Winemaker Sue Bell is a Coonawarra loyalist and Bellwether Wines is her labour of love. She doesn’t own vines, but the story of her growers is integral to her own. Here, she tells her story.
"I really like the quality of fruit in Coonawarra and I think it’s a fantastic place to make wine. Over the past decade, everybody has started to talk about a ‘sense of place’ and regions have begun drilling down to what’s special about their geology and soil, but this is one region that has always recognised that. The other reason I love Coonawarra is that when I’ve been privileged to do things like the Len Evans Tutorial [Sue was dux in 2007] and judge wine shows, the best-aged wines I’ve had have always been from Coonawarra. They really need 10 years to start with and that’s why this whole trend of ultra-ripe and drink-now styles doesn’t suit the place. You can try to do that here, but it’s not necessarily the best end-use for such great product. I think it’s better to be true to who you are, no matter how fashionable that may be.
Why do Coonawarra wines have such extraordinary ageing ability? I think it’s very much to do with the climate. We’re an interesting mix of continental and maritime. We’re an hour inland and get cool nights, which helps to build tannin structure and colour, but we still get an influence from the ocean, especially from the cold currents that kick in early in the year called the ‘Bonney upwelling’. Because we’re so flat, the air off that cold current gets up to 100km inland and has a moderating effect on the summer heat. So it’s that balance of mild days and cool nights that’s key to Coonawarra’s fruit characteristics.
I get my fruit from a few different places, which is a hangover from my days at Hardys sourcing from Tasmania, the Yarra Valley, cool-climate New South Wales and right across the Limestone Coast. When I left there, I really loved the Coonawarra community and wanted to stay. I was challenged and rewarded by making wines here and I’d made great relationships with growers and fellow winemakers, which is critical in starting your own business. Probably the wisest decision I’ve made was to start a business where people were going to support me. People believed in me and at times when you look at your bank balance and doubt yourself, that belief keeps you going.
When I started, it was Coonawarra cabernet and Tasmanian chardonnay. Those were the only two wines I had, with my plan being to introduce Mediterranean varieties down the track. I think for much of mainland Australia, it makes sense that Mediterranean wines are the ones we pursue because climatically, they suit our country. And as wine is so intertwined with our social fabric, having varieties that match our diverse cultural heritage and food is also really smart. So I produce those couple of classics that I tragically love, and I’m now also doing vermentino from Heathcote, nero d’avola rosé from the Riverland and tempranillo from Wrattonbully.
I’m really interested in the interaction between where fruit is grown and the wine it becomes. After studying winemaking, I went back to do post-graduate viticulture to better understand what was happening in the vineyard. As a senior winemaker in a corporate structure, going out and visiting growers, company vineyards and contract clients teaches you a lot about that. We also got quite involved with berry sensory studies and I found that was a great tool in teaching me not only the discipline of tasting grapes, but also the language necessary to talk to growers and ensure we’re on the same page. I can come in and give insight as to what I see elsewhere, but I will never know their patch the way they do, so the more I can get them to understand what I’m looking for, the more benefit I’m going to get. You may bring your university education, your international exposure and your technological training with you, but you don’t have 30 seasons of working that site under your belt. The grower-winemaker relationship is about respecting each other in order to create the best product.
Once I’ve developed a strong relationship with a grower, I’ll take fruit from the same block every year. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with my cabernet grower, Mike Wetherall, in the first year of business. He said to me, ‘Do we write down a contract?’ I’d never made a wine off this block before, so I said, ‘I don’t know how this wine is going to turn out and I don’t know if my business is going to be successful, so I don’t feel I’m in a position to write a contract.’ We went ahead without any formal agreement and it’s been a great relationship in terms of how we help each other. You can’t underestimate how lovely it is for a grower to see their fruit in an individual wine, with a label on it. And from a consumer point of view, you then have that unique story – of where it comes from and why it tastes the way it does.
When I first bottled my cabernet and chardonnay, I used to say on the back label, ‘respecting the ancient terroir I’m so fortunate to work with.’ But I’ve since changed that word to be ‘country’ because Australia has 40,000 years of connection to, and respect for, the land. I know when you talk to Indigenous people and you explain the concept of terroir, they get it immediately, more so than any other culture I’ve come across.
I only use indigenous yeasts and that means expression of site is important. But it’s because I’ve worked in a big and more scientific facility, where the research we did showed that natural ferments were more complex and interesting, that I’ve chosen to go that way. I’m not at all prescriptive to my growers in terms of their practices. I’m not going to tell them what they can and can’t use, but I can definitely encourage them in what I’m looking for. That bloom you get on good fruit is like the glow of a healthy complexion, and that comes from a better diet all over, not just Band-Aid approaches. Anything I do is first and foremost for taste and then respecting the quality of the fruit that someone has put all that effort into growing, and finally, making it interesting and unique. That’s my focus.
