History Made in the 17th Annual Young Gun of Wine Awards

21 June 2023. Words by YGOW.

History was made at the 2023 Young Gun of Wine Awards, which were awarded at a ceremony on Monday night. Six trophies were presented, but for the first time in the 17 years of the awards, which champions emerging winemaking talent, an employee of a wine business took out the top trophy, the Young Gun of Wine, from a field of 50 finalists.

Lauren Langfield of Orbis Wines in McLaren Vale is the historic winner.

Each year, Young Gun of Wine assembles a mix of leading wine experts from all corners of the Australian wine industry, with Nick Stock a member of every panel since inception. Uniquely, these wine awards are not judged ‘blind’ and are not just about what is in the glass. The panel take into consideration the winemaker’s vision, creativity, leadership and overall execution right through to delivery of the packaged product.

Commenting on the judging process and why it has taken 17 years for an employee to take the top title, Stock said, “Typically winemakers doing it for themselves have outgunned employee entrants who – while doing an exceptional job – are working within the confines of someone else’s business, where there is an established template for operations, product mix, marketing etc. In large established wineries, it’s hard or rare for a winemaker to forge a renewed identity for a wine brand. It’s also harder for the panel to read the contribution of an employee whereas in a new solo project everything is laid bare, it is all on the line.

“Lauren has been given the brief to run Orbis as if it is her own. It is her impressive capability, talent and demonstrated ability to deliver the whole package that sees her given the opportunity and ultimate trust to run another business in its entirety.”

Opposite: applause for Lauren Langfield upon announcement of the result the Young Gun of Wine Awards trophies. Above: Langfield at Orbis vineyard in McLaren Vale.
“I am for the Orbis wine brand to be known for fresh, exciting drink-now styles of wine, and I am lucky to have complete control over harvesting decisions, vinification, maturation and releases.”

After years consulting on organics, biodynamics and regenerative agriculture, Langfield first made wine for her eponymous label in the 2021 vintage – winning last year’s Best New Act at the 16th YGOW Awards for her own project. In 2021, she also took on the winemaking role at McLaren Vale’s Orbis Wines.

Winemaking is a fraction of what she does there, though, with Langfield in the role of general manager of the operation, while also managing the truly sustainable and regenerative farming. Orbis is founded on principles of sustainability that ripple through every part of the business and beyond. With regional classics planted, there is also a slew of Mediterranean varieties coming online to join the already productive trousseau and tempranillo.

“McLaren Vale is the best region in South Australia,” Langfield says. “Its proximity to the ocean and the effect on diurnal ranges make for great growing seasons. I love how there are pockets of high elevation and very old vines, and I especially love the people – everyone is very friendly and welcoming here. … I am for the Orbis wine brand to be known for fresh, exciting drink-now styles of wine, and I am lucky to have complete control over harvesting decisions, vinification, maturation and releases.”

Scenes from the 17th Annual Young Gun of Wine Awards, held as a dinner presentation in Melbourne. Above: Abby Moret, Emily Kinsman and Jeremy Shiell. Opposite: James Cooter and Nadja Wallington.
Opposite: Dale Wheeler, Charlie Mann and Chris Ryan. Above: Ashleigh Seymour, Jordan Hein, Nick Stock and Callie Jammeson.

The other trophies are the Best New Act, Danger Zone, the Vigneron, Winemaker’s Choice and People’s Choice. The judging panel consisted of Young Gun of Wine founder, Rory Kent; Ben Ranken of Wilimee (the inaugural YGOWA Vigneron trophy winner); Jeremy Shiell from Winespeake; Meg Brodtmann MW; wine critic Nick Stock; Abby Moret of Atlas Vinifera; Sophie Carbonneau, National Sales Manager Bibendum Wine Co.; and Ryan Ponsford from Entropy Wines, the 2022 Young Gun of Wine.

Congratulations goes to all the finalists, a deep field of talented and innovative makers who are all playing an important part in shaping the future of Australian wine. Here are the 2022 trophy winners:

Justin Folloso wowed the panel with a stunning Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir from Tasmania with his Cave Wines label launched in 2023.

Best New Act: Justin Folloso of Cave Wines.

The Best New Act is an award to single out the hottest new wine label.

Justin Folloso’s career direction snapped into vivid clarity at a Young Gun tasting in 2018. An epiphany with a Tasmanian pinot noir saw him pack his bags and head back to his home state, taking on winery work and travelling overseas to work in Burgundy and California. Today, while working for an iconic Tasmanian winery in his ‘day’ job, Folloso is crafting his own wines at his modest home facility. The launch of the brand comes in 2023, releasing two Coal River Valley pinot noirs from the 2021 vintage and a textural oak-aged sauvignon blanc from 2022.

“The dream is to grow beautiful and honest wines,” says Folloso. “We’re starting small and trying to take the small steps towards it. We’re not in any great rush. It’s pretty fun to be learning and taking the experiences as they come. Pinot and chardonnay will always be the passion but there may be the different variety made here and there. What we do know is, it’ll always be Tassie.”

Danger Zone: Cavedon’s 2021 Sparkling ‘Whole Bunch’ Gewürztraminer

The Danger Zone is the only trophy in the awards that goes to a wine: with the criteria being around wild originality, risk and reward – the best, most daring wine.

“Dangerously delicious!” declared awards panellist Nick Stock. “A riot of aromas, flavours and uplifting juicy fruit. Effortless enjoyment in a guise we’d not ever seen; drinking this you wonder why it’s taken this long to discover. We were so seduced by the wine and also by the idea of the wine. There’s genius in playing the inherent qualities of the variety to deliver such great impact.”

