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Australian winemakers to watch – part 2

Following on from part one, we round up a second batch of Aussie winemakers making a name for themselves down under.

 Gregg Follett, Lake Breeze

Greg Follett

If you were to pick out one producer with the tools to help Langhorne Creek win the profile it deserves, then Greg Follett of Lake Breeze has to be a leading contender. With a vineyard culture dating back to the 1860s, this region of South Australia has long been an important high quality fruit source for a number of famous producers, perhaps most notably Wolf Blass Black Label. However, a structure dominated by growers rather than wineries means that it has so far struggled to fully shine in its own right.

2014 saw an important step to address that reputation with the inaugural Langhorne Creek Wine Show, featuring a panel of inter-state judges. Perhaps the most eye-catching feature of the results was that Lake Breeze won no fewer than six of the 10 trophies. While a headline achievement was Champion Wine of the Show for its 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, this family-owned operation also enjoyed success with its Chardonnay, Shiraz and Shiraz/Cabernet blend Bernoota.

Although the Follett family has been growing grapes in Langhorne Creek for 120 years and still sells off around 60% of its fruit, since the late ‘80s the best quality grapes have been kept back for the proprietary Lake Breeze brand.

After graduating from Roseworthy and working stints in France and California, Greg took over the reins as winemaker at this 230 acre property in 1992. For more than 20 years he has played a decisive role in achieving the sort of consistent high quality that wins you the Adelaide Wine Show’s coveted Max Schubert Trophy not just once, but twice.

Chester Osborne, D’Arenberg

Chester Osborne
Chester Osborne

It’s easy to be bamboozled by crazy labels such as The Vociferate Dipsomaniac or The Wild Pixie, not to mention chief winemaker Chester Osborne’s dazzling array of shirts, but that’s not the main reason that D’Arenberg stands out from the McLaren Vale crowd.

This may be one of the region’s largest brands, but the mindset imposed by Osborne since he took over winemaking responsibilities in 1984 is incongruously small-scale: think low yields, basket presses and foot treading in open-top fermenters.

As well as a tireless attention to detail across its own eclectic range of 58 wines, D’Arenberg takes part in McLaren Vale’s pioneering Scarce Earth project. Started in 2009, this initiative brings together 12 producers, each of whom selects a single Shiraz block in a bid to highlight the region’s meticulously mapped geological and climatic variations. Not content with this level of focus, from the 2010 vintage Osborne went a step further with his own “Amazing Sites” programme, that sees D’Arenberg release 12 Shiraz and three Grenache wines, all identically vinified but derived from single vineyard sites across three districts in McLaren Vale.
While Shiraz may be this region’s calling card, Osborne is a loud, proud champion of Grenache. Making the most of his access to many of McLaren Vale’s old vine plantings of this variety, he pursues a distinctively structured, age-worthy style.

As if this work with mainstream varieties wasn’t enough, Osborne’s team is busy playing with varieties such as Sangiovese, Aglianico and Sagrentino. A focus on warmer climate varieties has introduced several Portuguese grapes such as Sousão and Tinta Cão. That said, you’ll also find everything from Riesling to Roussanne and Bordeaux grapes here.

One notable recent addition has seen Osborne extend his reach to Adelaide Hills in order to create the producer’s first sparkling wine, called Dadd. However, after coming off worse in a lawsuit from a certain similarly red-striped, parentally named Champagne brand, this is now due to be renamed, with Chester’s Folly rumoured to be a front runner in tribute to its irrepressible creator.

Pete Schell, Spinifex

Pete Schell
Pete Schell

Sometimes it takes an outsider to upset the status quo. That’s certainly the case in the Barossa, where Kiwi-born winemaker Peter Schell of Spinifex is making wines that are a world away from the region’s stereotypical rich, oak-laden style. Thanks to his French wife Magali, Schell has spent plenty of time soaking up Mediterranean inspiration, which has convinced him that a warm climate does not negate elegant, refreshing wines.

“There’s a natural generosity in Barossa but you can have too much of a good thing,” he remarks. “I’m a big believer that you don’t have to push Barossa Shiraz too hard.” While acknowledging the commercial and critical success of more opulent Barossa styles, Schell suggests that such plaudits have deterred many winemakers from pulling back to a more restrained expression. “Too many people have been making too much money too easily,” he observes. “That always f*cks things up.” However, Schell recalls: “There were a lot of very, very cool claret-style reds being made here through the ‘80s – some refined, elegant wines.” As a new generation of winemakers comes through, Schell finds that he is not the only person to share this outlook. “A lot of young guys here are going back to basics, doing less,” he reports. “I think there’s a lot of development and evolution, I really do. There’s a lot of discussion.”

