Meet Sarah Gough of Box Grove Vineyard
With such an extensive and impressive work history, what would you say was your favourite experience, and why?
As a fresh and raw graduate from Roseworthy College, I went to live on a vineyard in the south-west of France, called Chateau Rahoul, which was owned at the time by Len Evans.
My role was that of Chatelaine, so I looked after the large 17th century house, (which, as you can imagine, often had issues with plumbing and a leaky roof!), prepared rooms for guests (usually friends and business associates of Len who were wonderfully fun, creative people). I would drive them around the Bordeaux region while they visited vineyards – grand Chateaux up in the Medoc or the more picturesque creamy stoned estates in the medieval hilltop town of St Emilion. We would also visit local markets and restaurants and sometimes lash out for a slap up meal at a smart restaurant in Bordeaux itself.
When there were no guests, I worked in the vineyard or prepared the house for the next visitors, scrubbing the huge pine table in the kitchen and working in the garden where some of the cellar hands cultivated their own snails, letting them out for a run each night!
I spent almost a year there and learned so much about working with the seasons… spring is the time last season’s wines are prepared for bottling and cleaned with whipped egg white, leaving the yolks, which were quickly scooped up and made into hollandaise sauce and enjoyed with the new season’s asparagus! I learned to love the simple joy of picking a warm ripe tomato in summer and enjoying that for lunch on crusty bread with some local pate. Or to cook a steak over the dried prunings from the vineyard in the huge fireplace in the kitchen…such fun.
It was a disastrous vintage, we had so much rain, we had to pick fruit and sort out what clean fruit we could from what was rotten! But even that was fun and could never take the shine off the year I spent there!
When did you know you wanted to be involved in the wine industry, and what sparked your interest?
After a year at Melbourne University studying languages and history, I became very disenchanted about where an Arts degree was taking me. I was only 17 when I went to university, so young and very immature. I began working in a wine shop, Crittenden’s, to earn some money. I followed Doug Crittenden around, packing Christmas hampers, and I fell in love with the way he talked about wines, the flavours they had and the food they went with. Before the summer was over, encouraged by Doug, I was enrolled at Roseworthy and commencing studies in Wine Production and Marketing!
It is so important to have a mentor, someone who “gets” you and encourages you and shares their passion with you. Often parents are too close to be able to mentor you, they are too involved and usually too busy. I was lucky enough to have Doug, Hemann Schneider, the chef and wine merchant who introduced me to a wide range of imported wines, and Len Evans.
Do you like writing about wine as much as you enjoy making it?
I loved writing about wine, going to tastings and trying new wines and new flavours or exploring a new cuisine style. I found meeting winemakers exciting, the passion for what they did and what they produced was infectious. So different from people who were just going through the motions in their jobs. But, in truth, you rarely see that in the wine industry , as it attracts people with passion for what they are doing.
Growing grapes and making wine is something you have to love. You have to be determined, resilient and resourceful. And you have to find people who know more than you and are willing to answer questions you may have – about the weather, a variety, a training technique – as often as you have them.
Out in the vineyard you can face snap frosts, drought, a freak hail storm, bushfires…it can be heartbreaking to work all season and lose everything overnight. But it is also incredibly satisfying to plant a little vine and watch it grow and evolve into a mature vine and settle in to your vineyard’s soil. It is wonderful to discover its personality on your site and to share all this with others, especially over a wonderful meal.
In all your travels, which place was your favourite and why?
Earlier this year I spent a busy month travelling around Italy looking at regions that grow the varieties I have planted in my vineyard (I now have Prosecco, Vermentino, Pinot Grigio, Negroamaro, Primitivo and Nebbiolo planted at Box Grove).
During that trip I spent some time (sadly not enough) in Sardinia looking at Vermentino. I looked at it grown on small family vineyards, in the sprawling vineyards owned by large companies, and produced by co-ops where people pulled up with huge glass demi-johns and filled them with hoses like petrol bowsers direct from the tank!
I fell in love with Sardinia. I think I have actually left part of my heart there, it is such a beautiful place to visit. It is not touristy like Tuscany, it is windy and harsh, with huge granite outcrops and stunted trees bending in to the hillsides for protection. Even the sheep are shaggy and tough looking. The plants that do well are also tough – olives, prickly pear, citrus, fig and olive. The people too are tough and resilient, but so kind and generous. And the flavours I discovered…One little vineyard I visited, Jankara, at Cagliari in the north-east of the island produced some exquisite Vermentinos, with crisp acid and great texture. With bottle age they developed a hauntingly beautiful perfume (like an old Clare Valley Riesling)! You could taste the minerally soil and wild herbs that proliferate through the vineyard in the wines. They made fabulous food wines.
