2012 Winemaker of the Year finalists
It’s time to meet the final four finalists from this year’s very impressive field.
Check out our first batch of 2012 Winemaker of the Year finalists here.
The second group of finalists for this year’s Gourmet Traveller WINE Winemaker of the Year Awards completes another fascinating group of outstanding winemakers who are, in their vastly different ways, breaking new ground and, consequently, making some of Australia’s most interesting wines.
This year there are three from Western Australia, two from Victoria, and one each from NSW, South Australia and Tasmania. This is a larger number than ever before for Western Australian and indicates its prominence in the quality sector of the market.
Small producers are represented by Rob Diletti (Castle Rock), Steve and Monique Lubiana (Stefano Lubiana), and Timo Meyer (Meyer and Gembrook Hill); medium-sized wineries by Bryan Currie (Westend), Rob Mann (Cape Mentelle), Sandro Moselle (Kooyong and Port Phillip) and Virginia Willcock (Vasse Felix); and the largest companies by Kym Schroeter (Penfolds).
Kym Schroeter has been part of the dynamic Penfolds white wine team since 2003. During this time Bin A and Yattarna have been sublime and the entire white wine portfolio has continued to improve.
For two decades, Monique and Stefano Lubiana made wines from a block by the Derwent Estuary. In that time, they have triumphed over the grind of winery life to produce some of the country’s finest fizz and first-rate pinot noir.
Bryan Currie’s decade with the Calabria family at Westend has seen a dramatic rise in production and wine quality; a new range of cool-climate varietals and some exciting indigenous red varieties from southern Italy.
Vigneron Rob Diletti has established his tiny Great Southern winery as one of the region’s finest with great riesling and pinot. His talents as a contract winemaker have also been invaluable.
Steve & Monique Lubiana, Stefano Lubiana
Hard work, sacrifice and spirit of place are just some of the qualities that underpin the extraordinary wines of this talented husband and wife team. A love for biodynamics, and one another, brings a little magic to the mix.
Steve and Monique Lubiana’s story of making something special in the world of wine is inspirational. They have prevailed because of their extraordinary perseverance, hard work, imagination and sacrifice. Their love for each other and spirit of place is the undercurrent of their winemaking success. They represent everything that ultra-fine Australian wine should be; where nature, nurture, science and love all conspire to bring something extra and brilliant into our lives.
As a student at Roseworthy Agricultural College during the early 1980s Steve was predestined to follow his father’s dream in the irrigated grape-belt of the Riverland. Yet it was a vision of another way of life that brought this fifth-generation Italian winemaker to a parcel of land near Granton, north-west of Hobart. These days it’s a beautiful biodynamic vineyard estate overlooking the vast Derwent River Estuary. The vivacious Monique says, “We came to Tasmania because Steve worked some vintages in Champagne, fell in love with sparkling wine and wanted to make his own. We searched everywhere on the mainland, but we adored this place because of its position, aspect, proximity to the ocean and its cool climate.”
Undercapitalised but ambitious, they acquired this previously unloved 18-hectare parcel of land in 1990 and initially planted chardonnay and pinot noir vines for sparkling wine production. They lived on the property and raised a family for 11 years in a house, not much bigger than a caravan. Everything – heart, soul and all available income – was ploughed into the vineyard. Tractor parts, trellising posts and winery equipment took priority over curtains and middle-class comforts. Until the early 2000s, the estate was largely financed by contract sparkling winemaking but now Stefano Lubiana wines has become a fully sustainable business, based on a strong emotional connection with the land.
Having witnessed the effects of unstainable practices and excessive chemical inputs in the area, it is not surprising that Steve and Monique now farm using biodynamic principles. This practice is gathering momentum all around the world as winemakers seek ways to bring life and energy back into their vineyards – and meaning into their lives. Although scientifically unproven, there is something compelling about this way of growing wine grapes. Recycling, composting, and cover-cropping, together with natural homeopathic preparations, have enhanced the health of the vines. A herd of miniature sheep and chickens are allowed to roam freely to assist with pests and weeds. This approach has positively charged the mindset of the entire Stefano Lubiana team. The enthusiasm is palpable: “We have been putting even more into the vineyard, loving each vine so much that they can’t help themselves but produce fantastic fruit,” says Monique.
The low-yielding vineyard, since expanded to 25 hectares, also comprises pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, merlot and nebbiolo. Situated on the 43rd parallel, the meso-climate is surprisingly dry and benign. The estuary moderates air temperatures and the undulating hillside slopes offer excellent cold air drainage and frost protection during spring and autumn. Steve’s philosophy is simple. “I don’t want to copy or mimic any wine, including Champagne. We are not too far from the sea. We are not too far inland. It’s a unique location with the rhythm of the estuary showing through our wines.”
