In 1949 Penfolds’ Max Schubert was sent by his company to France to study fortified wine making. Port-style wines were then the bulk of the Australian wine drinking habit. Schubert, whilst in France, had the opportunity to visit and taste the wines of Bordeaux, including Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour and Château Margaux. The scales fell from his eyes as he was struck by how well these red table wines aged. He returned to Australia fueled with a desire to make an Australian wine that could age as well, and for decades. Grange Hermitage was born.
Two of Australia’s most awarded and celebrated winemakers of today have been similarly changed by an opportune visit to places afar.
In the Yarra Valley, Innocent Bystander’s winemaker Steve Flamsteed started his working life as an apprentice chef, using the job to travel around Europe where he could indulge his skiing habit. During such travel he found himself, in 1989, in Beaujolais, working at one of the most regarded producers, Chateau de Bluizard. As a trained cook Flamsteed was familiar with wine, but it was only at Bluizard where he saw and was struck by its natural and necessary participation in every aspect of life.
“At Bluizard everything they did with wine they did with such simplicity and purity. They didn’t make all the varieties - like we do here - they just made one wine. Beaujolais, or Gamay. But as winemakers they ate, they drank, they talked and they made me see how natural wine was as a part of life.”
Today Flamsteed still thinks of Bluizard every time he - as they did - uses whole bunch fermentation techniques.
“Whole bunch does so much for the perfumed varieties, like Gamay, and like our Pinot.”
And Bluizard on the Cote de Brouilly showed him that it didn’t matter whether you were a blueblood or a farmer, wine would still talk to you in a very unpretentious way. The experience turned Flamsteed from a chef - where wine is so often something that really only exists in the dining room - to a winemaker, whereby wine has to be a friendly beverage, and as natural a part of life as food or conversation.
The daughter of a Bulgarian Air Force MIG pilot, Elena Brooks left her native land in 1998 to study winemaking in Adelaide, of course. She’s gone on to make Jimmy Watson winners, winners of the Great Australian Shiraz Challenge (both in 2005), Decanter’s Best Rhone Style red, and Italy’s Gambero Rosso Best Red Wine in 2008. Locally she’s won gold at just about every capital wine show, and trophies to boot, with her multi-award-winning Dandelion Vineyards and Heirloom Vineyards wines. And how?
“I flew into Adelaide on a sunny, hot - 40C - February day. From the beginning it was obvious that working in wine in Australia as a foreigner and a female was not necessarily going to be easy. But I worked hard and I learned fast and the industry was very accepting of me.”
But it was some of South Australia’s best wine regions that had such a powerful effect on Brooks.
“McLaren Vale, with its mild and blessed climate gave me confidence as a young winemaker, and enabled me to win domestic and international trophies; while Barossa, with Eden Valley, gave me the edge to continue doing so - and never get too comfortable in my ways.”
In Bulgaria, Elena’s mother worked in a state-run winery, where a notion of ‘tradition’ was strong indeed. “But building a career in a, many ways, tradition-free Australian winemaking scene has made me richer and wiser, but it has sometimes led me to question freedom and its cost.”
It’s the vineyards of South Australia that have the most profound on Elena, however: their uniqueness, their strong identity, and - in some cases - their remarkable age - going back to the 1830s.
“The truth is in the vineyard,” as she comments, “but the proof is always in the glass”.