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Vine Change for the Good Life

Ever dreamed of making a vine change? Meet some daring individuals who took a leap of faith to embrace the good life – vinous style.

We’ve all been there. Visited a winery, wandered through the vines, dreaming of days spent pruning tips and tasting wines straight from the barrel. Of course, this romantic picture glosses over the constant stress of too much or not enough rain, grape-eating pests and the changing tastes of fickle consumers.

But for a special selection of wine producers, the challenges were never too great. Their dream of a life on the land was enough motivation to pack in their career and take up the secateurs for a life dictated by vines, veraison and vats.

For Todd and Jeff of Belford Block Eight in the Hunter Valley, it was love at first sight of their property’s driveway. As Jeff explains, “Todd and I turned off the car, listened to nature, admired the olives, turned to one another and said, ‘this is it.’” Jeff gave up his job in the finance department for CanTeen and Todd left Ebay, where he’d worked for 12 years in strategy, marketing and analysis. Neither knew anything about winemaking.

But on their property were around 12,000 vines, so, as Todd describes, “Jeff and I tracked down a bottle of 2006 Brokenwood Block Eight Semillon, a single vineyard release made only using our grapes and it was truly remarkable. So, we thought, maybe there’s an opportunity to make some nice wine from these grapes, let’s give it a go!”

And given it a go they certainly have with their first ever wine, the 2014 Reserve Semillon now an award-winner. It hasn’t been all plain sailing, though, and they’ve learnt some valuable lessons. Apart from the vagaries of harvest, the necessity of tractor headlights and that their deckchairs are just for show, they also know that un-neutered piglets turn into boisterous 150kg boars and goats can be as loyal as dogs. But regrets? “No bloody way, mate!” is Jeff’s answer, “One day we’ll sit on those deck chairs, sipping on a 20-year-old Block Eight, admiring what we’ve built.”

Healthy vines

Back in 1997, while Jeff and Todd were still slogging away in the corporate world, over in South Australia’s Clare Valley, medical professional, Anura Nitchingham planted his first vineyard. He’d chosen Clare because, he says, “The region is really an unsung hero in the world of viticulture. It’s unique and has some really great producers in a very small, but beautiful region.”

That first planting has grown into Claymore Wines, one of Australia’s most unique wine brands. While Anura hasn’t left his medical career, he says that winemaking provides something medicine can’t: “Vines don’t complain! And there’s wine!”

The medical theme is also part of the story of Hobbs of Barossa Ranges. Allison Hobbs was a nurse and her husband was a former policeman turned firefighter when they bought their vineyard in the Barossa. Their decision to make a vine change was borne of a desire to provide a rural lifestyle for their children.

Like Jeff and Todd, Allison and Greg knew very little about making wine, but the stars aligned, providing them with some strokes of good fortune in the early years. Foremost was they happened to buy the property next door to local winemaking expert, Chris Ringland, who provided invaluable advice and made their wines.

While being a nurse, police officer or fire fighter might be worlds away from making wine, Allison and Greg feel they brought vital skills from those professions to their new endeavour. As Greg says, “attention to detail is very important to both nursing and winemaking”, and Allison adds, “the observation techniques you learn in nursing, the police and fire brigade are important as we wander through the vineyard and take note of what’s right and what’s not.”

Livin’ in the 70s

Although Allison, Greg and Anura faced challenges in the mid-1990s, things were even more basic in the 1970s. Having left successful careers in the emerging computer industry, Linda and Ian Tyrer bought a property in WA’s Mount Barker region to establish Galafrey Wines. Again, they had no experience, but, as Linda describes, she arrived at their new home four months pregnant, armed with a few thousand grape cuttings – “naive but starry-eyed, full of enthusiasm.”

A lack of money meant a lot of back-breaking work, but by 1985, they had won their first Trophy and Ian’s tireless dedication saw him awarded the George Mulgure Award for outstanding service to the industry in 2003. Unfortunately, the same year, Ian lost his battle with cancer. However, his legacy lives on with Linda still at the helm, along with daughter Kim, who left her own career as an artist to return to the vines.

One thing all these people would agree on is that a life among the vines is a hard slog. But is it the good life? Absolutely!

