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Australia’s women in wine to watch

Samantha Connew 

Samantha Connew’s wine epiphany came while studying law and English literature in Christchurch, New Zealand, and working part time at a wine bar where she discovered the drops of the gods that inspired her to travel the world and train as a winemaker.

She completed her first vintage in Oregon, where she fell hopelessly in love with Pinot Noir, then went on to make wine in Italy and Spain before settling in Australia, where she spent a decade as senior winemaker at Wirra Wirra in the McLaren Vale.

She recently struck out with her own Tasmanian label – Stargazer – which pays homage to Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, the first person to reach Tasmania, in 1642.

Her range includes a Pinot, Chardonnay and a white blend made from Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Connew’s winemaking style is “respectful of fruit, variety, vineyard and place”. Thus far, she’s most pleased with her 2015 Stargazer Chardonnay. “It comes closest to what I want to do with the variety,” she says.

Desert island wine: Domaine de La Romanée-Conti La Tâche 1978.

Lisa McGuigan

Lisa McGuigan is a fourth-generation member of the famous Hunter Valley winemaking dynasty, led by Brian McGuigan. Her uncle, Neil, heads up Australian Vintage, though Lisa has her own impressive wine pedigree, having founded the successful Tempus Two label in 1999 from her garage, which she grew to 150,000 cases before leaving the brand in 2011 to set up Lisa McGuigan Wines, taking Liz Silkman of Tempus Two with her.

True to her rebellious spirit, McGuigan makes wines with varieties she loves, rather than feeling tied down by geography. Her Silver Collection of everyday drinking wines includes a Hunter Valley Semillon and a Barossa Shiraz. The Blaec range meanwhile, features wines from around the world, such as a Waipara Sauvignon Blanc and a Grüner Blanc from Hungary.

“I like to work from the consumer back, so innovation has influenced my winemaking style,” she says. Her top-tier Platinum Collection includes a Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Shiraz. The wine she’s most proud of so far is her 2015 Wrattonbully Pinot Noir.

Desert island wine: Dom Pérignon P2-1990.

Natasha Mooney 

Another Australian wine stalwart who has recently taken the bold step of branching out on her own is Natasha Mooney, who launched La Bise Wines last November. After her dreams of being a jockey were crushed when she became too tall, Mooney turned to wine.

Having clocked up 20 years of winemaking in the Barossa Valley and Adelaide Hills, Mooney left Fox Gordon Wines, which she co-ran, at the end of last year to focus her energy on the La Bise label, which includes an Adelaide Hills Tempranillo, Pinot Gris, Arneis and Sangiovese, and a Shiraz from the Southern Flinders Ranges.

“I’ve searched the Adelaide Hills for quality vineyards and have come across sites that need a bit of love and rejuvenation. I like to think I’ve given them the ‘kiss of life’,” she says, hence the name La Bise. So far she’s pretty chuffed with her Sangiovese but would love to get more people drinking Arneis.

Desert island wine: Isole e Olena Ceparello 2006.

Caroline Mooney 

Caroline Mooney (no relation to Natasha) grew up on a farm in the Yarra Valley. She became attuned to the rhythms of nature, and would look forward to autumn mushrooms, the smell of summer hay and the first buds of spring. Her father sparked her passion for wine when he opened precious bottles from his cellar.

Mooney completed her first vintage in 2000 with Hardy’s Tintara in McLaren Vale. The same year she moved to the Yarra Valley and took up a cellar-hand position at Yering Station, working her way up to assistant winemaker by 2004.

Inspired by her time at J.L. Chave in the Rhône, in 2008 she founded Bird on a Wire, which includes a Yarra Valley Marsanne, Chardonnay, Syrah and Nebbiolo, the latter of which she’s most proud of. “The Yarra Valley has had a huge influence on who I am today and how I make wine,” she says, describing her style as “instinctive and flexible”.

Desert island wine: “Something with a screwcap because it would be devastating if it was corked.”

Suzanne Little 

Born in Canberra, Suzanne Little began her wine career at 17, having been inspired to enter the industry by her cousin, who worked for Wynns.

Starting at Katnook Estate in Coonawarra, Little took a detour into the financial world and worked in Sydney as a bonds trader. She retuned to wine in 1991 with a post in the Hunter Valley and was made senior winemaker of Rosemount Estate in 1994, where she worked for five years, looking after the company’s Reserve range.

Joining forces with her winemaker husband, Ian, in 2000, the pair run The Little Wine Company in the Hunter Valley, where they make Sangiovese, Vermentino, Viognier, Shiraz, Tempranillo and Gewürztraminer.

She credits Philip Shaw of Rosemount as her winemaking inspiration. “He could make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” she jokes. So far, she’s proudest of her 2014 Little Gem Shiraz after sticking to her guns on her preference for making generous, fruit- forward wines.

Desert island wine: Tyrrells Vat 1 Semillon 1997 – “It shows off the quixotic nature of aged Hunter Semillon.”

Tennille Chalmers 

Tennille Chalmers is a name to remember. After working in hospitality for a decade, including a stint as a sommelier in Melbourne, she turned her hand to winemaking in 2010 and joined her family estate, Chalmers Wines, in Heathcote.

Inspired by the Italian love of food, wine and family, she works predominantly with Italian varieties like Vermentino, Fiano, Nero d’Avola and Aglianico, making wines for the Chalmers Project and Chalmers and Montevecchio ranges.

