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Australia’s top women winemakers

For any new movement to be ignited it takes someone brave to start the fire. Pam Dunsford did much to pave the way for women winemakers in Australia.

Pam Dunsford opened the cellar door for women in the Australian wine trade. Photo credit: Milton Wordley

The chief winemaker of Chapel Hill in the McLaren Vale for 19 vintages, Dunsford was the first woman to be accepted into Roseworthy Agricultural College, back in 1972 as a spunky 22-year-old, where she studied alongside 180 men.

During her interview, she was warned that no one would employ her as a winemaker as a woman wasn’t able to do the job. She went on to become the first female chief winemaker of an Australian estate and one of the first female wine judges on the competition circuit.

Today, women hold some of the most highly respected roles in Australian winemaking, from Vanya Cullen at Cullen and Louisa Rose at Yalumba to Sarah Crowe at Yarra Yering, who are helping to shape Australia’s fine wine narrative towards fresh, elegant, terroir-driven expressions.

Sarah Crowe, Yarra Yering

Having barely walked through the cellar door of Yarra Yering, Sarah Crowe was named James Halliday’s Winemaker of the Year for 2017 for her debut 2014 vintage at the prestigious Victoria estate – the first woman to receive the accolade.

“She has made red wines of the highest imaginable quality from her first vintage,” Halliday says. Crowe joined Yarra Yering in 2013 after 12 years in the Hunter Valley, predominantly at Brokenwood. Her dream is for her wines to sell out before release.

“I like to think that I have a gentle hand,” Crowe says. “I want to make wines that are true to the integrity of the fruit I have to work with, and that means being very intimate with the wines and responding to what they need me to do.” So far, she’s most proud of her 2014 Yarra Yering Dry Red Wine No1. “I took my time in putting the blend together

because I wanted people to recognise it as a wine from Yarra Yering,” she says. As for making it to the top of a male- dominated industry, Crowe reveals: “I have felt like I needed to prove that I am physically up to the job.”

Desert island wine: Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne 2010.

Vanya Cullen, Cullen Wines 

Vanya Cullen has made wine at her family’s Wilyabrup estate in Margaret River since 1983, and was named chief winemaker in 1989 and managing director a decade later. James Halliday describes her palate as “extraordinarily good” and her top-tier wines as “superb”.

Our Drinks Business Woman of the Year 2008 and Green Personality of the Year 2011, respecting nature is Cullen’s ultimate goal. During her time in charge she has transformed the estate into a certified biodynamic, carbon-neutral, naturally powered enterprise. She describes her winemaking style as “intuitive and connected to nature”, and names Aubert de Villaine and the late Anne-Claude Leflaive as guiding lights.

“Nature is my inspiration for everything. It is the land that provides the grapes and the intelligence is in the land, so the more natural you can make your wines the better,” she says. Her biggest challenge has been justifying why and how the estate is sustainable but she hopes her path will influence others to take care of Mother Nature.

Desert island wine: Cullen Vanya Cullen Cabernet Sauvignon 2012. “It has been my life’s work to make this great Cabernet,” she says.

Louisa Rose, Yalumba

One of Australia’s leading winemakers, Louisa Rose joined Yalumba in 1993, becoming chief winemaker in 2006. During her tenure at the Barossa Valley estate, Melbourne-born Rose has pioneered Viognier, resulting in the creation of top expression The Virgilius Viognier, which has helped put quality Australian Viognier on the map.

“I have seen this wine open people’s eyes to the variety, change their perceptions and add positively to people’s experiences,” she says. At the same time, Rose has challenged perceptions of what Barossa Valley Shiraz should be.

She makes a number of styles of Viognier, from entry level and organic, to an Eden Valley example. Known for her flair and attention to detail, Rose has also been instrumental in the development of Riesling at Yalumba.

“I try to make wines that are delicious, relevant and reflect the combination of grape, place and house style,” she says. “Healthy, flavourful grapes and happy, diverse yeasts combine to make the winemaking process (almost) as simple as sitting back and watching the wines as they form and evolve.”

Desert island wine: “I’d try something new, hopefully with a great meal.”

Prue Henschke, Henschke 

This year Prue Henschke celebrates 30 years working as chief viticulturist at her family estate in the Eden Valley; one of the most respected and revered in Australia. Her role includes trellis design, canopy management, soil-moisture management, trials with native grasses and biodynamic viticulture.

A zoology graduate, Henschke has worked on developing the Mount Edelstone and Hill of Grace vineyards since 1986, selecting the best genetic material for replanting in order to work with vines that produce the most intensely coloured and flavoured grapes possible.

She describes her vineyard-management style as “unconventional and experimental on the one hand and nurturing on the other”, and is so far most proud of the estate’s Mount Edelstone Shiraz. “Changing the trellis from a vigorous spreading canopy to the Scott Henry trellis gives higher quality fruit that shows better colour and tannins in the wine,” she says.

Her biggest challenge has been trying to gain organic certification, which still eludes her. Prue has pioneered Grenache, Mataro and Counoise in the Barossa Valley; Tempranillo, Barbera and Nebbiolo in the Eden Valley; and Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Noir in the Adelaide Hills.

Desert island wine: Domaine Tempier Cuvée Cabassaou Bandol Rouge 2012.

Sue Hodder, Wynns Coonawarra


Another grande dame of the Australian wine industry, Sue Hodder celebrated her 25th vintage at Wynns Coonawarra this year. Named Gourmet Traveller Wine’s Winemaker of the Year in 2010, Hodder has been pivotal in putting Coonawarra Cabernet on the world wine map. Wynns has three wines in the Langton’s Classification, including John Riddoch Cabernet, which is ranked as ‘Exceptional’.