I really love the taste of natural acid. Whether that’s from a cool climate that produces it naturally, or holding it in a hot climate, each has its own unique taste, and I think that’s exciting. I also quite like tannins, in red and white wines, and I think you can embrace them rather than try to fine or avoid them. Overall, I want my fingerprint on the fruit to be pretty minimal and telling the story of the growers is a big part of the Bellwether story.
The 1868 shearing shed where the winery, bottle shop and tasting room are set was built from local limestone by Chinese migrants en route to the goldfields, and sheep were shorn here from that time until 2009. As I’ve renovated it, I’ve reused everything I’ve pulled out. So, all of the sheep manure from the past 150 years has gone into our produce garden, the Baltic pine that came out of the sheep pen on one end I’ve reused to build our kitchen, and the massive red gum bearers that were there have all gone into verandahs and a desk. It’s got such a great history and I wanted to maintain that, so some things I’ve given a new lease and others I’ve left untouched.
I’d like to improve the way people drink wine. In fact, I’d like to see the Australian culture of drinking improve full stop. I believe in wine with food, company and in moderation. The first thing that happens when you walk in the door here is you’re offered a glass of water, and we don’t have all of the wines on tasting each day because that would be too many. I’ve got a couple of tables – one being the old sorting table – so if you come here you don’t stand around, you sit down to taste wine. I’ve got a campground with 10 sites, so if people want to stay, they can. Education is key in the Bellwether philosophy. I’d like people to come for the weekend, enjoy a comfortable small-group tuition, go out and get to know the rest of the community, and leave feeling revitalised.
Something new that I’m excited about are the Bell tents we’re putting in so people can come and ‘glamp’. We’ve already got one here and there’ll be six in total. They originate from the Native American tepee, and the Australian and British armies used them in World War II, so they’re beautiful and functional.
I think people are becoming more adventurous and educated when it comes to wines. I’m lucky I began at the same time this whole wine culture started to take off and I’ve had awesome support from the industry. But I’ve never walked away from Coonawarra. I’ve sat in rooms where people have completely flogged the place and thought to myself, when was the last time they visited and tasted the fruit, because it’s fantastic. And I stand strong on that. I’ve tried wines from all over the world and I’m confident in the quality of Coonawarra.
Seven years on and I’m still here. I’ve had double-digit growth each year. I’ve now even got a decent website where you can buy my wines! But my first suggestion is to come and visit because that is the best and most rewarding experience. It’s important to me that anyone who visits interacts with someone involved in all aspects of the business and that’s something I’ll never change.
I have distributors across Australia and I’ve just started exporting to the UK. The feedback from both trade and consumers has been wonderful. It’s really exceeded my expectations."
Five to try
Selected by Sue Bell
2010 Coonawarra Cabernet
Structural and fine with unique flavours and aromas – one smell and you can tell it’s from Coonawarra. Pure fruit with thick skins provide complex tannins, rich colour and great length of palate. Subtle, integrated French oak provides a strong backbone to the wine. RRP $50
2013 Tamar Valley Chardonnay
The nose is reminiscent of struck match, and the palate is bright and zesty. Intense aromatics and concentrated fruit are complemented by a delicious mineral acidity. Gentle whole-bunch pressing provides a creamy texture, and tight-grained French oak ensures the elegance of the wine. $50
2014 Wrattonbully Shiraz Malbec
An aromatic nose that lifts from the glass and is loaded with spice, the palate is complex and earthy. Taken from a site over World Heritage-listed limestone caves on the Limestone Coast, this is a truly distinctive wine. RRP $28
2015 Heathcote Vermentino
From the Chalmers family, pioneers of the alternative grape variety, this vermentino is beautifully aromatic, complex and textural. I have wanted to make vermentino since trying it more than
10 years ago in a heat wave in Euston, seeing the great potential it had for Australia’s future. RRP $28
2015 Riverland Nero d’Avola Rosé
Made in a saignee style, the palate is crisp, dry and savoury. Having seen this Riverland vineyard looking fresh and green on a 48-degree day, I have no doubt this Sicilian variety is well poised for the future, and will continue in its reputation as a gold medal sell-out. RRP $25
Next article: with the release of the 2017 Wine Companion book impending, we caught up with last year's Winery of the Year to find out how things have changed...