We had one of the most amazing meals we have ever eaten in a tiny restaurant in the nearby village. Everything served was fresh and seasonal and bursting with flavour.
I tried honeys produced from bees that had feasted on orange blossom and another from hives that were close to fields of wild artichoke – so fragrant and so different. The fresh ricotta was light and fresh, the wild mushrooms and wild boar were pungent and rich, the fresh sheep’s milk cheese and home made pasta delicious.
The towns are old and clustered around narrow roads (sometimes too narrow for my hire car!). They nestled into the lee of the hills for protection…I am not doing it justice, if you ever get a chance to visit, go, you will love it.
What is your favourite thing about Box Grove?
At Box Grove, I love the peace and serenity of the little creek that runs through our property and the tall strong red gum and box trees that shade us in the summer and show us that there is water deep in the gravel soil below. We look out on the creek and the gums from the verandah and tasting room of our Osteria where we greet visitors.
I love living with the seasons, each has its own beauty. Spring is so green and fresh. The hens are fluffing around new chicks, baby magpies are calling their parents for food, the vines are bursting into growth, full of promise. And the heady perfume of orange blossom and wisteria fills the air.
Summer is shimmering and still, the sounds of cicadas throbbing in the afternoons, chooks panting in the shade of the peppercorn trees and cows lazing in the shade of some of our sprawling gums.
If spring is green to me, autumn is golden, we have quinces and pomegranates ripening. Wild mushrooms to pick. In our old silos we have built racks where we dry a quarter of our Primitivo crop (a modern Australian spin on the Amarone process). If you open the door when the grapes are in it, quietly shrivelling, the air fills with an intoxicating spice, it’s like walking into a big Christmas pudding!
Winter too has its charm, bitter winds nip at your ears and fingers and frosty grass crunches under foot. But we have roaring fires and long slow cooked meals to enjoy. The freshly pruned vines are just beautiful to look at as they lean on to the wire, out to the wind.
What advice would you give to aspiring winemakers and wine bloggers?
Follow your passions. If you love something, you will put in the extra hours to make a success of what you are doing. Don’t ever just go through the motions. That’s soul destroying for everyone concerned. Life is too short.
If you can find a mentor, that would be so beneficial. And if you can find one, bombard him or her with questions – How did you do something? Why did that work? When did you try this? How did you do it? You can’t ever ask too many questions.
If you are a young winemaker, take time to listen to the vines you are working with, try to see what voice the fruit they are producing has, what personality it has. As we all know, wines are really made in the vineyard, you can tweak flavours, enhance them with a process or type of oak, but you can’t make a brilliant wine from poor fruit.
If you are an emerging wine blogger, you have to have integrity and you have to have knowledge about what you are talking about. But it is nice to follow a blog of someone’s journey into winemaking or developing a vegetable garden and learning with them. Humour always helps.
If you had to pick a favourite wine at Box Grove, which one would it be?
That’s tough. I like different wines at different times of the year with different types of food. I love a rich and deep Primitivo in winter with a slow cooked ragu. But it would be too heavy in summer. In summer, I am looking for something vibrant and crisp and refreshing. That’s where Vermentino and Prosecco and my Rosé made from Primitivo are perfect.
Roussanne is very close to my heart. It is the first white grape I ever planted, I planted that when I had my first child, in fact it is like another child, and can be a little shy and temperamental at times, especially when chilled! It seems to completely clam up when cold. So I very rarely open it in summer when I am looking for a crisp and refreshing drink. But from autumn to late spring, it can be hauntingly beautiful with quite robust chicken and pork dishes.
In the last year or so I have been playing with Mourvedre and enjoying the white pepper and juicy fruit in that variety. It makes a soft red to enjoy over summer. I am very much looking forward to seeing the flavours the new Pinot Grigio and Negroamaro have in my vineyard when I make wine from them this coming vintage.
What is your favourite wine variety to make and why?
In a funny way, I think that would have to be Roussanne. I can make so much with that one variety. If I pick it very early, just after the grapes start to soften (veraison), I can make verjus, which is used in cooking. It has the delicate varietal flavours of pear and the crisp acidity, yet is not as harsh as lemon or vinegar. Ben Shewry at Attica uses a litre of my verjus a day in his kitchen!
