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Wine

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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Under pressure - Wine VS Mine
Words by Max Allen on 21 Dec 2016
Winemaker Andrew Margan is standing on a rock on a ridge overlooking his vineyard at Broke, in NSW’s Hunter Valley. The landscape is idyllic: vine rows plunge down the hillside; Wollombi Brook curls through the middle distance; tree-covered ranges rise up steeply behind. He’s talking about how different this country could have looked had energy company AGL got its way. “If CSG (coal seam gas) mining had gone ahead here as AGL were planning,” says Margan, “there could have been 300 wells sunk between here and Pokolbin.” Just five years ago it seemed that CSG was a foregone conclusion in the Hunter wine region. A couple of exploratory wells had already been sunk, not far from Margan’s vineyard at Broke, and AGL were attempting to ingratiate themselves with the local winemakers - buying vineyards, sponsoring a local winemaking scholorship, joining the wine industry association. But the local winemakers were having none of it. They had serious concerns about the environmental impact of CSG mining. They worried that hydraulically fracturing - or “fracking” - deep coal seams to release the gas could contaminate the local aquifer and lead to geological instability. And they were outraged that, under then-current legislation, the miners would be able to drill among the vineyards and wineries of the country’s leading wine tourism destination. As fourth generation winemaker Bruce Tyrrell told me at the time: “It’s simple. If any of those bastards come onto the land my family have owned for 150 yrs I’ll bloody shoot ‘em. And I’m still a good shot.” Eventually, the vignerons’ well-organised protest campaigns - including a high-profile march on the NSW Parliament in 2012 - helped encourage the state government to declare the viticultural and equine industries in the Hunter off-limits to CSG mining: boundaries were drawn around these two newly-declared Critical Industry Clusters that prevented any further resource exploration. “We won,” says Andrew Margan. “But it was a hell of a fight.” “The CSG battle almost destroyed us,” admits Andrew’s wife Lisa Margan. “Having to take on such a big issue like that fractures the community, it pulls resources out of the community, it exhausts the community.” ----- The Hunter isn’t the only wine region to have tussled with unconventional gas mining in the last few years. 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It’s only when you see one of these installations up close - or as close as security will allow - that you get a feel for how much the landscape is affected and what impact dozens or hundreds of such wells would have on the nature of a region: temporary roads carved through paddocks, the four-storey rig itself, the holding ponds dug into the earth to retain contaminated water, lights and sound running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “I just can’t envisage co-existence with a gas well like that next to my cellar door,” said Dennis Vice of Highbank, one of Coonawarra’s leading wineries as we watched another truck loaded with drilling equipment roar by. “How can anyone argue that industrialized gas extraction can sit comfortably alongside wine - a brand that’s based on clean green production? Even if they do put a well in and I’m forced to sell, my vineyard would be worthless because of that rig. The implications for landowners are immense.” During the same visit, local vineyard manager Stuart Sharman, chair of the Limestone Coast Grape and Wine Council’s unconventional shale gas committee, detailed his deep concerns about shale gas extraction - a process that, like CSG mining, involves drilling down through the aquifer and using large amounts of local water in the process. “We don’t have a lot of confidence that the miners can give us an iron clad guarantee that well integrity will be maintained,” he said. “We know that the wells break down over time - their own documents show that. And (energy company) Santos has just been fined for contaminating the acquifer with uranium up in the Pilliga. If our vineyard irrigation water here becomes contaminated we can kiss goodbye to our sector of the economy: the Coonawarra brand and the whole district will be tarnished.” When I spoke to him again for this article, Sharman told me the pressure has eased. Not long after my visit during vintage in 2014, Beach Energy announced they had decided to concentrate on conventional gas extraction, and not in close proximity to the vineyards. The level of exploratory drilling I witnessed had “slowed right up”. But Sharman says it’s the slowdown in the energy market at the moment that’s contributed to the change of heart, not necessarily the very vocal opposition of the vignerons. “Depressed energy prices are slowing up further expectations,” he says. “It’s just not worth the miners’ while to go to the effort of unconventional gas extraction right now. But I think what we’re seeing is probably a lull, not the end. I imagine it could well ramp up again if the situation changes.” ----- It’s a similar story in the Hunter. Yes, says Andrew Margan, with the declaration of the Critical Industry Clusters, winegrowers have had a reprieve. And yes, AGL announced earlier this year that they were pulling out of CSG in NSW. But the state government hasn’t reversed its stand on CSG overall: the exploratory and mining licences haven’t been revoked. So if - when - the economic climate and the political balance shift, the pressure may build once more to start extracting precious hydrocarbons in the heart of wine country. And if that happens, says Stuart Sharman, there will always be a conflict between the short-term gain of the energy companies and the long-term sustainability of the winegrowers. “In the wine industry we’re busy spending millions of dollars redeveloping vineyards and setting ourselves up for another 50-plus years,” he says. “The mining guys are very publicly saying they’ll only be here for 20 years. But what’s it going to be like - what’s the impact not only to the physical environment but also the social environment - when they walk out in 20 years time and we’re still here.”