“I try to capture the best of our vineyards while respecting the past and considering the future to make wines that will age gracefully,” Hodder says. A regular on the wine-judging circuit in Australia, this July Hodder will host a 60-year vertical of Wynns Black Label Cabernet, which she expects will be a highlight of her career.

She considers her work on the development of Black Label Cabernet as her proudest achievement, while her biggest challenge so far has been understanding climate change and all that it entails. Hodder’s ultimate goal is for people all over the world to appreciate the “heritage and unique character” of Australian wine.

Desert island wine: Vega Sicilia 1982.

Virginia Willcock, Vasse Felix 

Having clocked up experience in Sicily, Abruzzo and New Zealand, Virginia Willcock has 25 vintages in Margaret River under her belt, the last 11 as chief winemaker of revered estate Vasse Felix, best known for its beguiling Cabernets and characterful Chardonnays.

Her winemaking philosophy is simple – to make wines she loves to drink. “As winemakers, we scour the world to find rare and precious wines we love, so at Vasse Felix, with its pristine environment and historic vineyards, I must strive to make just that,” she says.

Willcock dreamt of becoming a winemaker from a young age. “I loved the idea of growing fruit then turning it into something more beautiful,” she says.

Named Gourmet Traveller Wine’s Australian Winemaker of the Year in 2012, she believes Margaret River may become one of the greatest wine regions in the world, and that it’s only just starting to show its full potential. She also feels Australian wine is entering a new era of elegance.

Desert island wine: Tom Cullity Cabernet Malbec 2013 in magnum. “It’s a refined, elegant and true picture of a place.”

Sandra de Pury, Yeringberg

Following her father into winemaking wasn’t the initial plan for Sandra de Pury. Having begun a medicine degree, she soon switched syringes for saucepans and trained as an apprentice chef at Fanny’s in Melbourne.

Eventually succumbing to the family tradition, de Pury completed a winemaking degree then took over from her father, Guill, as chief winemaker at Yeringberg – the fourth generation and first woman in her family to do so.

“I like to let the grapes and the vintage tell the story. I pay enormous attention to detail but increasingly trust my instincts to allow for a degree of improvisation. I strive to make wines to enjoy with food that are balanced, elegant and ageworthy,” she says, and believes the vocation offers “the perfect combination of intellectual, physical and sensory engagement”.

So far she’s most proud of her 2014 Viognier because of its “opulent aromas, fine acidity and structure”. Her ultimate goal is to leave Yeringberg in good shape for the next generation and help to increase global awareness of premium Australian wines.

Desert island wine: Pfeiffer Rare Rutherlglen Topaque.

Kathleen Quealy, Quealy Winemakers 

Kathleen Quealy was inspired to become a winemaker after watching Sicilian migrants making wine in their utility rooms while growing up in Sydney. Mentored by Max Loder, who introduced Pinot Gris to Australia, Quealy developed a lifelong love of the variety, which led James Halliday to dub her “the Queen of Pinot Gris” and “a lightening rod of change”.

Marching to her own beat, Quealy was the first woman to be named a Legend of the Vine by Wine Communicators of Australia. She founded T’Gallant Winemakers with her husband, Kevin McCarthy, in 1990, and released the first unoaked Chardonnay
in the country.

After T’Gallant was sold to Treasury Wine Estates in 2003, Kathleen founded Quealy Winemakers, where she makes a red blend, white blend, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. She describes her winemaking style as “collaborative and hands-on”, and is most proud of her 17 Rows Pinot Noir, which was inspired by a trip to Italy.

Desert island wine: Chiara Boschis E. Pira Cannubi Barolo 2004 – “a great vintage that’s ready to drink at long last”.

Corrida Wright, Oliver’s Taranga 

With a family that has grown grapes in the McLaren Vale since 1839, winemaking is in Corrina Wright’s blood. Toying with the idea of becoming a lawyer, she followed her heart into wine and learnt the tricks of the trade under the wing of Pam Dunsford at Chapel Hill, who she “looked up to with a healthy dose of awe”, and was further inspired by her mentor, John Duval, at Southcorp Wines.

Her first year at the company was a challenge – “I was given a tough run by the predominantly male winemaking team,” she admits. In 1997, Wright produced the first vintage of Oliver’s Taranga with fruit grown by her grandfather and uncle. Egged on by Mark Lloyd of Coriole, she was one of the first to champion Fiano in Australia and is proud of the result.

“As a winemaker I’m keen to get the best fruit I can from the vineyard and am lucky to work with an amazing patch of land. I try not to impart my hand too strongly on the wines but rather guide them along,” she says.

Desert island wine: Salon Cuvée ‘S’ Les Mesnil 1997.

Helen McCarthy, Mountadam Vineyards 

Born in England, Helen McCarthy moved to Australia with her family in 1988 and graduated from the University of Adelaide with an oenology degree 12 years later. She spent eight years as the senior winemaker for Taylors Wines and has also chalked up stints at Lindeman’s, Wynns, Penfolds and Thorn-Clarke.

In late 2015 she joined Mountadam Vineyards as chief winemaker, where she is responsible for all aspects of winemaking from grape to glass. “My style revolves around getting it right in the vineyard then minimising tricks in the winery.

There are styles that demand winemaker interaction, but in my experience, the best wines are made when the fruit is sourced from a well-managed vineyard,” she says.

The greatest challenge of her career has been the 2011 vintage, and so far she’s most proud of her Mountadam Eden Valley Gewürztraminer 2016. A flight of 2015 DRCs at a recent Len Evans Tutorial has fuelled her fire to “make something that resonates with people, like those wines did with me”.

Desert island wine: Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2004.

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