winemaker and AWIWA judge Corrina Wright justly declares a no-brainer. Driving up quality is vital, too. And that means pushing for the good to be recognised and for the great to go further.
So don’t waste time wondering whether these awards are “necessary”. Instead think of women who make wine, tend vineyards, write restaurant lists, run businesses, put on events, welcome you at the cellar door and in any way make your wine experience better – and decide if you need them.
Here’s a chance to say “yes” and mean it.

The entry deadline for the Australian Women in Wine Awards is Tuesday October 6, 2015. Enter at womeninwineawards.com.au. The winners will be announced on Tuesday November 17.

The Awards

The Award Categories for 2015 are:

• Winemaker of the Year – sponsored by Wine Ark
• Viticulturist of the Year – sponsored by Wine Australia
• Owner / Operator of the Year – sponsored by CellarHand*
• Workplace Champion of Change – sponsored by Vinomofo

*A version of this post originally appeared on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is the author’s employer.

Everything’s Hunky Dory

It’s simply not right to talk about Marlborough without mentioning its beauty. As wine regions go, it’s far from alone in being picturesque. But this is beauty as context, an in-your-face blessedness that hits you the moment you get there. Its key export, Sauvignon Blanc, seduced the world by projecting a similarly blatant, sunshiny charm. This easy appeal is often overlooked but shouldn’t be. The wine proved that some people can’t have too much of a good thing.
That’s how Mike Allan from Huia Vineyards* feels about his adopted home. He and wife Claire didn’t mean to end up here but they didn’t stand a chance. They were studying winemaking in Adelaide in 1990 and scored vintage positions there, Mike at Cloudy Bay and Claire at Corbans. “Very quickly we fell in love with it,” recalls Mike. “It was very energised. We just realised that Marlborough had an amazing climate and it just had everything that we loved doing right smack on our doorstep.”
They saw an ad in the local rag for a block of land on an old apple orchard in Rapaura that “looked to us like heaven”. They stretched themselves to the limit and bought it. That place is now Huia, and Marlborough has paid back its promise in spades.
“Within the wine community there’s a lovely joie de vivre of wine and food and that sort of thing. Malrborough’s not just great for wine, it’s great for growing anything,” says Mike. “There’s a real international flavour because everyone’s travelling. It’s very vibrant.” Then there’s the scenery; one hour up the road is the Molesworth High Country with its lakes and mountains, a second home for keen skier Claire and their daughters, Tui (22) and Sophie (18). Just 20 minutes away are the Marlborough Sounds and 1500km of coastline. The family has a launch there for Hunky Dory – the boat that shares its name with Huia’s second label – and Mike makes the most of it. He loves to cook, and the huge vegetable garden at home calls out for the local seafood. “There’s a lot of snapper and blue cod, and the Sounds are home to green-lipped mussels which are a perfect match for Sauvignon Blanc. It just doesn’t get better.”
As for the vineyards, it took four years’ toil to get the apples out and the land ready for planting. During that time, Mike deepened his relationship with the region at Cloudy Bay and Vavasour, while Claire went from Corbans to Lawson’s Dry Hills. By 1996, they had their own estate up and running. “It was the vitality of the wines we tasted when we got to Marlborough that told us we were somewhere special,” says Mike, accounting for the motivation that got the place built. And the allure of the signature grape is as strong as ever.
“Sauvignon Blanc produces so many different characters from different areas around the valley but there’s a common thread of really fine acidity and a wide range of flavours that go from tropical fruit to gooseberry-grassy,” he says. “I always find the challenge is not to try to show how much fruit you can jam in the bottle but how the different fruits can be made into something that’s really interesting and complex. I always had a problem with wines that are short-lived – it shouldn’t be a one-vintage wonder but something with the pedigree to last a few years.”
To this point, Mike and Claire opt to press rather than crush the fruit, aiming for purity over power. Though there’s no set recipe for barrel and lees work, these both play a key role in building complexity and rounding out the wine.
It’s clear that the Allans are spurred on by the friendships borne of Marlborough Natural Winegrowers. Known as MANA, this group was founded about four years ago and comprises Huia, Te Whare Ra, Hans Herzog, Seresin, Clos Henri, Fromm and Rock Ferry. These producers are either certified fully organic or on track to achieve certification by the end of 2015. It was conceived in the wake of “a perfect storm” for Marlborough: the planting frenzy of the early noughties culminated in a massive 2008 vintage that a GFC-shaken world couldn’t soak up. A lot of smaller producers struggled to survive – not least when they’d already been finding it hard to get their voices heard over the noise of the giants.
The MANA solution was to pool marketing resources, chip in for visits from international wine writers, consolidate buying power, share biodynamic preparations and trade knowhow on the fast-moving world of organics. “Our early aspirations are exactly as it’s unfolded,” says Mike. “We thought we’d be able to share and grow and learn together and that’s precisely what’s happened. There’s no inter-winery competition; it’s very collaborative and a hell of a lot of fun.”
Another thing they share is faith, firmly repaid by results, in Marlborough Pinot Noir. “I think it’s completely come into its own,” says Mike. Producers have a better understanding of the right clones, sites and crop loads. The vines now have a fair bit of age and, as he rightly declares, good Pinot Noir isn’t going to go out of fashion. “New Zealand is very strong south of Hawke’s Bay for Pinot Noir. Martinborough, Marlborough, Canterbury and Central Otago are all going to give you incredibly fine Pinot.” And the Marlborough climate once again may be its trump card, as it tends to give more reliably favourable vintages.
The sunny optimism that lured Mike and Claire here remains undimmed. Their eyes and minds are open, and they’re enjoying themselves. They’ve been invigorated by their 2015 crop of vintage winemakers, who brought fresh ideas California, Austria and Germany. Sophie and Tui, who’ve been helping with ferments since childhood, also pour their youthful energy into the mix.
“What’s lovely is that our vineyards are reaching maturity as well. We’re getting lovely consistency in our fruit quality. We’re completely estate grown. Some of those goals we set in the early days are really coming to fruition. The challenge is to keep the life and the vitality coming through.”

*A version of this article appeared on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is both the author’s employer and the distributor of Huia and Hunky Dory wines in Victoria.