Sitting under an olive tree in the medieval hilltop town of San Gimignano in Tuscany back in 2002, Joe and Dina Grilli began planning their dream cellar door, a suitably stylish shopfront for the Primo Estate and Joseph wine labels as well as the couple's highly regarded olive oils and vinegars. Breathing in the warm, scented air of a hazy autumn day, the Grillis, as always, made course for the road less travelled, envisaging a boldly modern building that celebrated both their Italian heritage, which has informed the singular quality of their wines and oils, and the sparse Mediterranean beauty of South Australia's McLaren Vale.
In a wine region dominated by the rustic writ large - hefty red gum fences and homely tasting rooms - Primo Estate's just-opened cellar door strikes rather a different top note. The sharp but elegant building of stone and wood, designed by Sydney-based Michael Harvey and Bruce Watson of Edward(s) Design (Michael is Dina's brother-in-law), has views over cabernet vines to the escarpment with floor-to-ceiling windows embracing the stark beauty of the Vale. The building was purposely sited over the rise so it can't be seen from the road, imparting a sense of discovery for visitors.
Vines lap the edge of the drive; a gravel forecourt planted with olive trees leads via tall metal gates to the courtyard, and even here, where the harsh summer winds are kept at bay, the scent of the sea is evident, mingling with recently planted rosemary. "This is our updated take on a piazzetta, made using old materials such as stone, render and tallow wood and some modern ones such as Symonite," says Joe. "A compelling mix of old and new," he calls it.
The heart of the space is dominated by a handsome wood-fired oven imported from Umbria, where the Grillis worked two vintages in the early 90s. It will be a star attraction in upcoming Primo Estate 'family' celebrations; in April the olive harvest festival and October the heralding of spring and bud-burst. "On our many visits to Italy we became enamoured with piazzettas, monasteries and farm compounds," says Dina. "We were drawn to them wherever we went. Joe even paced out the dimensions, committing the measurements to paper. Our courtyard is a versatile space - a hive of activity or a place of contemplation. And it solves the problem of the fierce winds we can get in McLaren Vale."
Beyond the piazzetta, the cellar-door interiors are sleek and airy (think Milanese Zen) dominated by a slate bar and floor. "We wanted a fresh look," says Dina. "We didn't want to be influenced by what a cellar door should look like. Michael and Bruce's design plays with concepts of old and new, just as we do with our wines." The pair visited several cellar doors before coming up with a series of concept drawings.
Inside this surprisingly contemporary space, a Wengi timber screen divides the bar from a club-like tasting area set with red Philippe Starck stools and hung with chrome lights, venue for the 30-minute 'Joseph Experience', a tutored tasting of four premium Joseph wines as well as olive oil.
"We've had a fantastic response to the structured tastings since opening," says Joe, who believes this progressive style of cellar-door experience, which places greater emphasis on understanding the wines and winemaker, will become more popular across Australia.
The tasting begins with the 2006 Joseph Pinot Grigio d'Elena, a wonderful limited-release wine that generally sells out within weeks. With its mineral mouthfeel and long, spare finish it tastes of the dry, sun-smacked landscape just beyond the window. Next up is the 2004 Joseph Angel Gully Shiraz, made using vines dry-grown in the shallow soils of the company's vineyard at nearby Clarendon. The Grillis' flagship Joseph Moda Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot (2003) follows; a rich Christmas pudding of a drop (plum, spice, sweet berry, chocolate and liquorice, the tasting notes promise). The Moda was inspired by a trip the couple took to Italy where they saw wines being made using old Italian methods - grapes are air-dried on racks so they drop about 25 per cent of their weight in water, concentrating sugars and flavours. Even this process has been incorporated with flair into the building's design; a handsome pergola for visiting vehicles (car port seems far too prosaic a term) doubles as the drying shed.
After the Moda comes the 2006 Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil made from the frantoio, koroneiki, leccino and manzanillo varieties. This is a glorious, well-balanced oil, creamy and peppery, and as eminently quaffable as the wine.
The tasting finishes with the sensational Joseph Sparkling Red which Primo's website touts as: 'a modern history of Australian red wine in a bottle'. The wine is released only every two years and makes the perfect memento for visitors.
Primo Estate wines can be tasted at the bar and for small groups there's a stylish VIP room that feels like the boardroom of an Italian fashion house, strung with stylish chandeliers from Dina's home town of Treviso, near Venice.
To coincide with the opening of the new Primo Estate headquarters, the Grillis have produced their first 'cellar door only' wine, the 2004 Primo Estate Zamberlan, using the ripasso method (suggested by Dina's father Rinaldo), where newly fermented cabernet sauvignon/sangiovese wine is pumped over the dried skins remaining from the production of the Moda.
Cellar-door releases are a way to reward "our loyal fans," as Joe calls them, those who share the Grillis' motto, 'con brio' - with passion. An apt descriptor of one of the most beautiful cellar doors in the country.