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Meet Andrew Thomas of Thomas Wines
We catch up with Andrew Thomas – Hunter Valley winemaker, regional champion and diehard Swans supporter, whose Gold medal-winning  Synergy Shiraz 2014  is our July Wine of the Month. The Hunter Valley is especially renowned for producing exceptional Shiraz and Semillon – what makes it so special? A very unique combination of old vines, ancient soils and our relatively warm climate. Generally speaking, the  Semillons   are best suited to our sandy/loam alluvial flats and the  Shiraz  to the heavier clay/loams on the slopes and hills. Your focus at Thomas Wines is very much on Shiraz and Semillon – why? When I started Thomas Wines, I made a very clear decision to specialise in the signature varieties of the region. It’s kind of a European approach, but it’s more about brand integrity – making a range of world-class wines rather than just producing everything for everyone. Your Cellar Door recently won  Cellar Door of the Year  at the 2017 Hunter Valley Legends Awards – how was that? It was a great honour, particularly since we opened the doors of our own dedicated cellar door destination literally only 18 months ago. The wines are obviously a no-brainer, but the award really goes to my amazing staff who deliver our message in a fun, yet educational way, every day of the week. Can you recall the first wine you tried? It’s hard to remember the very first wine I tried, but I do recall tasting an amazing textural Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre when I was about 17 years old. This wine inspired me to get into winemaking and the rest is history. Interesting memory, because these days I would rarely drink any Sauvignon Blanc! What is your all-time favourite wine memory (other than a wine itself)? It’d be a tie between the first time I saw one of my wines being ordered across the room in a restaurant, and the first time I was awarded Hunter Valley Winemaker of the Year. Other than your own wine, what is the wine that you like to drink at home? We drink wine from all over the world, so it’s hard to be specific but at the moment we seem to be drinking a lot of Chablis, particularly from the 2014 vintage. What’s your ultimate food + wine match? Young  Hunter Valley Semillon  and sashimi. What is your favourite…   Way to spend a weekend off? Head to the big smoke and watch the mighty Sydney Swans in action. Holiday destination? Europe. Next trip is long overdue… Time of the year/season? Vintage. It’s basically 24/7 for six to eight weeks, but the adrenalin kicks in to keep you going for the most important time of the winemaking year. Movie? Pulp Fiction Restaurant? Lunch – Bistro Molines Dinner – Muse Restaurant Footy team? Could only be the mighty Sydney Swans!
Showcasing Shiraz with Australia's First Families of Wine
Words by Paul Diamond on 14 Oct 2017
A fabulous Wine Selectors dinner with Australia’s first families of wine revealed the bright future of this incredible variety. A red wine dinner in the middle of a chilly Melbourne August seemed like a highly appropriate thing to do and what better variety than Shiraz to chase the cold away. And so a four-course menu by the team at Neale White’s Papa Goose restaurant was devised and 12 great Shiraz from Australia’s First Families of Wine (AFFW) were sourced and the tables set. By the time the Wine Selectors faithful started arriving, it was clear that the dinner was going to be one to remember. Designed to celebrate Shiraz through the expressions of 12 wines from the 12 families that make up the AFFW , the diversity of flavours and expressions from one grape variety was quite remarkable. On paper, the line-up looked simply yummy, but as the wines were being opened and tested before the guests arrived, the reality of what we were pouring and tasting started dawning on us; we were privy to a multiplicity of smells, flavours and textures that were being represented from 10 different regions and 1300+ collective years of winemaking experience. A Family Affair
On hand to help host, pour and manage 1000-odd glasses of Shiraz were Katherine Brown, Brown Brothers winemaker and Chairperson of the AFFW Next Generation, Justine Henschke, PR for Henschke Wines , Justin Taylor, export manager for Taylors Wines, Sally Webber, DeBortoli family ambassador and Jeff McWilliam, CEO of McWilliam’s Wines . The food was awesome and the wine a perfect foil for the cold and wet. And as the family anecdotes from each of the AFFW members were told, the conversation eventually found itself reflecting on the future of Australian Shiraz. “Shiraz is the past and it’s also the future,” Justine Henschke noted emphatically. “It’s the past in that it has established a lot of wine communities and it’s the future in that we now know how Shiraz thrives according to climate.” “So now it’s all about educating people on what style comes from where, so they know where to go for something specific.

Look at tonight, we have tried 12 different wines of the same variety across many different regions, showing small nuances from where they have been sourced and that’s pretty incredible.

