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Winemaker profile: Alexia Roberts of Penny's Hill

Publish Date: 29 Sep 2017

Authored by: Amelia Ball

In a piece first published in Halliday Wine Companion magazine in September we speak to Alexia Roberts, who heads up the winemaking at McLaren Vale’s Penny’s Hill and has collected some big accolades in little time.

While other kids in her year were fetching lunches and doing tedious tasks designed to keep work experience students busy, Alexia Roberts was immersed at Penfolds. As a 16-year-old with a passion for science and the outdoors, Alexia followed a family friend's suggestion that she consider a career in the wine industry. “I don’t remember how I managed to get Penfolds! I didn't have any contacts and I’m not from a wine family, so I guess I just wrote them a letter. Penfolds must have seemed like a good place to start!” she laughs.

Over the week-long program, Alexia shadowed several different winemakers, spent time in the vineyards and cellar, and watched (and sniffed – “They were very conscious of my age!”) as they sampled wines from barrels, among other jobs. It was a legitimately inspiring introduction to winemaking and set the wheels in motion for her career to come. “I could see that lovely balance between the science and the art of wine, and obviously being in the outdoors as well. It was the perfect combination.”

Alexia’s first job out of uni was a lucky break at McLaren Vale’s Wirra Wirra, and she spent a vintage in Italy too, focusing on sangiovese north of Tuscany. “I wanted to play with a variety that I didn’t have much exposure to here,” she says. Alexia moved on to a role at Maxwell Wines, also in McLaren Vale, and managed to fit in another vintage overseas, this time in Burgundy. Since 2013 though, she’s been responsible for the wines at McLaren Vale’s Penny’s Hill, wasting no time in making her mark.

Penny's Hill museum winesDuring her short time at Penny’s Hill, Alexia has collected three major international wine awards: World’s Best Cabernet at France’s Concours International des Cabernets (for the 2014 Edwards Road Cabernet); and the Best Australian Red in Show two years running at Mundus Vini in Germany (for the 2014 Footprint Shiraz and 2015 Malpas Road Merlot). “Those three trophies are for three different varieties, which just shows our diversity and regional heroes,” she says.

These top gongs also offered some serious validation for her winemaking philosophy. Unlike a number of producers across McLaren Vale who champion alternative varieties, Alexia and the team at Penny’s Hill have stuck to their traditional foundations. “We pride ourselves on growing premium fruit that’s best-suited to our sites. For us, that’s shiraz, grenache, cabernet and merlot. We strongly believe they are our regional heroes,” she says. As for how Alexia approaches her wines, it’s clear-cut: “I am focused on making fruit-driven, elegant, refined wines that best express our terroir across our three vineyard sites.”

That early love of the great outdoors is very much still there, with Alexia’s colleagues often unable to find her because she’s out in the vineyard. “But that’s where the connection begins,” she says. “It’s a huge advantage as a winemaker to work with only estate-grown fruit – it gives us enormous control, from the vineyard throughout the winemaking process. For me, it’s about working with those sites and understanding each vineyard block, and working from the ground up, from vine health and canopies to irrigation – all of it. It’s about knowing these sites intimately and nurturing them through the process so I can best express them.” 

Alexia clearly relishes working with such great fruit across the range, but grenache is a particular favourite. “We all love playing with grenache. It produces amazing fruit intensity and flavour,” she says. “Our style is lots of bright, red berry fruit, nice fruit spice, underlying savouriness on the palate and this great mouthfeel and texture with fine, silky tannins. It’s got great versatility in terms of food matching too. But I also love shiraz. We’ve got three in our range that are produced from different sites. I’ve been adapting my winemaking to produce a really consistent style and I really enjoy that challenge.”

Given the win for World’s Best Cabernet, it’s no surprise Alexia is also a big believer in the beauty of this variety in McLaren Vale. “Our proximity to the ocean means we see a breeze that cools the vines down, but helps retain varietal characters,” she says of the grape in the region. “When we get cabernet from the right site, which is a little more elevated, we can get this great flavour and concentration across the mid-palate, which makes it more approachable in its youth. We get fine, long, persistent tannins, making it a really complete style of cabernet.”

Alexia Roberts in the vineyard photographed by Meg Hansen

It’s not all about red wine though; chardonnay and sauvignon blanc are also within the wider range, with this fruit coming from the Adelaide Hills. The Agreement Sauvignon Blanc is made in a pared-back style that would convert the staunchest of haters. “Our sauvignon blanc has that lovely acid crunch and great fruit weight, and it’s a unique style,” Alexia says. “It’s refined and restrained, which is helped by earlier harvesting.”

It’s been a big few years for Alexia. In addition to understanding the sites and refining the wines, this time has also included the arrival of her second child. “She was born just after my second vintage and came everywhere with me,” she says. Cue lots of baby-wearing around the winery. “She used to always try to grab the pipettes as I was trying the blend the wine. And now she loves smelling my glass! The best part was how well other people embraced it. They were really happy for me to bring her to the winery and tastings, and were really accommodating. There can be some great flexibility in the world of winemaking. It’s just about making it possible and working with the people who let you make it possible.”

These days, McLaren Vale is well and truly home for Alexia and her family. “I’ve worked and lived in the region for the past 13 years, and I’m still not a local!” she laughs. “But this is home and I love the region for its diversity and quality, and its great little community. It’s close to Adelaide and the beaches, and it’s a great place for family too. I love it!”

So what's next? Alexia says she simply wants to continue developing and evolving. “I’m a big believer that we always need to focus on each vintage and take learnings out of each one,” she says. “I employ this model of meticulous approach and a vision that starts in the vineyard, and I want to keep striving for continuous improvement and make sure the quality is still there. There’s no point being complacent.”

Photos: Meg Hansen

Next article: The year gone by at McLaren Vale's Bondar Wines

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