This year, 2016, I completed my 30th vintage. Bernie asked me to reflect back over the 30 vintages I have done. A fairly big task actually! 30 vintages is quite a lot considering I’ve only just turned 47. My first vintage was way back in 1988 (can you believe it!) working at Orlando in the Barossa as a cellar hand; one of the guys who does the physical work in the winery while the winemaker barks instructions. I’d grown up in the Barossa and been around wine my whole life. As the locals say, “I was born with wine in my blood”. My dad worked in many areas of the wine industry, my grandfathers and uncles owned or managed vineyards. In fact, I have a long family history in wine going back to my great, great, great Grandfather Johann Gramp, who apparently planted some of the first vines in the Barossa. And even further back to the Koch family who’d had vines already bearing in Rowland Flat when Johann arrived in the valley.
One of my earliest recollections of wine was what became the infamous ‘tea party’ with my brother and sister when I was about 7 years old. My parents had friends over for a bbq and we decided to play a game pretending to be the adults with my younger sister’s new plastic tea party set. To make the game more realistic my older brother and I filled the teapot from my parent’s Fruity Lexia wine cask; it seemed like the right thing to do. Later, during the course of lunch my brother and sister both felt a little unwell. My mother was appalled when she worked out what we had been drinking from the tea set. The other two were sent to bed with their queasy bellies while I got to spend an enjoyable afternoon on the couch watching one of my favourite Jerry Lewis movies, which seemed particularly funny that day.
Like most teenagers, I was keen to follow my own path and started out studying Civil Engineering. I quickly realised it was not for me. I dropped out after the first year with no idea what to do next. To earn some money I got a vintage job locally in the Barossa. During that first vintage, filling barrels with Chardonnay and Cabernet, I realised that I’d stumbled across exactly what I was looking for. I could see the strong science base to winemaking, like Engineering, but with an added creative element. Encompassing other areas such as travel, geography and history, made it even more attractive. I made my first wine that year at home, under my dad’s instruction. Believe it or not, it was a Barossa Valley Pinot Noir! At the time Australian wine was set to take off internationally after years of decline / stagnation, but we didn’t know this at the time. Job prospects didn’t look great but off to Roseworthy College I went to study Winemaking.
By the time I’d finished my degree things had begun to change for Australian wine. However, times were still tough, with very few graduates able to obtain work as a winemaker. I was one of the lucky ones, albeit only a vintage job at Wickham Hill in the Riverina. Possibly the most isolated wine region in Australia. I was mainly making cask wine from Shiraz and Trebbiano as well as cheap sparkling wine from Semillon. Despite working with some great people, including David Morris, thankfully it was a short lived job as I am not sure how long it would have maintained my interest. By now those of you who are mathematically minded have probably realised that 2016 minus 1988, minus a few years at Uni, doesn’t add up to 30 vintages. Well, you have to add in the 3 northern hemisphere vintages I did. That’s how I was able to do two vintages in a year…3 times! The first one, in 1992 was in the Sonoma Valley, California. It was a great experience, having never been overseas before, working in the state of the art Simi winery and working with much better fruit than my last job. But the winery was obsessed with copying the French, right down to having a very expensive French consultant, despite being in a very different climate. Almost a philosophy of copying everything with more money spent will achieve a better result. I began to realise that part of what made Australian wine different was our adaptability, ingenuity and improvisation. This was particularly apparent to me the following vintage back at Orlando in the Barossa making white wines. A huge amount was achieved with a very out of date winery and equipment stretched to the limit as Australian wine started to boom. This growth meant a lot of new vineyards and grape growers came on stream, and a steep learning curve. One new grape grower that stands out in my memory was from the Riverland, bringing his load of “Shiraz”. As he emptied his tipper truck a thin layer of Shiraz soon turned into Grenache, followed by oranges and lemons! It made a horrendous racket, but a very pleasant smell, as they were spat out by the destemmer. Needless to say he wasn’t invited back to supply grapes the following year.
