The best winemakers make their task seem effortless. For Andrew Spinaze of Tyrrell's, Ed Carr of House of Arras and Tom Carson of Yabby Lake, however, every great wine is a lifetime in the making.
Of all the countless reasons wine exerts a hold on the imagination of millions, the fact that it is a living thing is perhaps the most compelling. Winemaking may variously be an art and a science, but to outsiders it often seems a kind of magic. It may in fact be a little of each – a practice almost as old as recorded history, and an ever-evolving discipline requiring an understanding of things both seen and unseen. Mastering it is the work of a lifetime.
CHOOSING YOUR MOMENT
Take Andrew Spinaze, of Tyrrell’s. What he describes as his first “real” vintage in 1978 was an initiation in some of winemaking’s greatest challenges – inexperience, and the elements. “I was pretty nervous and didn’t really know how a winery operated,” he admits. “I also remember the rain never stopped that vintage.”
Despite the steep learning curve, Spinaze enjoyed the experience, and was convinced that “this could be an interesting lifestyle career.” After completing studies at Roseworthy Agricultural College in Adelaide, Spinaze joined the Tyrrell family in the Hunter Valley. Within a year he was overseeing their Chardonnay production. By 1985 he was Assistant
Winemaker, and four short years later – after a trip to France to further hone his skills – was made Chief Winemaker. Countless awards later, Tyrrell’s has gone from a small, family-owned winery to one of Australia’s major wine companies.
Spinaze recalls his first Semillon vintage with Tyrrell’s, in 1990. “We had just had 500mm of rain in January and February. Murray Tyrrell was in South Africa at the time and said ‘Don’t start vintage until I get home’. He was too late as I already had 400 tonne of fruit picked!”
The pressure was on, but the winemaker trusted his gut. “Many years ago,” he recalls, “Murray described winemaking as your ability to observe, anticipate, and act quickly.” Spinaze’s instincts – following Murray Tyrrell’s guidance rather than his directive – served him well that vintage, and Tyrrell’s took home a Semillon Gold medal that year at the Brisbane Wine Show.
With Semillon, “the first thing is timing,” Spinaze says.
It’s tempting to harvest just before rain events, but harvest too early and you can end up with green herbaceous flavours and excessive acid. So the decision when to pick is based on optimum flavour and balance.
A little inspiration and creative thinking goes a long way, too, when it comes to the craft. “Deciding to use an old-wooded basket press on some of our oldest Semillon from Johnno’s vineyard over the conventional airbag press was a big moment.” The resulting wine, the prestigious Johnno’s Semillon, is today treasured as a quintessential regional and varietal expression.
THE TRIUMPH OF TECHNIQUE
Such experimentation is also a hallmark of the work of Ed Carr. Widely considered the country’s best Sparkling winemaker, he’s been credited with putting Australian Sparkling on the global wine map.
A student of chemistry and microbiology, his career in wine began when, while working in a McLaren Vale winery lab in the late 1970s, Seaview/Romalo winemaker Norm Walker asked Carr whether he could resolve a fermentation issue he was experiencing.
“Yeast propagation and technology was very rudimentary in those days, and as a qualified food and fermentation microbiologist it was deemed that I could solve the problem,” recalls Carr. Solve it he did, and Walker made him Assistant Winemaker.
“After a very rapid learning curve we were able to achieve more consistent and complete secondary fermentations, and I became progressively more involved in the mechanics of Sparkling winemaking.”
Following the purchase of Seaview by Penfolds in the early 1980s, Carr’s role in Sparkling wine production continued to evolve. “I realised the opportunity to be a part in the evolution of quality Sparkling wine and progressively increased my responsibilities to the position of Group Sparkling Winemaker,” Carr recalls of his time at Penfolds. A period at Hardys Wines followed.
It was around this time that Carr experienced the first of many ‘aha!’ moments, one that would lead to the founding of Tasmania’s House of Arras.
“I first made Sparkling base from Tasmania in 1995 for which the quality was instantly recognisable,” he says. His epiphany was that the Apple Isle’s cool climate could result in wines with the potential to rival the global benchmark of Sparkling, Champagne. But there were still hard yards to come.
The crafting of world class Cuvée is a very long game that is often financially very challenging. Street cred is extremely hard to earn and must be progressively built over time – consistent quality and style is key.
This reliance on method lies at the heart of his craft. “I have always taken a scientific approach to winemaking and progressively built an ability to recognise the characters of premium Sparkling wines,” Carr says. “Attention to detail at every point is absolutely critical – the making of premium Sparkling does not include alchemy or magic.”
STUDENT OF THE SOIL
“I can’t really take credit for the wine as there was plenty of involvement from the entire winemaking team and I was just a lowly cellar rat,” says Tom Carson of his first Pinot vintage in 1991. Carson was working with Tim Knappstein in the Clare on the first vintage of the Lenswood Vineyard Pinot Noir. “The wine turned out really well. Even Tim was impressed, which is a feat in itself!”
Today, some thirty years later, Carson – Winemaker and General Manager of Yabby Lake on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula – is practically synonymous with quality Australian Pinot.
A graduate of Roseworthy, he has won myriad awards for his work with one of the wine world’s most prickly, fickle varieties. “Pinot is a sensitive variety that requires nearly everything to be just right,” he says. “A bit of a ‘Goldilocks’ variety. But when all the little ducks are lined up, it can produce stunning results.”
And make no mistake; lining up all those ducks is hard yakka. At Yabby Lake, Carson and his team treat every tiny section of the vineyard as a distinct site, noting the clone, soil, how it has performed over the growing season and how the fruit looks leading up to harvest.
We adapt our techniques based on our experience and what we believe is the best approach and the potential of each patch. Then each section is made into a separate wine and matured and assessed through the year.
Such meticulous work is crucial for getting the structure, florals, detailed red fruits and silkiness that makes Carson’s Pinot distinctive – that, and the occasional throwing of caution to the wind.
“Attention to detail, a willingness to experiment and take risks in the winery and vineyard, and a strong desire to never compromise on quality” forms the basis of his approach. “If it’s not up to the highest of standards, we don’t bottle it,’” Carson says.
IN WINE, TRUTH
Among the things these three winemakers – each at the top of their game – have in common is an understanding of the power of observation, experimentation, and refinement.
Each shares a trust in the uncanny ability of nature to reveal itself in new and unusual ways, but ways that can be apprehended, understood, and leveraged in the making of distinctive wines.
From such applied focus over time has arisen that intangible quality perhaps best described as wisdom – the very soil from which mastery emerges as naturally as a vine from the earth.