- Justine Henschke, Henschke Wines
Sally Webber agreed that diversity is a key and that blends are going to play a big part in strengthening its appeal for future generations. “I love that it’s such a diverse variety and can blend beautifully with so many other varieties.” “The future for Shiraz is in blends,” she added. “It’s such an intense variety, you have pepper and spice and there are some varieties you only need a little of and it brings out all these other great characters. “Rhône varieties like Grenache and Mourvedre, and even varieties like Gamay and Tempranillo really add different expressions to Shiraz and as the Australian consumer becomes less conservative and more experimental, we’ll get to see the variety’s real potential.” A hint of spice
For Katherine Brown and Brown Brothers, fine, spicy cool climate Shiraz is the future and Heathcote is their chosen region. As Katherine described, “We think customers understand that Shiraz doesn’t need to come from a warm climate and we are on the search to make a Shiraz that you can call refreshing.” “Something you can drink at lunch, something that is more about pepper and spice than big jammy fruits. That’s where I see the future of Shiraz, we are starting to see these cooler climates like Heathcote, Eden Valley and Margaret River delivering these flavours.” So what about hot areas, those that built the wines that put us on the map like Barossa , McLaren Vale and the Clare ? Justin Taylor thinks that Shiraz is a variety that can deal with the heat and with careful winemaking, the future for warmer styles is still bright.

“Australia’s getting hotter whether you like it or not, and Shiraz loves heat, so we can keep making more Shiraz for the global market, we can do it with rationality, and we can do it with diversity. Our quality has never been as good as it is right now, it’s a great story for this country.”

- Jeff McWilliam, McWilliams Wines
Jeff McWilliam agrees and is happy that the diversity we are seeing has extended to a place where the expressions of Shiraz that emulate the O’Shea Hunter River Burgundies that the Hunter Valley does so well are gaining popularity again. “We are going back to medium bodied wines, just like the great old wines that came from Mt Pleasant,” said Jeff. “I love McLaren Vale and Barossa Shiraz , but I know the wines we do best are in that style of the old O’Shea wines. “We are talking about vineyards and the special wines they produce, but the Hunter is like that, you can have a great vintage and you can have a really poor vintage and that’s the excitement of it, just like the diversity of Australian Shiraz.”
Meet Flying Fish Cove’s senior winemaker, Simon Ding
The  Flying Fish Chardonnay 2014  is our Wine of the Month for March. What makes this such a special wine? Chardonnay   is a  Margaret River  star, famous for being rich and powerful. This plush drop fits the bill and with its layers of peachy fruit supported by oak and zesty acidity, it's a classic example of why the variety is a natural match to rich seafood. When you work in a stunning seaside location like Margaret River, nobody can blame Simon Ding for slipping out of the winery for the occasional quick swim. Your Gold medal-winning Flying Fish Chardonnay 2014 is our Wine of the Month for March. What makes this such a special wine? Over time we have seen the Margaret River region produce many high-quality Chardonnay wines. The dedication of the people involved from the grower to the winemaking team at  Flying Fish Cove  has allowed us to craft a pure and fine expression of excellent modern Chardonnay. I think there is a little bit of love in each and every bottle of Flying Fish Cove Chardonnay, that we hope you can taste. In recent years, there’s been a switch from traditional big, buttery, oaky Chardonnay to the crisper, modern styles. What are the best attributes of both? Big, buttery, oaky Chardonnay is like a blast from the past and a look at where we have come from. Sometimes, it is good to look at where you have been to know that you don’t want to go back. Fine, delicate and crisp Chardonnay styles are favourable now. The nature of these styles seems to appeal to a broader range of maturing palates amongst the drinking public. I think it is the lightly oaked and delicately balanced nature and more often than not, the lighter alcohol content of these styles that is appealing to the modern wine drinker. We’ve matched your 2014 Chardonnay with barbequed WA marron withgarlic and herb butter – what’s your suggestion for a great food match? It’s also absolutely delicious paired with a butterflied and barbequed free range chicken, with a garlic, lemon rind and thyme rub, served with a side of seasonal roasted vegetables. How is vintage 2017 going for Flying Fish Cove and Margaret River? So far, the vintage is looking great, which we hope will continue given the late start and cool ripening conditions we have had this season. When did you fall in love with wine? I fell in love with wine whilst travelling throughout Europe, South America, the Middle East and Asia in the 1990s. It’s a tough question, but do you have a favourite wine or varietal? I can’t seem to go past Chardonnay and  Cabernet Sauvignon , however  Riesling   and some of the new Spanish varietals are interesting as well. What is your favourite wine memory? I don’t have any one specific wine memory that stands out. I’d have to say that the industry people I have met along my wine journey have been a great memory to me and a few memorable bottles have been shared with them along the way. How do you spend your time when you’re not making wine? There’s always plenty do around the winery, but the best way to spend time out is with my family exploring Margaret River and its beautiful surrounds.
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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