In 1996 I bought a vineyard. Well, it was sort of a vineyard. One quarter of the land was planted to Grenache bush vines, which was a very unfashionable variety back then. Another quarter had heavily diseased apricots, and the remaining half of the land was barren. Right from the beginning I realised I was onto a pretty special piece of land with the Grenache at the time being sold to Rockford and the neighbour to the north Elmor Schultz, who also farmed the property, being one of the E’s from the famous E&E Shiraz. The plan back then was to establish what has become Red Art today. Little did I realise it would take so long to become an overnight success of sorts.
Later in 1996 I did my second overseas vintage, in Hungary, making wines for a UK distributor Caxton Towers for supermarket chains at three Hungarovin wineries. Unfortunately it turned out to be possibly the worst vintage the country had seen since the early 70’s. It rained virtually every day. Eventually, after weeks of cold wet weather, the sun finally came out, but with it so did the botrytis rot. It was definitely a challenge to make Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from half rotted grapes (no exaggeration). They had only 8% potential alcohol and double the acidity of any normal wine (TA 16 g/l, pH 2.60). With great surprise I actually made something drinkable. This taught me how we are very lucky with our climate here in Australia, and how surprisingly robust and forgiving grapes are when turning them into wine. Apart from the grape hurdles, it was not easy dealing with the leftover attitudes of the recently dissolved communist system in Hungary, the rather lax levels of cleanliness and the language issues. Many grapes arrived at the winery from tiny half acre family vineyards in drums being carried by something that resembled a rotary hoe with a tray on the back. Even the occasional horse and cart would arrive at the winery delivering grapes. There is a rare white grape variety grown in Hungary called Juhfark which is considered especially lucky for newlyweds to toast with. This is not a joke! I know the variety name and context suggest otherwise. I can tell you it wasn’t especially lucky in 1996 where it arrived in the winery over 90% rotten, at less than 7% potential alcohol and with teeth dissolving acidity (it’s a naturally a very high acid variety even at full ripeness). A cloud of mould spores covered the whole winery and everybody in it as the grapes were tipped into the crusher. The worst fruit I have ever seen in my life.
Back at Orlando by 1996 I’d been put in charge of making Riesling which was a great pleasure. When you got the Riesling variety right it was like capturing exactly what you saw in the vineyard. Perhaps this was an early forerunner to my interest in single vineyard wines. But the promotion was also buy valium quite daunting given the company’s long history with the variety and how Riesling reveals every technical flaw from the vineyard to bottle. The role also had me working closely with John Vickery which was a great experience given his experience and love of the variety. But red wines had always been my passion and in mid 1997 I swapped from the “White Trash” to the “Red Necks” as they were affectionately known internally then.
The 90’s and early 2000’s were a time of huge growth in Australian wine. By the time it ended I found myself as the Group Red and Fortified Winemaker for Pernod Ricard Australia in charge of an annual crush of over 70,000 tonnes of red grapes (over 50 million litres of wine), taking fruit from all over Australia and crushing grapes across up to seven wineries. I can recall days where the cellar accidentally spilt more in an hour than we can now make at Rojomoma Red Art across a couple of vintages. A huge contrast to what we do now. One of the chief benefits of being in such a large organisation was seeing so many different vineyards in many different regions. I intimately knew vineyards across Eastern and Southern Australia; from the Hunter, to the Riverland, Rutherglen, Tasmania, Coonawarra, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, back to the Barossa and beyond. Being out in the vineyards gave me a great understanding of terroir and place. In a big company you can try many different processes, seeing what works and what doesn’t. But unfortunately such large wineries are often driven by what is the quickest, most efficient and cost effective method. It’s a necessary evil to meet very competitive low price points, but also stifles creativity and creates monotony. This makes wines more true to a desired corporate house style conjured up in a Sydney sensory lab, rather than expressing the true personality of place, history, culture, the vineyard, the viticulturist and the winemaker. Sadly, it was the homogenous wines produced in Australia that in my opinion led to the move away from Australian wine globally. Thankfully, that is set to change with the exciting evolution of Australian wine. This is something that we took on board when we began Red Art in 2004 making our first vintage in the shed at home. It gave us the confidence to follow what we always believed in and still drives our focus today: making single vineyard wine truly representative of its source. Rather than fighting the vineyard, we let it dictate the wine in an authentic expression of place.