Wine
Top 50 Wines of 2016
Words by Mark Hughes on 4 Jan 2017
The Wine Selectors Tasting Panel tastes over 3000 wines from Australian producers per year. Here is the best of the best, the top wines that wowed them in 2016. Not many people know this, but I’ve always loved statistics. When I was younger, it was all sports related – D.K Lillee’s bowling average, Chicka Ferguson’s try scoring tally, that sort of stuff. These days I am using that love of maths to discover interesting info about wine. Throughout the year our  Tasting Panel  puts their collective expert palates to the test to determine what wines we send to our members. The wine tasting process is extremely rigorous. The wines are opened the morning of the tasting to allow them to breathe, placed into a bottle cover so no-one can see the label, and poured in brackets that group varietals or styles. The Panel tastes each and every wine and gives them a score out of 20, as per judging at an official wine show. This happens every Friday (and sometimes Wednesday) at Wine Selectors with our Panel tasting up to 100 wines a week. That equates to literally thousands of wines a year, from nearly every producer in every wine region across Australia. So collecting a year’s worth of scores from the Panel reveals some amazing statistics. And from that we can gather some pretty cool information. For instance, not only does it show which producers are leading the charge, what regions had a good vintage and what varietals are doing well – it also shows the changing face of wine. On Trend
That’s the exciting thing about wine – it is always changing. That’s a pretty simple sentence, but when you look at it from different angles, it really says a lot. Yes, it is changing in the bottle as it ages and develops, changes in weather from season to season determine the outcome of how the wine will taste, and there are changes in winemaking techniques and equipment that will improve the taste and the scope of a wine. Ultimately though, I think the biggest change in wine is driven by consumers. Fashion leads demand and if the demand is big enough, it will drive supply. This scenario is pretty evident when looking at our Top 50 wines of 2016. Even before you look at who made the Top 50, just the wines submitted tell a startling story – Aussie drinkers are demanding greater variety. How do we know? Well, in 2016 our Panel tasted more alternative wines than ever before and we are not just talking about a couple of Grigios. Try these on for size: Bianco d’Alessano, Garganega, Muller Thurgau, Verduzzo – and they’re just the whites, they also sipped Aglianico, Lagrein, Montepulciano, Saperavi and Saint Macaire – and that’s only a third of the list of alternative varietals they looked at. How many have you heard of, let alone tried? The exciting thing is, you probably will get to try some of these soon, because quite a few of them are performing exceptionally well – good enough to make it to our Top 50 wines of 2016. For instance, the Serafino Wines Bellissimo Lagrein (placing inside the Top 10, no less), The Pawn Wine Co En Passant Tempranillo and the Bird in Hand Montepulciano. There’s also Touriga, Fiano, Vermentino, Marsanne and more. Yep, it’s an exciting time to be a drinker of Australian wine. Traditional Stars Of course, our traditional varietals also excelled in 2016. Our two biggies, Shiraz (12) and Chardonnay (9) dominated the tallies, but it must be pointed out that their styles have changed to suit the drinking public. The top scoring wine, the Di Giorgio Family Chardonnay 2015, is lean and minerally, described as having “aromas of flint, struck match and oyster shell with a refined palate of intense fig, melon and nectarine,” while the top scoring Shiraz, the Ryan’s Reserve Vanessa’s Vineyard 2014 is a medium to full-bodied Hunter wine with “a ripe and lively core of red and black fruits with hints of Chinese spice.” Riesling was also a big surprise packet this year. Panellist Trent Mannell reckons Riesling is going to be one of the trending wines of 2017 and if the quality of current vintages is anything to go by, he may be right. The  Ferngrove Off Dry Limited Release Riesling 2016  from Western Australia’s Great Southern region was simply superb, taking out second spot overall and was described by the Panel as “impossible to put down”. In all, there were four Rieslings in the Top 50, all from different regions, which goes to show this varietal’s versatility. Read more about  the rise of Australian Riesling in this article Diversity and Consistency