Outlining his own efforts to create “a much more honest perspective of Barossa Shiraz than that plummy, chocolatey style,” Schell has moved towards larger barrels, sometimes 2,500 litres in volume, as well as concrete tanks. As for the viticultural side, he insists: “You don’t have to pick super-late to get density.”

Drawing a further contrast with the modern Barossa reputation, Schell explains: “I’m increasingly looking at softer, slower maturation. A lot of Australian wines are over-matured. If you give our wines a few years in bottle then that silky Barossa style comes through. If it’s glossy and silky straight away then you’ve gone too fast.”

Despite such confident views, Schell acknowledges a gradual journey towards his current position. “My style of wine is very different to 10 years ago,” he admits. “I liked them at the time, but it just shows how I’ve changed. I was going too hard, over-extracting and doing too much, but I’m maturing and I like to think that in 20 years time I’ll be better again.”

Virginia Willcock, Vasse Felix

Virginia Willcock

Anyone familiar with Vasse Felix’s top end Heytesbury Chardonnay will recognise the same vigorous, take-no-prisoners personality in its winemaker Virginia Willcock. Having joined the team at Margaret River’s oldest producer in 2006, Willcock has thrown herself into taking its Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay-led portfolio to the next level. “I like wine with depth, savoury complexity and lots of layers in the background,” she sums up. “There’s nothing more boring than fruity wines.”

The most recent milestone in her mission comes this year as Vasse Felix launches a third Chardonnay into its range. With an RRP of around £20, the new arrival is positioned just below the “icon” Heytesbury, and, according to Willock, is “what we want to hang our hat on as a great Margaret River Chardonnay.” Its arrival marks the culmination of extensive trials with recently planted Burgundian clones as well as new vineyard sites, as Willcock remarks: “This is the first time I’m feeling complete in our Chardonnay world.”

However, her drive for improvement is not limited to the Vasse Felix wines. Ever since 2008 the estate has hosted a blind tasting session that allows other Margaret River winemakers to benchmark their own Cabernet Sauvignons against the rest of the region. The 2014 event saw 52 producers take part.

“If you want to be the greatest Cabernet region in the world then you’ve got to be the most intellectual,” insists Willcock. “You can’t just understand your block, you need to have a deeper understanding of your region.”

Such is her faith in the potential of this far flung outpost of Western Australia that she maintains: “I believe truly in this world there might be five great Cabernet regions. Knowing that Margaret River has the most consistent conditions, we would be absolutely mad not to focus on trying to make the best Cabernet in the world.”

Larry Cherubino, Robert Oatley

Larry Cherubino

It may be Australia’s largest wine region, but Great Southern remains resolutely under the radar. That’s partly due to its remote location, even by Australian standards, more than four hours drive from Perth. Then, once you get there, Great Southern’s clutch of around 160 producers – similar to the number found in Margaret River – are scattered over an area that measures 100km west to east and 150km north to south.

Seeking to impose some high quality unity on this corner of his native Western Australia is Larry Cherubino, who divides his time between a post as director of winemaking for Australian wine giant Robert Oatley and his own venture, which he started nine years ago.

Today Cherubino owns around 260ha of vineyard across Margaret River, Pemberton and the Great Southern sub-regions of Porongurup and Frankland River. Although he currently sells some of this fruit off to the likes of Penfolds, that still leaves enough for a portfolio of around 40 wines.

“The biggest effort for us is that we’re so isolated,” he admits. “It’s not an hour and half drive from the city, it’s a vacation.” For those who do make the journey, what makes this region at once so thrilling and yet challenging is the sheer breadth of grape varieties that can thrive here. For those grasping for a focus point, Riesling offers a common thread, although Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are all recurring themes.

“All these sub-regions are good at different things and within these sub-regions there’s a lot of detail. That’s what interests me,” remarks Cherubino, who has been particularly diligent in his own selection process. “It helps that I travel so much because I’ve brought a lot of plant material from New Zealand, the US and Left Bank Bordeaux clones,” he reveals.

Slowly but surely, winemakers such as Cherubino are starting to drag the world’s attention to this remote corner of the world. “It’s really under-represented but the recognition that Great Southern is receiving in Australia is really growing – and it’s not just with consumers,” he observes. “A lot of major producers are now buying a lot of fruit here.”

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