If I pick some more Roussanne a week or so later, still not fully ripe, I can make a crisp and elegant Sparkling wine base. I send it off to a small specialist Methode Champenoise producer and make a Sparkling wine that I age in the bottle for 4 years on lees. It develops into a wonderfully complex and elegant Sparkling wine.
I weave a little (3%) into my Syrah to add a little perfume to the nose and silkiness to the palate. The blend is done in the vineyard, the grapes are all fermented together before ageing in French oak barriques.
A couple of weeks later, I produce a rich and complex white wine that lives an extraordinarily long time in bottle. We try and make the wine very simply, using a warm and wild ferment. We leave it resting on light lees for up to 18 months, which builds texture in the palate and enhances the wine’s minerality. Any wood it sees is old, hardly imparting any oaky flavour, just complexity.
The Box Grove Vineyard Vermentino 2017 is our wine of the month – what makes this such a standout?
I think I have hit my stride with the 2018 Vermentino. We first made a Vermentino in 2011 and have worked hard each year since refining our pruning and training techniques to tame the growth and crop level and increase the depth of flavour in the grapes. We had a kind growing season in 2018, ripening was long and slow with only a few really hot days, which allowed the grapes to slowly develop their flavours of fresh grapefruit and seaspray.
We like to leave the newly fermented wine on light lees for a couple of months. We have found that builds texture and enhances the delicious minerality the wine has on the palate. I am sure these flavours come from the granitic sand we grow the vines on.
We have paired it with a light white bean casserole and crisp salami. What do you enjoy pairing it with?
Your matching sounds delicious. There are some robust flavours in the white bean casserole and crisp salami, it will cope really well with that, its fresh acid backbone will cut through the richness of the beans to make the meal delicious.
The local wood fired pizzeria serves it with a pumpkin and pine nut pizza with a soft fresh cheese. That is a delicious match. I tend to serve it with light summer pasta dishes using fresh tomatoes. Grilled fish like gar fish or rock ling. Or a plate of fresh asparagus straight from the garden with a poached egg and shaved parmesan.
Other than your own wine, what wine do you like to drink at home?
I like to explore other Australian made and grown Italian varietals. I find they have nice savoury flavours and elegance and they make great food wines. As my Nebbiolo, Pinot Gris and Negroamaro are bearing fruit for the first time this year, I am particularly exploring these styles from small producers. I enjoy the wines Jo Marsh is making at her Billy Button winery in north-east Victoria. All her fruit is sourced from small family vineyards in the Alpine Valleys. I also really enjoy the quirky labels and left of centre approach to winemaking by the guys at Ravensworth in Murrumbateman. And am besotted with a lot of Tasmanian Riesling and Pinot.
What’s your ultimate wine and food match?
Sometimes I take my kids into France Soir for a special meal in Melbourne. In early winter they do some remarkable dishes with truffle. To open their huge wine list and choose a special Rhone red or Barolo to go with one of their truffle dishes is very special. So is a glass of really good French Champagne with a delicate morsel of fish.
What is your favourite…
a. Melbourne restaurant?
I have a couple of favourite Melbourne restaurants. The guys at Trattoira Emilia in the city (used to cook at the Tea Rooms in Yark, a two hatted restaurant on the way to the Victorian snowfields) have cooked a couple of spring and harvest banquets up at my vineyard and totally “get” my Italian varietals. They hail from the Emilia Romagna region of Italy and produce some beautiful rustic dishes which seem to go perfectly with my wines.
Shadowboxer in South Yarra is a tiny little place. A lot of people go there for lunch or before or after the movies, it is very close to a big cinema. They produce some delicate house-made pasta and fish dishes. You can see the love that has gone into everything they produce. They have a very interesting range of wines by the glass.
Lume restaurant in South Melbourne produce some exciting food and makes a handful of exotic cocktails using my verjus (early harvested Roussanne grape juice). The Pomme Petillant uses apple juice and Calvados and my verjus and is delicious on a warm spring night.
There are some interesting spritzes about too, using Prosecco and elderflower wine.
My favourite season would have to be autumn. The days are long and warm and golden. The grapes are ripening, wonderful fruit like fig, quinces and pomegranates are almost ready to pick, as are the olives. And if we have a little rain, there are always some mushrooms to pick.
If I get some quiet time I like to read, try out recipes I have cut out of newspapers for the last couple of months or binge watch a new series from iview or SBS on line!!