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Australian winemakers to watch – part 1

Meeting the winemakers at the cutting edge of the Australian offering, Gabriel Savage discovers the magic touch that these personalities lend to the country’s fine wine mission.

As Australia works to remind the world about its credentials as a source of high quality wine, this drive is supported by a wealth of dynamic producers who embody precisely that message.

While certain regions lend themselves more easily to innovative approaches and young start-ups, you don’t have to spend long down under to discover a country packed with energetic, well-travelled winemakers showing a clear vision of what their own particular patch of land can achieve. Although many of these stars represent a new generation keen to move Australian wine into line with modern palates, there are also a considerable number of established names who remain restless in pursuit of the next challenge. Even better, there’s a recurring theme of mutual support, from terroir mapping projects to benchmarking exercises, all designed to ensure progress is not isolated, but carries regional clout.

If you want a snapshot of why anyone who loves fine wine should keep a close eye on Australia, then meet this collection of producers who are committed to moving the country forward.

Mac Forbes

When he set up a venture in Yarra Valley 10 years ago, Mac Forbes was surprisingly ambivalent about his home region’s wine. Having spent time in Austria working for Dirk Niepoort and as a consultant in Carnuntum, he recalls: “I came back from Europe at the end of 2004 with huge questions about what the Yarra style was.” This uncertainty stemmed from growing up in a place where “to be confused with other great regions was the definition of making great wine.”

Forbes was also disillusioned by what he saw as “a progression into bloody undrinkable wines that were all about winemaking and what they did in the cellar.” Everything changed as Forbes dug deeper into what Yarra had to offer at a sub-regional level. “The Yarra is so much more diverse than I’d ever expected – the soils, the elevation, the Great Dividing Range influence,” he outlines. “I’m much more excited about Yarra than when I started this project in 2004. The mindset has completely changed as we’ve found these amazing sites.”

With this finely tuned focus on vineyards that he feels are “truly unique”, Forbes explains: “I’m not trying to make perfect wine. I want the interest in the vineyard to appear in the wine. Really accomplished people can be a bit boring.” Apart from the large füder in his cellar, one of the more obvious legacies of Forbes’ time in Austria is the Riesling he makes from the Strathbogie Ranges. Although Pinot Noir is his main focus in the Yarra, he also makes Chardonnay and a Bordeaux blend named after his father Hugh. Here he cites the influence of former mentor the late John Middleton, who founded the region’s high profile Mount Mary estate, noting: “I felt there was a big push towards riper styles in Yarra, but we need to preserve the part of our history that made very elegant, perfumed Bordeaux blends.”

Undeterred by the loss of an eight hectare rented vineyard to phylloxera this year, Forbes is forging ahead with his mission to show off the multi-faceted personality of a region he is increasingly proud to call home. “It’s a really exciting time to be here,” he concludes.

Luke Lambert

Like moths to a flame, the Yarra seems to stand out at the moment as a hotbed of young talent. Among Forbes’ peers is this thrillingly instinctive winemaker who is busy forging his own distinct stylistic path. Again, the influence of time spent abroad shines through, in this case experience of three vintages in Italy, including stints with Barolo’s Giacomo Brezza and Cordero di Montezemolo.
“If I made wine like I learned at wine school I wouldn’t be making wines like I do today,” remarks Lambert. “To see how they made Italian wines was wild. You go to a winery in Italy and it’s a pig sty, very rudimentary and agricultural; there’s a complete avoidance of temperature control or inoculation.”

Inspired by this approach, Lambert returned home and set up on his own in 2004. “I had literally $8,000 (£4,400) and made wine in my garage,” he recalls, outlining an early approach that involved “lots of trial and error.”

Since then, Lambert echoes Forbes’ view about the exciting direction taken by their region. “The last 10 years have seen massive changes in Yarra,” he remarks. “There are lots of new producers and styles; it’s the most dynamic place I’ve ever been part of. We’re seeing everyone find their feet without an overlap of style; they’re each finding their own idea of what Yarra can be.”

While acknowledging the established producers “making benchmark Yarra”, Lambert suggests that this is a region where a new generation of winemakers is able to have a particularly significant impact. “It’s not like Barossa where you have lots of people inheriting estates ,” he observes. “There are a lot of young people here because they’ve been inspired by what they’ve seen in Yarra.”
A big focus for Lambert is to capture the potential of Syrah in this relatively cool climate corner of Australia. While the results show an alluringly savoury northern Rhône spice, he remains highly self-critical, saying: “My idea of perfect Syrah is far more structured than what’s in the glass at the moment, but you can’t do that in Yarra unless you force it, add tannin and macerate.”

Given his time spent in Piedmont, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Lambert is also working with Nebbiolo. “My early results are far closer to what I wanted to do than after 10 years tinkering away with Shiraz,” he reports. Although finding the right clone has proved challenging, Lambert is optimistic about the latest trial. “For me it’s incredibly exciting to be at the pointy end of something new,” he remarks of this Nebbiolo project. “If I look forward 10 or 20 years it could be something seriously exciting from Yarra Valley. Does it have the drive and length of a great Barolo? No, but it has the perfume.”

Steve Webber

Proving that it’s not just the new kids on the block with their small scale operations who are pushing the boundaries is De Bortoli’s head winemaker.