“Gorgeous aromatics of Turkish delight and roses, this is a brave endeavour that will delight fans of pét-nat, even though traditionally made,” said panellist Abby Moret. “This is such a wildcard of a wine… Somehow, Cavedon have managed to capture the inherent weight of gewürztraminer, while retaining a freshness and drive that is crucial for this to work. Perfectly balanced, impeccably crafted, this sings in the glass and provides a new, much needed revamp of a classic but out-of-vogue variety – a really exciting wine that calls for friends, picnics and another bottle.”

Pia Cavedon with the Danger Zone trophy for the 2021 Cavedon Sparkling ‘Whole Bunch’ Gewürztraminer.

People’s Choice: Tillie Johnston of Tillie J Wines

The People’s Choice is determined by wine consumers, through a combination of wine sales with the Awards’ retail partner (Finestro) and online voting.

Tillie Johnston’s path to making wine started in the Yarra Valley, then widened into a busy global arc, but was always tracking back to where she started. Johnston now tends to a leased block of pinot noir vines, launching her eponymous label from the 2020 vintage with a lone pinot noir, crafted from the ground up to be bright, fruit forward and handled lightly in the winery. In 2021, a chardonnay entered the portfolio, which was unsurprising given it is arguably the region’s star variety. Vintage ’22 saw a rosé added, plus a Langhorne Creek Project grenache.

“I have always dreamed of returning home to the Yarra Valley and starting my own wine label,” says Johnston. “Throughout my travels I have always found myself working in regions of similar climate, so that I might one day return home and apply all the wonderful skills I have learned.

“…I am really into crafting and creating. Whether it’s making a meal from scratch or planting a new garden bed in the backyard, I like to put my skills to the test… In five to ten years’ time, I will be running and farming my own vines. I will specialise in pinot noir and chardonnay in the Yarra Valley and will continue to make wines that my family and I love to drink.”

Above and opposite: Tillie J at work in the vineyard, and with her People’s Choice. “The People’s Choice Award is just the ultimate nod from the people that matter the most. You, the consumer,” she said afterwards. “Winning this award has just fuelled the fire to make more delicious wine into the future, look out! Thank you for all your votes and for enjoying, sharing, talking about and recommending my wine at some point. You’re amazing!”

Winemaker’s Choice: Keira O’Brien of Rivulet Wines

The Winemaker’s Choice is voted on by the winemaker finalists, after meeting to taste each other’s wines.

Keira O’Brien started Rivulet Wines in part to attempt to save Tasmania’s oldest commercial riesling planting and in part to express her sense of creativity, which was being stifled in her contract-winemaking day job. The portfolio has ebbed and flowed, with availability of the right fruit a key driver in her range. In 2022, she became the winemaker at the iconic east coast vineyard Freycinet, juggling her brand and one of Tasmania’s most vaunted. The Rivulet range consists of cross-regional pinot noir and a pair of single site offerings, with a single site chardonnay, barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc and a sylvaner filling the roster of wines, though riesling will come back into the range from the 2023 vintage.

“Rivulet Tasmania is an opportunity to work with fruit that I see as a bit special and tilt the winemaking a little more playfully,” says O’Brien. “It’s small-scale stuff, and the name is a bit of a riff on that – tiny trickles of wine, rivulets of sweat on the brow. As I drove around the vineyards in Tasmania, I noticed there are no creeks signposted here, but so many rivulets. I liked the shape of the word and the fittingness of their meanderings with my own journey to wine.”

Opposite: Keira O'Brien with the Winemaker’s Choice trophy. Above: Nick Dugmore with the Vigneron trophy.

The Vigneron: Nick Dugmore of Stoke Wines

The Vigneron goes to a winemaker who grows the grapes from which the wines come. “Provenance and how wine is grown is where it all begins,” said Young Gun founder Rory Kent. “As winemakers frequently say, ‘Great wine is made in the vineyard.’”

The Stoke brand is a tribute to the largely untapped potential of Kangaroo Island as a premium wine-growing region. Nick Dugmore makes wines that are expressive of the relatively cool, wind-swept vineyards of KI, with a focus on lighter to midweight styles with food and conviviality in mind. The leased Cassini Vineyard now provides the bulk of the fruit for the label, with Dugmore farming the site regeneratively.

“We promote wine first, then our region, and then what we do personally,” says Dugmore. “We aim to make wines that reflect their place, always minimal intervention after a huge focus on quality in the vineyard. …Farming grapes is a long game, and we’re prepared to put the work in now to be able to work with quality fruit in the long term.

“All our wines are made to suit the Kangaroo Island lifestyle – the land of bare feet and salty skin. … Ultimately, we want the wines to be an expression of the beautiful, wild place that is Kangaroo Island.”

Above: finalist Jordan Hein shares the wine love at the dinner event. Opposite: Nick Dugmore on his victory lap around the room upon announcement of the Vigneron trophy.

Stock concluded: “The collective spirit of the Young Gun of Wine community has never been stronger. These individuals are collectively the future of Australian wine and there was a genuine sense of propriety, excitement and pride in the room last night. Immense collective achievements peppered with individual recognition. Strength in numbers.”

The Young Gun of Wine Awards is presented with thanks to Amorim Cork, Cornershop design, Finestro online cellar doors, Liebherr wine cabinets, Nexia Australia accountants, Sanector wine services, WBM magazine, Wine Guns for Hire and Vintrace software.

Next year will be the Young Gun of Wine Awards 18th Birthday… we’ll finally be of drinking age!

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