Merry Winemakers' Festive Traditions
At the table with some of Australia’s most celebrated winemakers on festive times, traditions, and toast-worthy wines.
The life of a winemaker is a challenging one. Long hours, uncertain elements, hard yakka.
It is a life of cycles, triumphs and setbacks, following a natural rhythm that, in many ways, is as old as agriculture itself. Any wonder then that, when the year winds to its end, the opportunity to take a little time with family and friends to celebrate and reflect is eagerly relished, as it is amongst all walks of life.
To mark this time of year, Selector caught up with a few old friends of ours in the trade, to touch base with how their year has gone and what’s being served on their tables this year... as well as why Australian wine is so deservedly celebrated.
PJ CHARTERIS AND CHARTERIS WINES
New Zealand-born PJ Charteris has had an illustrious trans-Tasman career in wine. From time at Lindemans to Penfolds and Brokenwood, to his own label, Charteris Wines - founded with partner Christina ‘Chrissi’ Pattison and a love letter to Australian wines as well as the wines of Central Otago - Charteris’ experience as a winemaker and senior wine judge made him the perfect appointment as Wine Selectors’ Tasting Panel Co-Chair in 2020.
“Usually Christmas is at home with family for Christmas lunch, then time with friends in the evening,” says Charteris. “The Hunter is quite good at doing the ‘Christmas Orphan’s Dinner’ with all the crew who don’t have family nearby, often with plenty of rare and interesting bottles which ensures merriment aplenty.”
When asked what his ideal festive meal and accompanying wine is, his view is variety is the spice of life. “One of the great joys of the Christmas table is the diversity of food and wine to go with it,” he says. “The Hunter is generally quite warm that time of year so lighter and fresher is the order of the day. Sparkling to start with - the Vintage Arras Blanc de Blancs and Printhie’s 2015 Swift Blanc de Blancs are both cracking with natural Sydney rock oysters.”
The Sparklings are typically followed by Semillon, Chardonnay, and Riesling. “Chrissi is a master at cooking and makes a great prawn and avocado salad from a Troy Rhoades-Brown recipe. Robbie Molines from Bistro Molines makes sure we’re stocked with oysters and ocean trout, and that means Chardonnay - a couple of our favourites at the moment are Tolpuddle from Tassie and Byrne Farm from Orange.”
Unsurprisingly, Charteris Pinot Noir is opened as the day proceeds, but also Grenache and Tempranillo blends - well-suited to warmer weather. “Yarra Yering and Paralian are go-to wines for our Guinness and mustard ham,” says Charteris. “After that, one can get a little sleepy.”
PJ and Chrissi Charteris holding court at their Charteris Wines' cellar door in the Hunter Valley.
THE MITCHELL FAMILY, MITCHELL WINES
Three generations of winemakers and grape growers have seen the Mitchell Wines family establish its name as one of the most respected in Clare Valley. Self-described enthusiasts, committed innovators and connoisseurs dedicated to the art of winemaking, today Andrew and Jane Mitchell continue the vision mapped out by Andrew’s father, Peter.
For over 30 years, says Andrew, the family has spent Christmas at their holiday house in Encounter Bay, Victor Harbour. As early as October, preparations are underway for the traditional dessert. “I always made the plum pudding,” says Jane. “Our family tradition is to make it in October and let it hang till Christmas Day.”
The reins and responsibility for that were handed over to daughter Edwina some eight years ago, who has now introduced the Mitchell Old Liqueur Riesling to the recipe, for soaking the fruit in. Christmas Day begins with Sparkling Peppertree while they open the presents: “The perfect way to start,” says Andrew. The family always celebrates with a traditional meal of classic roast turkey, ham, “and all the trimmings” says Andrew.
“The family create the meal together, taking on different roles each year. A Clare Valley Riesling while cooking, followed by red wines from the cellar with lunch.” Divine.
THE PURBRICK FAMILY, TAHBILK
For Hayley Purbrick, fifth-generation member of the family behind the Tahbilk name since 1925, the festive season offers an opportunity to connect, reflect, and renew on their home soils of Nagambie Lakes along Victoria’s Goulburn River.
“Christmas for me is all about gathering with family,” she says. “It’s funny, I was just listening to Tim Minchin’s ‘White Wine in the Sun’, and it resonates a lot with me as it’s about getting together, having a glass of wine, Aussie sunshine. I’ve got three kids now and it’s a great opportunity to connect and catch up - a time to spend with good food and good people.”
At the centre of the celebrations is her father Alister’s famous Peach Bowler - a punch of brandy and Champagne-soaked peaches. “Delicious and potent” is how Purbrick describes it. “It’s a big family affair where everyone gets involved in its making the night before, with all the kids peeling the peaches.”