Stefano Lubiana Vintage Brut and Prestige, are aged on yeast lees for six years and up to 15 years respectively. Both are astonishingly fresh and complex; “Our traditional-method style is very elegant. It just bleeds off. There is no sudden stop. It’s really effervescent and it makes you feel good.”
However it’s not just their sparklings that bubble with life. Stefano Lubiana Estate Pinot Noir is also impressive. It has an ethereal, bouyant quality that propels it to the top echelon of this genre in Australia. The rare, exquisite Sasso Pinot Noir is only produced in top vintages.
It has taken two decades to bring prosperity to this scrappy parcel of land and as many years to build a reputation. The wines are steeped in personal touch, a spirit of experimentation, and the vicissitudes and happiness of family life. Steve says, “When you drink our wine you can feel it, you can touch it you can breathe it, you can live our whole story.”
Kym Schroeter, Penfolds
An initial reluctance to produce white wine for Penfolds has resulted in some of the country’s most iconic labels, and Schroeter’s proudest achievements.
“Some people are born winemakers.” That comment usually refers to the natural ability that suits a winemaker to his or her profession. In Kym Schroeter’s case, there’s another reason, too. Schroeter comes from a family of winemakers, what’s more, of Penfolds winemakers. His father Les started in the laboratory and later moved to the red wine team; his uncle Kevin was responsible for Penfolds fortified wines and brother Mick was also a Penfolds red wine maker before moving to California. Now, Kym heads the team producing some of the best white wines in the country. White wines? How could this be?
To set the scene, Penfolds was viewed as virtually an exclusively red company until, in 1991, CEO Ross Wilson threw out the challenge: “If we make the best red in the country, why not the best white?” The result was what was known, only outside the company, as the White Grange Project. Within Penfolds there was grumbling opposition. “Penfolds can’t make white wines”, was a comment I heard from a senior sales manager, but the die was cast. The highest quality grapes were essential, which led to new vineyard sources in the Adelaide Hills, Tumbarumba, Henty and Tasmania. The result led to not just Yattarna Chardonnay, but Reserve Bin A and consequences for the whole Penfolds white range.
Ten years on, company mergers and staff retrenchments saw the white winemakers at Nuriootpa “cleaned out”, Oliver Crawford promoted to head the white team and Kym told to change from red winemaking to whites. “No, I’ll resign, I’ll resign,” was Kym’s first reaction. Now, he’s pleased to tell me “it was the best thing that happened to me”.
The change wasn’t a problem for a winemaker who’d come up from the bottom. “I learnt on the job,” he’s happy to say. “I started in the laboratory, just like dad, in January 1987 and moved my way up as I learnt.” In 1993 he had joined the Penfolds red wine team – the highly experienced group of John Duval, Peter Gago and Steve Lienert – so you can understand his reluctance to move. “I didn’t want to lose my security blanket,” he says. But it wasn’t long after joining the whites team in 2003 that Schroeter thrived.
In the period that followed, both Yattarna and Bin A took off in style and quality, becoming finer and fresher, with taut acidity and increased potential to age. Penfolds whites had changed from “ho hum” to “wow!” Experimentation continued, both in vineyards and winemaking. In many respects this was no different from the evolution of chardonnay elsewhere in Australia, as we moved away from the oaky, peaches-and-cream style to the fresher, medium-bodied wines that turned a decline in sales at the upper reaches of the market to a new popularity and growth. Ageing on yeast lees without sulfur dioxide until shortly before bottling, picking earlier for better acid structure and a smaller proportion of new oak were all important. What was different for Penfolds was a wide choice of regions and individual vineyards, giving the ability to overcome the vagaries of weather and vintage variation – something that’s been the centre of the Penfolds red style since the 1960s. Moreover, the winemakers were able to use the “drop-down effect”, with barrels surplus to the quantity required or not quite reaching the high standards for Yattarna and Bin A cascading down into less expensive wines. The chief beneficiary in chardonnay is Thomas Hyland, which was introduced in 2001, but really hit its straps as the top wines evolved in 2004. I’m frequently staggered by how good this chardonnay is. This is a 100-per-cent barrel-fermented wine, pred-ominantly from the Adelaide Hills, a frequent gold medal and trophy winner that most companies would be happy to sell at $30. And yet you can often buy it for $16.