An enlightening vintage with Arianna Occhipinti in Sicily in 2014 fuelled her fire to make Italian wines in Australian soil. Her family recently built their own winery in Heathcote, giving them more autonomy. Chalmers describes her winemaking

style as “careful and practical, but at the same time creative, and with no rulebook”. So far she’s happiest with her “fresh and lively” 2016 Schioppettino (a red variety from Friuli), and is fired up by the “diversity, incredible talent and great stories”, in the Australian wine industry right now.

Desert island wine: Sugrue Pierre The Trouble With Dreams Cuvée Brut 2010.

Stephanie Dutton

Born and raised in Melbourne, Stephanie Dutton’s wine epiphany came when opening a bottle of Barolo while working as a sommelier in the city. The wine sparked something in her and ignited a desire to stop serving it and start making it.

Having completed a masters in winemaking in Adelaide, Dutton joined prestigious estate Penfolds in 2007 and has worked her way up to becoming the custodian of Penfolds’ Koonunga Hill wines. Based at the company’s Nuriootpa Winery in the Barossa Valley, Dutton enjoys the fact that no two vintages are alike, and that each have their own charms and challenges.

She describes her winemaking style as intuitive, relying more on her instincts than working to a recipe.

Her main aim is to create ageworthy wines that will reward in decades to come. “For this to happen you need length, drive, elegance and structure,” she says. As a team effort she’s most proud of the 2010 vintage of Grange, while her biggest challenge has been getting used to living in the countryside.

Desert island wine: Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 1996.

Kate Goodman 

Kate Goodman began her winemaking career in the McLaren Vale and Clare Valley, spending seven years winemaking at Seppelt in the Grampians. In 2000, she was named chief winemaker at Punt Road Wines, where she stayed until 2014. Keen to do her own thing, the same year she took the bold step of launching her eponymous label, Goodman Wines, leasing a winery with Caroline Mooney of Bird on a Wire.

With the blessing of the Punt Road team, Goodman made wines for her own label in 2012 and 2013, using fruit from the Upper Yarra Valley. Taking a hands- off approach to make wines with a sense of place, she crafts fresh, elegant Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Yarra Valley, and has even dabbled with Italian varieties Negroamaro and Vermentino, which she’s keen to champion.

“Balance is paramount in winemaking – all the elements: fruit, acid, oak and tannin need to be in harmony,” she says. With an English father, she’d love to see her wines on sale in the UK.

Desert island wine: Louis Roederer Cristal 1996.

Amber Ochota

Married to the wild man of the Basket Range, Taras Ochota, Amber Ochota makes a ‘smashable’ Pinot for their Ochota Barrels range, with a beautiful pale-blue recycled paper label dotted with poppies. Called Home, the Pinot is sourced from a tennis court-sized vineyard in the Adelaide Hills offered up to the Ochotas by their grape- growing doctor.

After the grapes are picked each year, the couple and their two children, Sage and Anouk, have a picnic under the persimmon tree.

“I stomp the grapes with Sage and then pretty much leave it alone. It is so full of love, that wine.” The result is a fragrant, fresh, 100%- whole-bunch drop that’s all juicy strawberries and cherries with herbal hints. Less than 500 bottles of the wine are made each year, giving new meaning to the term ‘small batch’.

Taras persuaded Amber to make wine over breakfasts cooked on misty mornings in their camper van. She describes herself as a “minimalistic mother” when it comes to winemaking.

Desert island wine: “Champagne Selosse, preferably in Jeroboam, to share with my loves. Any vintage will do.”

Bernice Ong

Bernice Ong is half of one of Australian wine’s most compelling power couples. With her husband, Julian Forwood, she makes wine under the Ministry of Clouds label, which James Halliday flagged up as one of the country’s most exciting new wine brands in 2015.

Ong has been in the wine trade for 20 years, having worked for Yalumba, Moët Hennessy Australia and Mountadam Vineyards. In 2012, she and Forwood launched their own label with a Tempranillo/Grenache, which is the wine she’s most proud of. The blend was inspired by the wines they drank in San Sebastian, and how most of the drops paired perfectly with the food because they were medium-bodied with good acidity and savoury tannins.

The trip inspired her to make the same kind of wines, offering the lightness of touch found in the Grenaches made by Château Rayas in the Rhône. The pair also make a Tasmanian Chardonnay and McLaren Vale Shiraz at Tim Geddes’ winery. “I’m aiming for savoury wines with good acidity, fragrance and lift, and a strong sense of place,” Ong says.

Desert island wine: Salon Cuvée ‘S’ Le Mesnil 1996 – “a cracking wine from a cracking vintage”.

Jen Pfeiffer 

A name to remember, Jen Pfeiffer’s blood pumps fortified wine. Growing up at her family’s estate in Rutherglen, she used to play hide and seek in the vineyards. Jen’s first vintage was in 2000, when she made Pfeiffer Shiraz, immediately became hooked, and decided to dedicate her time to winemaking, which has taken her to Beaujolais and her beloved Douro Valley, where she worked alongside David Guimaraens at Quinta da Roeda.

“His amazing knowledge of Port, and his incredible vision were a huge inspiration to me,” she says. Returning to Rutherglen fired up, Pfeiffer has made a name for herself for the quality and approachability of her fortified wines.

Her goal is to be recognised as one of the country’s finest fortified winemakers. “They are magical wines with a great story to tell; wines of time and patience,” she says.

Pfeiffer’s winemaking remit at Pfeiffer Wines is broad, working with 30 varieties and producing everything from sparkling whites and dry reds to unctuous stickies. She dreams of making wine at her own estate in the Douro one day.

Desert island wine: Croft 2007.

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