However, working in that big company role was definitely not always bad. I had many interesting winemaking projects, such as consulting to China, Argentina, US, India and Georgia, and wine show judging both domestically as well as in such far flung places as Hong Kong and Tokyo. The role also offered the chance to be able to travel a lot, sometimes to obscure and crazy locations. I’ve helped sell wine as the Saint Hugo Chief Winemaker in a chain smoking, wine sculling dinner in Inner Mongolia; as the Wyndham Estate Chief Winemaker in a Reindeer Abattoir in Lapland; experiencing an amazing bus ride taking grape growers on a study tour over the Andes Mountains; and in Bahrain while drinking Chivas Regal out of a tea pot and watching Karaoke in a ‘dry’ Arab bar. Funny turn of events, there I was in my late 30’s drinking alcohol out of a tea pot once again, although in a completely different environment this time. I do feel grateful for those experiences. All that said, I certainly don’t miss having to wear a fluoro vest to walk through the garden and cross a public road. Nor do I miss the company policy of a picture stuck to the wall of my office of how my desk must look!
In 2006 I worked a vintage in Rioja, Spain at the beautiful Ysios winery. This heartland of the old world of wine, where it has been a part of life for millennia, reinforced with me the importance of wine synergising with food and culture, rather than overpowering it. In a previous visit to Spain we fell in love with Tempranillo and this is the reason we have a tiny patch of it planted at our vineyard. Did you know the Barossa was named after ‘Barrosa’ in southern Spain? Another reason why growing Tempranillo here just seemed a natural fit. Travelling extensively over the years reinforced the importance of this food and cultural philosophy. We have worked toward making wines not in the bigger is better style the Barossa had become famous for in the 90’s, but rather we focus more on balance, drinkability and food friendliness. Savoury textural old world, hands on styles expressing the vineyard that are lower in oak and alcohol. In many ways this is almost a return to the Barossa wines I grew up with such as the great older wines of Peter Lehmann and Charles Melton.
No two vintages out of those 30 have ever been the same. The timing of weather events drive everything, and not just at harvest time, leading to near endless permeations for each vintage. For example a dry winter and spring 6 months before can result in firm tannic wines lacking some fruit no matter what the summer and harvest conditions provide. Likewise, heatwave or rain at harvest can have a huge impact. However, considering weather patterns for a minute, it is concerning that a “normal” vintage seems less frequent these days. In recent years there has been some kind of record-breaking weather event in almost every year. Climate change is definitely alive and well. Being flexible and adaptive is now more important than ever. One of the many benefits we have as a tiny winery that grows its own fruit and hand makes all its own wine on site is our ability to respond to these changes and challenges far better than bigger wineries. A larger winery has to have a strictly planned grape intake programme over many months, and little flexibility, to ensure processing gets done efficiently. Even a winery that has to use a contract processor has fewer options as they have to fit in around the contractor’s schedule. Two vintages stand out as great examples of this situation are 2008 and 2011. In 2008 there was a very late heatwave. Many wineries were not able to pick their fruit before that heat event because they could not be flexible and quickly reactive, and/or there was not enough room in the winery. In 2011 it was very cool and wet. Again, the wineries that were not in a position to react ended up with poor quality fruit. In both of these instances we could take all of our fruit at exactly the optimum moment. Our wines from those two vintages look very different to each other but they are all delicious!
I recall a talk at a Wine Outlook Conference in which a speaker talked of how Australian wine has traditionally had a 25 to 30 year cycle of boom and bust. Looking back I have certainly seen those trends. I witnessed the stagnation of the late 80’s and the dreaded ‘vine pull scheme’ turn into the amazing boom of the 90’s and early 2000’s, followed by the slump only a few years later. But the Australian wine community has continued to reinvent itself and now the consumer has moved on from the cheap and cheerful to wines of greater substance and focus. As Australian palates and wine understanding continues to mature, the move toward artisan single vineyard terroir based wines grows. These wines are truly expressive of where they are grown. A concept which has been understood in Burgundy for hundreds of years. Here are a couple of articles which show some great examples of this growing excitement –
The future for Australian wine and the Barossa is very bright, the world is only now just waking up to our best kept secrets. Get in before the rush!