When Oliver Crawford left Penfolds for Margaret River and Devil’s Lair in 2007, Schroeter took charge of one of the most dynamic white wine groups around and Penfolds amazing successes with chardonnay continued, with Reserve Bin A winning countless gold medals and trophies in Australia and internationally. It combines intense, lemon and cashew flavours with funky, savoury complexity in a taut, medium-bodied wine that’s a startling contrast to the flabby, oaky wines of old. Yattarna stands alongside with, at the same time, greater intensity and more finesse.
What are Schroeter’s new challenges? “Bringing on the better clones of chardonnay,” he says. “I think I’ve nailed the Bin A style, but can now make it even better. As those new clones are getting older, they’re exceptional. I’d love to put out a grüner vetliner. And I’m looking further south, to Tasmania, Mornington and new areas.
“It’s great to be recognised as a white wine company, now,” he adds. “But what makes me most proud is the trophy for Best White Wine of Show in the International Wine Challenge in 2011 with the 2009 Bin 90A. Other winemakers now call me up wanting to do swaps.”
Not bad for a company that couldn’t make white wine.
Bryan Currie, Westend Estate
With a background in palaeontology, considerable experience as a show judge and passion for sticky wines and cool-climate varieties, Bryan Currie is a unique finalist whose wines are attracting plenty of attention.
It’s likely that Bryan Currie is the only Australian winemaker with a background in palaeontology. If not, he’s certain to be the only one who specialised in fish evolution and discovered one of the most important early tetrapod fossils ever found, during his Honours year when he was writing a thesis on vertebrate palaeontology. Not even a First Class Honours degree could steel him to undertake the rigours of studying for a Phd. In considering alternatives, Currie looked to his developing love of wine and sought a vineyard job. He worked for two years at Roma Estate in the Riverina as a viticultural assistant, gaining both theoretical and practical experience while “doing everything in the vineyard”.
In 1999 he started at McWilliam’s as a cellarhand and worked his way up to assistant winemaker over the two years he worked there. He applied for the job of chief winemaker at the Calabria family’s Westend Estate in 2001 and has seen production grow from 2000 to 15,000 tonnes. The family has been based in Griffith since 1927 when Francesco and Elizabeth Calabria arrived from Italy and later, started the winery in 1945. It is now run by their son, Bill, his wife Lena and the third generation siblings – Frank, Michael, Andrew and Elizabeth.
Over the past decade, Bryan Currie has built up a reputation as a show judge, no doubt enhanced by his attendance at the Len Evans Tutorial in 2007. He sees his greatest achievement in this area as his involvement in the establishment and accreditation by the European Union of the International Sweet Wine Challenge held in association with the annual Riverina Show. The Challenge has grown steadily in stature and in the number of international entries it attracts and has played a significant role in enhancing the reputation of Riverina stickies.
Some of Currie’s most important work at Westend has been refining the style of their botrytis semillon. He’s sought to reduce the wine’s sweetness while retaining its lusciousness by being fastidious with picking times and looking for complexity rather than seeking sheer volume of botrytis flavour. While this is a work-in-progress, the current release 2010 Westend Three Bridges Botrytis Semillon shows greater complexity and a less-cloying finish than its predecessors: lush ripe apricot and peach flavours with hint of lime marmalade, satiny texture and a finish that is crisp, clean and dry.
The introduction of the Cool Climate range is a welcome addition to the Westend portfolio as it sources cool-climate fruit from nearby regions – Canberra, Tumbarumba, Hilltops and King Valley. In top vintages, the Canberra Riesling and Tumbarumba Pinot Noir offer some of the best value in the country for those varieties.
The 2010 Hilltops Shiraz has more dark-berry fruit, a lightish, tight frame, and with gentler power than the 2010 Richland from the Riverina, which is riper with more red-berry flavours, and is more approachable. The success of the Cool Climate range has led Westend to look at other possibilities – one result has been the purchase of a Barossa vineyard with old shiraz vines. The first release, confusingly under the Calabria Brothers label, is a 2010 shiraz. At the local Unwind Festival, they served these three shiraz together to emphasis their different flavour profiles. The 2010 Calabria Brothers Shiraz has strong vanilla and dark chocolate flavours, velvety texture and balanced, tannins.
In 2003, Currie started a 10-year project to introduce four southern-Italian varieties that he believed would suit the climate of the Riverina, fit in with the family’s rich Italian heritage, and offer non-mainstream reds that were ideal food wines. He spent three months around the 2006 vintage working at three large cooperatives and a private winery in Abruzzi, Molise and Campania. His work stretched from inspecting grapes to supervising post-vintage handling of wines and gave him an understanding of Italian varieties and how they were managed locally.
