“Jim is probably the nicest gentleman I have met in the wine industry. Each year we trade Cabernet Franc for each others, where I seek his council on them. I consider him a mentor in the variety and someone that I look up to incredibly.” – Christian Gaffey, Winemaker, Wine Show Judge and expert Tasting Panel Member
1. Your passion for the variety has earned you the unofficial title of ‘Master of Merlot’ by the winemaking industry. What is it about Merlot that you love so much?
Why I love Merlot so much is a simple thing dating back to 1980, wherein I tasted Petrus twice within 12 months. The first time I was absolutely amazed at the beautiful fruity character of the wine, together with its lovely soft tannins and powerful mid palate flavour. The second tasting just capped off all I thought and I said to myself, "if ever I had my own vineyard, there would only be one red grape and that would be Merlot."
2. Is Chateau Petrus still your favourite? Or have you tasted perfection since?
As to my favourite Merlot, Petrus is certainly still up near the top, but these days, of course, there are a number of other superb Merlots which challenge Petrus, and they are not all French. We have found this through our competing in the top Merlot competitions of various countries, but of course Petrus and its second wine, Trotanoy, still have the major influence. As to having tasted perfection since, this is an illusive thing, in so much that every now and again you think you have, only to find a short time later that there is something that you think even better. If you include the blended Merlots of St Emilion, this really makes it difficult to choose a favourite.
3. With your wife Marjorie and daughter Joanne an integral part of Irvine Wines, how do you manage to balance family and business?
Balancing the family business is quite fascinating in that it is so obvious that each of us have a distinct area of responsibility, which is important to the totality of the business. Marjorie with packaging and accounts, Joanne with the winemaking, while I look after the vineyards and marketing. Naturally as the business has grown we now rely on the input of very good people with whom we work.
4. With the purchase of ‘Springhill Vineyard’ Irvine Wines has grown into a premium brand with clear regionality and style. What made you choose the Eden Valley?
Why did we choose Eden Valley – the trite answer is "because it was there.” But in reality in the early '60s I grew to love the area when buying grapes for Thomas Hardy & Son and always knew that one day if I was lucky I might indeed have a vineyard in Eden Valley. But there was no Merlot of any consequence in Eden Valley, and nobody knew how it would grow. The beauty of that is that when you are small it's your money and your risk, providing you understand the situation of that particular vineyard.
5. What is it about the Eden and Barossa Valleys that keep you passionate about the regions?
While indeed I give full credit to Barossa Valley, I have known since 1953 about the excellence of the wines that were produced from Eden Valley. With Eden Valley it was elegance and power, while Barossa tends to be brute force. On the other side, of course, there is the community, the history and the whole buzz that goes to make Barossa the more renowned of the two valleys.
6. Apart from the stunning labels featuring Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel, what is different about your ‘Brueghel’ range of wines?
I am glad you like the Brueghel label, as indeed it appeals to us immensely, suggesting that these people are having fun – and what is on the inside will also offer fun. Brueghel wines are exclusively available for order only, and these are the wines that Joanne and I like to make from time to time, which are different from our main range of wines. The wines themselves are chosen not because they are different, but also because they are interesting in their own right. For instance, the Rosé is made from Cabernet Franc; the last of our Chardonnay is under this label too, and the reds can be small parcels selected from different Merlot vineyards, and sometimes with a Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon blend.
7. Your winemaking experience is extensive. Apart from crafting award-winning wines and a lot of hard work, what is your favourite vintage memory?
A favourite vintage memory – well there are actually two – one in 1963 and the other one in 1970. 1963 saw the creation of Siegersdorf Riesling while managing and winemaking at Thomas Hardy Barossa winery. The chief winemaker, Dick Heath, suggested that the wine was so different that it should be put out under a Reserve Bin label, so creating one of the early varietals. With time this grew to be famous in its own right and indeed was one of the more expensive Rieslings of that era.
The second great vintage experience occurred at Krondorf. We had only started building the new winery in October and were winning Gold medals in state wine shows by June/July the next year. When sold three years later it had accumulated 254 awards, something that very few others have done in such a small winery.
8. With an incredible 63 working years in the wine industry, what have you planned for your future?
The planning now, of course, is to make one last great wine and indeed that is in the pipeline ¬– a wine to challenge our Grand Merlot. Beyond that there is the succession planning to be carried out and indeed the final stages of bringing the winery into the 10,000 case size producing finer and finer wines.
9. What is the 2013 vintage looking like so far and how does it compare to the last few years?
This is very much like Myers department store lift! A lot of ups and downs. There are already 2013 wines on the market made by Joanne and her consulting winery and indeed these, of course, are whites. I feel there will be some great wines made in the vintage, but there will also be some ordinary ones. The hot dry weather played havoc and it was fortunate for Eden Valley that the winter rains have held off this summer. We need a couple more weeks before we pick the final reds and it is this patience that usually pays off.
10. What can our Members look forward to tasting from you in the next few years?
With the accent on Brueghel, and a small addition of our Irvine branded wines, it is the variety and rarity that gives great interest, as some of your members may already know. Irvine was one of the very early brands to introduce high-end Merlot, Pinot Gris and the only one into Petit Meslier (the Sparkling white wine from the south of Champagne). So it is variety, interest and quality that will continue in the years ahead. The search for excellence is never ending, but the important part is to recognise excellence when you have it in your glass – and then to thoroughly enjoy it. We truly think about the people who will drink our wines, long before we crush a berry, and yes, it has taken a lot of years to get some understanding of Merlot.
Love Merlot? Try the Irvine Wines Reserve Merlot 2010 which has a brooding mix of dark plums, leather, tea leaf, cigar box and oak on the nose and a long, savoury and rustic finish.
Discover more wines from this producer