Although the company’s roots remain in the Riverina, Steve Webber has spent the last 25 years tirelessly exploring the potential of its 250-acre Yarra Valley estate. “I think in Australia people are so scared about trying something new outside the big four staples,” he remarks as he shows off one of the producer’s latest commercial scale creations, the La Bohème range. Among the wines in this independent merchant-focused collection are a Yarra “Pinot Gris and friends” white and a Syrah/Gamay red. In fact, Gamay ranks high among Webber’s current focuses as he confirms: “It’s a variety I’m extremely excited about. We’ve got some plantings come in for next year. We’ve got really big plans for Gamay.”

Outlining the idea behind his La Boheme red blend, Webber notes: “We’re looking to try and make some really interesting bistro wine. We were in Paris and every single bar was selling wine from Ardèche. I love all those young, fresh reds.” Other areas of experimentation include a Sherry-inspired wine made by creating a layer of flor on top of Italian variety Favorita. “I just love the nuttiness in the wine,” enthuses Webber. “The problem with a lot of Aussie wines is that they’re a bit clean. They need some grubbiness.” It can be no coincidence that several of the region’s current clutch of rising stars, including this list’s Luke Lambert and Bill Downie, passed through the De Bortoli cellars at the start of their careers.

However, Webber’s influence on the Australian wine industry was perhaps most clearly seen in 2008 when he took over as chairman of The Royal Melbourne Wine Show, abolishing medals for unfinished wines and instructing judges to reward charm and sense of place, not just technical correctness. “If you really want to give something a gold medal then be prepared to buy a case,” is his mantra, with the same ethos of drinkability applied to his own wines. “When I came here I made wine for the show circuit and won lots of gold medals but [Webber’s wife] Leanne wouldn’t drink them and I got a lot of criticism from the UK saying they were too oaky,” he recalls. “If we can’t drink a bottle on the back deck then we don’t release it.”

Bill Downie

Despite – or perhaps because of – its rambling size, Gippsland may not be among the most high profile wine regions of Victoria, but Bill Downie is at the forefront of those working to change that.

Catapulted into the limelight as a result of his leading role in the Thousand Candles project, Downie manages to balance the demands of this high profile Yarra venture with his own project to capture the expression of his native Gippsland. For the moment, however, the William Downie range is drawn from across Victoria as he develops a property he bought seven years ago that will eventually hold around three and half acres of vineyard. “From the time I discovered wine in my early 20s I looked at this hill and thought ‘that looks like a place to plant vines’,” he recalls.

Pinot Noir is Downie’s calling card, but – as you might expect from someone who has spent several years working in Burgundy – the labels make no mention of grape variety. “It isn’t about Pinot Noir,” insists Downie, “it’s about making wine that tastes like it comes from somewhere.” He may be widely viewed as one of the most talented winemakers of his generation but, Downie insists, “winemaking doesn’t really interest me. Having a conversation about winemaking is excruciatingly tedious. It’s taken me a long time to work out how to do less by farming well and leaving it alone.”
For Downie, an important goal is to help Australia break away from what he believes are unhealthy comparisons with the world’s famous fine wine regions.

“It’s had a profound effect on me that for the last 20 years everything that’s been done in this country has been a version of something else,” he states. “I don’t think we’ve ever properly appreciated that Australia is unique.”

For Downie, this understanding is hindered by what he views as producers’ disproportionate emphasis on geology in their pursuit of terroir expression. “They speak about it a lot in France, as they should, because they have very young soils and geological formations.” However, he argues: “It’s the opposite in Australia. It isn’t about new formations like limestone with lots of nutrients here. We’ve got very old depleted soils so the thing that has the most impact is light.”

While openly admitting that he has yet to win over many other winemakers to this view, Downie continues to argue his case as part of a wider creed.

“Australian wine could be – and should be – the equal of other places in the world,” he asserts. “But we have to stop emulating other places.”

The Lane team

Its ability to attract former Henschke winemaker Michael Schreurs is enough to make this producer worth a look, but taste The Lane’s wines and it is clear that a vineyard manager who can nurture such high quality should claim a big proportion of the credit too.

That role falls to ex-Australian Navy diver Marty Edwards, who looks after his family’s 150-acre property high up in the Adelaide Hills. Although the vineyards originally supplied grapes to Hardys, this deal came to an end when the brand was purchased by Constellation in 2005, leading to the creation of The Lane in 2007. Today the company produces 13 different wines from a combination of 13 different varieties. Although Adelaide Hills is picked out by Wine Australia as “the benchmark region for Sauvignon Blanc”, so far as Edwards is concerned “the two things to me that are really exciting are Chardonnay and Shiraz.” Indeed, The Lane is a prime proponent of the cooler climate style that is forcing wine lovers to radically re-evaluate their traditional notion of what Aussie Shiraz is about. According to the appropriately biased Edwards, this peppery, more savoury expression is “becoming more popular in time as Australians get to like that more European style rather than Barossa gear box fluid.”

Meanwhile the winery team has developed some interesting ideas of its own to help better express the result of Edwards’ meticulous vineyard work. Inspired by a trip to Barolo in 2009, Schreurs carries out a 53-day maceration on the producer’s Reunion Shiraz, with the grapes also spending four days in a chiller. “It means the fermentation starts really, really slowly,” explains Edwards. “Shiraz can be all mid-palate and no back, but the extended maceration really lengthens that out.”

As in Yarra, Adelaide Hills is attracting a crowd of young ambitious producers alongside a clutch of more established names, whose combination of drive and experience make this one of the most thrilling regions in Australia right now.

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