Currie’s time in Italy was well spent, as he has made the Calabria Aglianico with less winemaking interference and has taken great care with his use of oak and management of tannins. The 2009 has brooding, briary aromatics, is bright, powerful and full bodied, with seamless tannins that linger. The other varieties in this range – negromara, nero d’Avola and montepulciano – have been planted, but their first two vintages have been the difficult 2011 and 2012 seasons. Currie can’t wait to show these off in a great year.
Rob Diletti, Castle Rock
Crafting a raft of award-winning wines in the WA Great Southern region has ensured winemaker Rob Diletti’s rightful place among this year’s finalists.
In 1983, when Rob Diletti was six years old, his parents Angelo and Wendy, planted riesling vines on their vineyard close to Castle Rock, an imposing granite peak in the Porongurup range. Until the family moved there from Albany in 1992, weekends were spent at the vineyard. Diletti remembers this time with great affection and believes that it has given him a sense of attachment to the vines, and provided him with an inherent understanding of the site.
After two years studying full-time at Charles Sturt University, he worked for two years as a cellarhand at Mountadam in the Eden Valley while he finished his studies. He returned to the Great Southern in 1999 and worked as assistant winemaker at Alkoomi in Frankland River where the family’s wines had been made since 1986. Two vintages there convinced him that he wanted to make his wines at Castle Rock and so the family set about building their own winery. While this was all happening he won the local Tony Smith Rotary Scholarship, which enabled him to do vintage at the small family winery, Jean Grenier, in Alsace – ideal given the suitability of the Porongurups for riesling.
Diletti has also proved to be an excellent judge with a decade’s experience at shows, such as the Canberra National, Sydney, Perth and Cowra. Highlights have been his part-icipation in the 2005 Len Evans Tutorial and two years as panel leader at the Qantas Mt Barker Show of WA. Living and working in the remote and quiet Porongurup subregion of the Great Southern, Diletti credits his involvement with show judging as providing him with invaluable professional support, helping him to get a clearer view of where he wants his wines to fit.
Castle Rock is still a small vineyard (10.5 hectares) and so contract winemaking is vital to its survival. What is remarkable about Diletti’s winemaking is that each of the small vineyards for which he makes wine has won at least one trophy: Abbey Creek (Porongurup, seven); Oranje (Albany, one); Poachers Ridge (Mt Barker, one at Tri-Nations); Shepherd’s Hut (Porongurup, two) and Three Drops (Mt Barker, three).
Diletti has won seven trophies since 2006 with Castle Rock wines; for his 2008 Diletti Chardonnay at Sydney; 2008 Pinot Noir, three trophies in Melbourne, Perth and at the Perth Sheraton Awards, 2006 Riesling at Sydney; 2006 Pinot Noir in Adelaide; and 2003 Riesling in Melbourne. Although Diletti believes that purity of fruit comes from careful vineyard management, he is convi-nced that attention to detail and thoughtful winemaking can add complexity to his wines.
All of the wines produced under the Castle Rock label are from the estate vineyard except the shiraz which is sourced from nearby Shepherd’s Hut. At its best (as in 2005), this can be a rich, powerful varietal with lush, fleshy texture.
The Castle Rock Chardonnay hit its straps in 2008 and has won a hat-trick of golds in Sydney since 2010. Expect a fresh delicate subtle white with white peach and nectarine flavours made complex by smoky nutty notes and high-toned slaty mineral acidity on a crisp, dry finish.
As its vines have reached maturity, Castle Rock has been the first to show the area’s potential for finicky pinot noir. The 2010 Pinot Noir has wonderful brooding aromatics, complex redcurrant, black cherry flavours with briary, truffley notes and fleshy, silky smooth texture with a polished finish that lingers. It’s a toss up between the riesling and the pinot as to which deserves to be Castle Rock’s flagship wine. The riesling is one of the Great Southern’s finest examples. Rob Diletti has access to 3.5 hecatres of riesling over five blocks planted in 1983, 1986 and 1999. The Castle Rock rieslings have a taut structure and steely racy acidity in their youth and so are not released until they are almost 12 months old.
Rob Diletti toils quietly in his remote vineyard and winery to produce exemplary varietals that show the site’s potential and that of the subregion. The small volumes of fine, restrained wines that he crafts for his family and his neighbours speak loudly of what he has achieved and hints at what may well be possible.
TEXT PETER FORRESTAL, ANDREW CAILLARD MW, NICK BULLEID MW PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF STEFANO LUBIANA, PENFOLDS, WESTEND ESTATE, CASTLE ROCK
This article is from the August/September 2012 issue of Gourmet Traveller WINE.