In a nod to diversity, the Top 10 wines were made up of eight different varietals from eight different regions. That’s a real wow moment right there. Chardonnay, Riesling, Marsanne, Shiraz, Muscat, Semillon, Cabernet Merlot and Lagrein – Coonawarra, Great Southern, Nagambie Lakes, Hunter Valley, Rutherglen, Margaret River, Barossa, Adelaide Hills. What that tells us is that viticulturists are getting better at knowing what works in their region and how to get the best out of their grape. It also says that winemakers are becoming more skilled at taking that perfectly grown grape and making great wine. Out of the Top 50 there were only two producers who featured more than once – Howard Park ( Marchand & Burch Chardonnay  and  Howard Park Flint Rock Pinot Noir ) and Brown Brothers (Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir and Innocent Bystander Known Pleasures Shiraz). The same two producers both had two wines each in last year’s Top 50, so it speaks volumes of their ability to consistently produce top wines. And speaking of consistency, it must be noted that the Brown Brothers Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir 2015 replicated the success of the 2014 that featured in  last year’s Top 50 . This is a huge result, as anyone can have a great vintage, but to do it consistently is the mark of a great producer. Vintage and Age The stats show that The Hunter Valley (8), McLaren Vale (7) and Great Southern (7) had great vintages, with 2014 living up to the hype for reds and 2015 for white wines.It was also interesting to note the power of age. Nearly all the wine we buy is consumed soon after we’ve bought it (the same day in my case). However, some producers are lucky enough to be able to hold onto some of their wine to release it at a date when it has aged to perfection – the Tahbilk Marsanne 2010 and Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 2011, for example. 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En Passant Tempranillo 2013 (Adelaide Hills)   Briar Ridge Stockhausen Black Label Semillon 2016 (Hunter Valley) Tyrrell’s Wines 'Stevens' Single Vineyard Shiraz 2014 (Hunter Valley) Scotchmans Hill Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Geelong) Innocent Bystander Known Pleasures Shiraz McLaren Vale 2014 (McLaren Vale) Byron & Harold The Partners Chardonnay 2015 (Great Southern) Brown Brothers Devil’s Corner Resolution Pinot Noir 2015 (Tasmania) De Iuliis Steven Vineyard Shiraz 2014 (Hunter Valley) Howard Park - 'Flint Rock' Pinot Noir 2015 (Great Southern) Rutherglen Estates Durif 2014 (Rutherglen) Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Vineyard (Organic) 2013 (Frankland River) Seville Estate Chardonnay 2015 (Yarra Valley) Woods Crampton Pedro Grenache Shiraz Mataro 2015 (Barossa) Dandelion Vineyards Sister’s Run Shiraz 2014 (Barossa) Forest Hill Vineyard Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 (Mount Barker) try the  2011 vintage here Driftwood Artifacts Chardonnay 2014 (Margaret River) Lisa McGuigan Platinum Selection Chardonnay 2015 (Hunter Valley) Bleasdale Vineyards The Powder Monkey Single Vineyard Shiraz 2013 (Langhorne Creek) Hart & Hunter Single Vineyard Twenty Six Rows Chardonnay 2015 (Hunter Valley) Rockcliffe Quarram Rocks Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2016 (Great Southern) Taylors Wines Riesling 2015 (Clare Valley) Bird in Hand Montepulciano 2014 (Adelaide Hills) Alkoomi Black Label Riesling 2009 (Frankland River) Pertaringa Wines Undercover Shiraz 2014 (McLaren Vale) Shaw Vineyard Estate Olleyville Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (Canberra) Five Geese Shiraz 2014 (McLaren Vale) Leconfield Wines Richard Hamilton Centurion 122-Year-Old Vine Shiraz 2014 SC Pannell Wines Grenache Shiraz Touriga 2014 (McLaren Vale) Shadowfax Pinot Gris 2015 (Geelong) Dominique Portet Fontaine Rose 2015 (Yarra Valley) McWilliams Wines Mount Pleasant High Altitude Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Orange) Tulloch - 'Cellar Door Release' Vermentino 2016 (Orange) Oliver’s Taranga Vineyards Fiano 2015 (McLaren Vale) Try the  2016 vintage here Montara Winery Chalambar Road Shiraz 2009 (Grampians) Henry’s Drive Vignerons Henry’s Drive H Syrah 2012 (Padthaway) Margan Family Limited Release Chardonnay 2013 (Hunter Valley) Bremerton Walter’s Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (Langhorne Creek) Vasse Felix Chardonnay 2015 (Margaret River) d’Arenberg The Dry Dam Riesling (off dry) 2015 (McLaren Vale/Adelaide Hills) Kirrihill Wines Montepulciano 2014 (Mount Lofty)
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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