As for what else is typically on the table for the family gathering, it’s very much an Australian affair. “We’re not really a traditional European-luncheon-style family. It’s always warm on Christmas day so we’re big fans of seafood. Sashimi or nicely cooked salmon - I enjoy having our Marsanne with it, but really any sort of light, white wine is what I’ll go with.”
When asked what else they’re celebrating this year, Purbrick cites the transition for the business following her father Alister’s retirement in 2022. “It’s been a big year for us - believe it or not a 45-year tenure requires a big transition! But we’ve got to the end of it now and we’re still a vibrant business with new energy, which is great.”
A moment to reflect for the Purbrick family of Tahbilk.
Tim Kirk contemplates the sacred (Photo Credit: David Reist).
TIM KIRK, CLONAKILLA
Nestled away in Murrumbateman just north of Canberra, Clonakilla has become almost revered for its flagship Shiraz Viognier, which Langton’s co-founder Andrew Caillard has cited as “one of the most important advances in the development of Australian Shiraz since the release of the 1952 Penfolds Grange Hermitage.”
First planted by John Kirk, who’d come to Australia from County Clare, Ireland, in 1986 to work in research at the CSIRO, it is today operated by his son, winemaker Tim Kirk. The family faith plays a defining role over the Yule period.
“It’s no secret that our family culture flows out of a lively Catholicism, so religious feasts such as Christmas and Easter give us a perfect excuse to raid the cellar and cook up something special. In my reckoning, the family table is a sacred space. This is the place where we encounter each other face to face and share the joys and sorrows of life.”
Great food and beautiful wine are an essential part of the equation for the Kirks. “At Christmas, we dial it up to 11.”
The Christmas table, as one might expect from Kirk’s comment, is groaning with delectables. “I start thinking about great wines first and then think about the best food to accompany them,” he says. “My preference will usually be something from a cool region: a top Tasmanian Chardonnay, a great Victorian Pinot Noir, a fine Riesling from the Clare Valley - bless you Jeff Grosset - or perhaps a Shiraz Viognier or Syrah from our own 30-year back catalogue.”
Once the wines are determined, the food follows. “There is always going to be turkey, but some of my more memorable Christmas dinners have involved roast duck or goose - duck fat potatoes essential.” Dessert - Christmas pudding and home-made mince tarts - calls for something sweet. “A Rutherglen Muscat or Topaque is commonly pressed into service. Botrytised Rieslings are my other go to, with their duelling counterpoints of rapier acidity and intense sweetness.”
When you drink an Australian wine you are, in a real sense, tasting the landscape in which we live, work and get to call home.
KATHERINE BROWN, BROWN BROTHERS
Milawa’s Brown Brothers is one of the most enduring names in Australian wine, a family winery since 1889. As fourth-generation winemaker Katherine Brown tells it, the wider family celebrations kick off on the first Saturday of December.
“It gets too hectic otherwise, because between all of us, we’ve all got different wineries - and families! - to attend to. It gets bigger and bigger every year with cousins and siblings - last year was 24 adults and a bunch of kids kicking a ball around and having a great time.”
First wine to be poured is always the Patricia Sparkling, honouring the eponymous family matriarch. “If it’s up to me it’s always paired with a nice platter of prawns,” says Katherine. “We like share-style food and keeping things local. If we’re lucky we get some tomatoes from the family garden, or some locally sourced beef and have a big communal meal.”
As the day winds on, the family’s pioneering Tarrango - developed in partnership with the CSIRO, a light-bodied red that’s a cross between a white sultana grape and Touriga Nacional - is poured. But later, things loop back around to Prosecco and pavlova. “It’s a great melting pot of cultures!”
The Brown family of Brown Brothers gather at Milawa for annual festive celebrations.
The Mitchell family of Mitchell Wines all smiling as they gather for the Christmas celebrations.
While every wine family has different traditions and ways of celebrating, they are all aligned in their perspective when it comes to what is most worth commemorating in Australian wine - its diversity. “We could really celebrate more the uniqueness of our different winemaking states and what they all bring to the table,” says Purbrick.
Kirk concurs. “Australian winemakers across the breadth of this country produce wines with an extraordinary variety of aromas, flavours and textures. When you drink an Australian wine you are, in a real sense, tasting the landscape in which we live, work and get to call home.”
“The vastness and variety of climates and geology across Australia’s wine growing regions means there is enormous diversity in flavour, texture and style,” says Charteris. “Hunter Valley Semillon to Great South Shiraz with Touriga, Fiano, Vermentino, Barbera and everything else in between, it’s awesome.”
“Australian wines have so much diversity, but what shines through is varietal flavours that match Christmas fare,” say the Mitchells. We’ve left the last word, however, for Brown. “There are no rules out there,” says Brown. “Don’t conform: enjoy the things you love. Make new traditions.”