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The winemakers global roaming

Publish Date: 22 Mar 2016

Authored by: Dave Brookes

Meet the Australian winemakers who have embraced their wanderlust and are now crafting exceptional wines in Europe, the US and South America.

There seems to be an indefatigable need to soak in the experiences and cultures of the world, perhaps a shared nucleotide in our collective double-helix that drives us forth to distant lands. Winemakers, it seems, are bitten by the bug bad. An overseas vintage stint is considered to be a rite of passage in the industry and, for many, it is an affliction that cannot be easily shaken; some return to overseas wine regions every year to work the Northern Hemisphere harvest.

Looking at the history books, some of Australia’s most renowned winemakers have done their time overseas. Maurice O’Shea, born in North Sydney, studied his viticulture and winemaking in France before returning to Australia and carving out his epic wines from Hunter Valley fruit.

Max Schubert, the “father of Grange”, was sent to France and Spain in the late 1940s to learn more about fortified winemaking, the main focus of Australia’s wine production at the time. A sneaky side-trip to Bordeaux so enthused Max that the first experimental Grange Hermitage was made – unbeknown to his employers – at Penfolds in 1951 and Australian wine history was made.

Old meets new

We have always drawn inspiration from the wines of the Old World. The wines of the great estates and terroirs of Europe in particular have been the stylistic benchmarks to which we have aspired. The Europeans are unlikely to admit it, but visiting Australian winemakers played a strong hand in improving the viticulture and winemaking across their region in the 1980s as the so-called “flying winemakers” arrived in Europe en masse.

Their training in modern winemaking techniques, cellar hygiene, in-depth analysis and fermentation techniques, drip irrigation, new trellis systems and viticultural methods significantly increased the quality of wines in many regions across Europe. And many flying winemakers stayed on and worked at some of the most famous wineries in France.

Today, the flow of winemakers back and forth hasn’t slowed. There are mailing lists, websites, wine industry employment agencies and Facebook groups all listing internships and vintage positions for winemakers, young and old, keen to experience a vintage overseas.

Due north

In addition to the flow of Southern Hemisphere winemakers during vintage, there are also two other antipodean implants flying the “Aussies Abroad” flag – those who spend several months a year based in the Northern Hemisphere making wines for their own labels, and those who have based themselves permanently in Europe or the US.

Andrew Marks, who is based at his family vineyard Gembrook Hill in the Upper Yarra Valley produces wines under The Wanderer label and a wicked gin called The Melbourne Gin Company Melbourne Dry Gin. He also spends several months a year overseas, where he produces a wine called El Wanderer from bush vine carinyena (carignan) in Catalonia, Spain.

“The El Wanderer project grew from friendships I made doing vintages in France and the US, meeting a Spanish winemaker in my travels and then heading over there to work a vintage,” Andrew says. “That has become 11 vintages now and I launched the El Wanderer wine in 2008 from carinyena bush vines planted in 1908.”

As to whether he has prompted any differences in the winery’s operations, Andrew acknowledges he was initially seen as an agent of change, perhaps chasing the new international wine styles that were popular at the time. “But in reality, over time, the focus went from the international varieties like merlot and cabernet sauvignon back to the amazing old vine resources they had available in carinyena and garnacha,” he says.

“What I’ve seen is more and more people turning back to making wines of the soil, of their place, celebrating the varieties that have been growing here for centuries and eschewing wine trends and fashion.” Mac Forbes, whose eponymous winery in the Yarra Valley turns out some captivating wines, is another who has tread the winemaking boards overseas, spending time working and consulting to winemakers in Austria.

“I sort of ended up there by chance,” Mac says. “I was working in a region that was expanding and they were looking for a consultant who had an international outlook, though I ended up falling in love with their indigenous varieties. It was essentially the new generation wanting to put their stamp on the wines, though in many cases they ended up going back to the varieties and wine styles that their parents and grandparents had made.

“One thing I did bring back from my time in Austria was a view that I wanted to work with larger-format oak and that is something I have incorporated into my winemaking back here in Australia.”

Southern star

Tom Egan, of Argentinian wine importers Jed Wine Merchants, is also one of the winemakers behind the Jed Wines label, travelling each year to the Uco Valley in Argentina to produce wines that express the unique characters of this acclaimed region.

When quizzed on what drew him to Argentina, Tom says it was when he was working in the US. “I saw the quality of the Argentinian wines available there and that sparked my interest. We did an exploratory tour and found some people we could work with who had great fruit and we went from there, now producing five or six wines depending on the vintage,” he says.

“There is a pretty archaic process for processing grapes here and I’ve certainly learned a lot about patience and the importance of building relationships with the grape growers. It’s an old-school industry there. We have met some really cool old guys and really enjoy the traditional aspects of the industry – a side that a lot of people don’t associate with Argentina.”

Ticket to ride

There are plenty of others noodling around overseas. Ex-Penfolds Grange winemaker John Duval not only makes his wine from the Barossa Valley, but he is also involved in several overseas projects – Long Shadows in Washington State in the US and Vina Ventisquero in Chile’s Apalta Valley. Another Barossan, Chris Ringland, produces wine and consults to Bodegas Alto Moncayo in DO of Campo de Borja and Bodegas El Nido in DO Jumilla, both in Spain.

Sarah Morris and Iwo Jakimowicz from Si Vintners in Margaret River relocate to Spain every year and produce a stunning range of wines from garnacha under their Casa de Si label. Adam Foster from Syrahmi produces his L’ Imposteur Grenache from the AOC Collioure in France. Rose Kentish from Ulithorne in McLaren Vale also produces wines from Provence and Corsica. The list is long and gets longer with each passing year.

Feet firmly planted

Then there are those who were bitten by the Euro bug and now base themselves in the Northern Hemisphere. Melbourne’s Prince Wine Store former manager Jane Eyre is one. Following vintages at Cullen, Ata Rangi, Comtes Lafon and JF Mugnier, Jane moved to Burgundy to take on the assistant winemaker role at Domaine Newman in Beaune, and now also produces wines under her own label, Jane Eyre Wines.

Sydneysider Andrew Nielsen studied winemaking at Charles Sturt University, collecting vintage positions in California, New Zealand and Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley along the way before relocating to Burgundy in 2008. Between gigs working for the famous Neal’s Yard Dairy in London’s Borough Markets, he began producing wines from the Savigny-les-Beaune region in Burgundy. Le Grappin wines were born, working with chardonnay and pinot noir. The wines, pure expressions of the Savigny-les-Beaune terroir, quickly gained praise from the UK wine press. Andrew moved into a new winery, the old premises of Fanny Sabre in Beaune and now has access to premier cru vineyards in Santenay and Beaune, and also recently ventured further afield into Beaujolais.

It’s not one-way traffic though. Poke your head into many Australian and New Zealand wineries during vintage and you’ll hear the lilt of foreign accents over the press. The ebb and flow of winemakers back and forth between the hemispheres will long continue. It’s an exchange of ideas, techniques, cultural inputs and will be the inspiration for countless wines in the future. And that is a very beautiful thing for the wine industry.

Originally published in the March 2016 issue of Halliday Wine Companion magazine. 

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