Starting out is not always easy for a new wine project, with some makers taking years before taking the solo leap, while others tumble in headfirst with limited experience but a firm vision and a whole lot of chutzpah. Amongst the new labels in the YGOW Awards 2021 Top 50, Aaron Fenwick (Château Comme Ci, Comme Ça), Louis Schofield (Worlds Apart Wines), Sven Joschke (Sven Joschke Wines), Natillie Johnston (Tillie J) and Gabe O’Brien (Cavedon) are all making quite the splash.
(Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.)
“I asked Pete: ‘how do I get started making my own wine?’ His response: ‘Stop being such a $%^& and just do it’. Best advice I ever received.”
Sven Joschke had an epiphany. While in his backyard, tending to the vegetable patch, glass of Beaujolais in hand, it struck him that he needed to work outside, not in an office, and wine had to be part of the picture. He then ditched a career as a Chartered Accountant for the uncertainty of working in wine. A couple of weeks later, he was in the Barossa receiving the first fruit of his winemaking career alongside Jason Schwarz and Pete Schell at their shared winery in Tanunda, with the first wines for his eponymous label made soon after.
“I started working at the Biscay Rd shed in 2018 and produced my own wine that vintage as well,” says Joschke. “It was a steep learning curve to say the least, but a beautiful one. Two weeks in, I asked Pete: ‘how do I get started making my own wine?’ His response: ‘Stop being such a $%^& and just do it’. Best advice I ever received.”
That’s about as a quick an ascent as there is, but Joschke believes that going all in when you are genuinely inspired is not a risk, it’s just fate. “Scared is a pretty good descriptor,” he says, “but I just brushed it off for the love of wine. There was a lot of doubt, of course, but it was quickly overshadowed by passion, enthusiasm and comradery amongst the boys in the shed.”
Louis Schofield also came from another career, before starting Wolds Apart Wines, also skipping the university oenology step. His background, though, is a little more closely aligned than accountancy. “I worked in fine wine retail for six years and was exposed to a LOT of great wine, through generous customers and a really good culture of sharing and exploring wine,” he says.
“Eventually it came time to branch out and get some experience in other parts of the wine world, I did a vintage, then five more, at Ochota Barrels, and a vintage with Maynard James Keenan at Caduceus Cellars in Arizona. Then I worked as a sommelier for Jock Zonfrillo. I worked as a wine rep, selling beautiful wines made by great people to the Adelaide trade. And a bunch of other stuff too…”
That wide-ranging survey gave Schofield some practical experience, but perhaps more importantly it allowed him to settle on the kind of wines he truly wanted to make, and the kind of wines that he thought would work for an increasingly adventurous wine drinking public. This direction was important for him. Turning out another label – just adding to the noise but not contributing something meaningful – was never going to be enough.
“I always said there was enough shitty wine in the world without me making it too,” says Schofield, “but Taras Ochota, who taught me how to make wine, gave me the confidence: ‘I know you’re gonna drop my name to help you sell it, so we just have to make sure it’s fuck’n good’ That was in 2017, and I only made a couple of barrels for the first three years till I thought I could do it well enough to start making a bit more.”
Aaron Fenwick is another Adelaide Hills maker that transitioned from front of house to walking the vine rows. He had a somewhat glittering hospitality career, including running the floor at the legendary Penfolds Magill Estate Restaurant and the lauded Orana, before he opened The Summertown Aristologist in partnership with winemakers Anton van Klopper (Lucy Margaux) and Jasper Button (Commune of Buttons).
“I started making a few barrels while working in the restaurant,” says Fenwick, “but as my relationship with Anton grew from that, he needed another person to help push things on the farm. Now we have planted over 6,000 vines in the last two years. That opportunity to jump into that side of the wine world, and to make a lot more volume of wine was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.”
Taking to the viticulture side of things, Fenwick restructured the restaurant over nine months so that he could “work on the business, rather than in it” with his days spent amongst the vines, farming organically. His first wines came in 2017, but it was with the 2019 vintage that he felt everything truly come together.
“The way the wines turned out, and the enthusiasm for them, made me realise that this is where I want to focus more of my energy,” he says. “There’s such an amazing energy up here in the Basket Range and surrounding hills, with the tight-knit wine community that we’re a part of, and how people are evolving and challenging themselves. It’s just too exciting not to be a part of.”
That connection is a critical one for Fenwick, both with Hills makers and those outside geographically but philosophically aligned, including pioneers of the natural winemaking movement in this country. Tom Shobbrook (Shobbrook) is one that he says, along with Van Klopper, is pushing as hard as he did when he first started, if not harder.
“I get to have some really beautiful conversations with people like Tom,” says Fenwick, “James Erskine [Jauma] and Alex Schulkin [The Other Right], and obviously Jasper and Anton all the time. These are really inspirational winemakers that have moulded the landscape of Australian wine. I have to pinch myself sometimes.”
In Victoria’s Yarra Valley Natillie Johnston followed a more familiar path, with postgraduate degrees in winemaking and viticulture, then a thorough working tour with some great producers around Australia, as well as in Canada, New Zealand, Germany and the US. On her return to the Yarra, a project to give young makers a start caught her attention, with her Tillie J label started with that first pinot noir in 2019.
“When I returned from a four-year stint away,” she says, “I was chatting to a friend who mentioned an urban winery in Healseville was opening their doors and inviting a select enthusiastic few to participate in their Young Winemaker Program. This opened the doors for me to start my own label in a nurturing environment, which would cover everything from the winemaking to admin and sales. This seemed like an ideal opportunity to take my dreams to fruition!”
That kickstart saw Johnston dive in deep, taking on the lease for a section of the highly regarded Yarraloch vineyard to ensure she had control of her wine from the ground to the shelf. And that’s something she believes small makers need to give equal weight to, from growing and making to label design and packaging to marketing and sales to making sure the numbers are right for the business to succeed. But she stresses all that work is worth it.
“I feel extremely proud to have my wine out there on shelves and in the hospitality space,” says Johnston. “Having this wine label allows me to squeeze every drop of knowledge I have collected along my journey to date in to one neat little bottle and play with techniques in the winery and the vineyard that give my wine a point of difference and make it uniquely Tillie J. It’s such a privilege to sit on a shelf alongside folks who have been my inspiration.”
When Gabe O’Brien and Pia Cavedon moved to her father’s (Dino Cavedon) vineyard to take over the viticulture, a label wasn’t far off, though it didn’t start out that way. “During the 80s,” says O’Brien, “Dino experimented a lot with making small batches of pinot noir for himself but never had the time away to pursue a wine label. Many conversations had been had with Dino over the years, boasting about how grouse some of his wines were. So, between my interest and trying to get Dino to live up to his boasting, one of the first wines we made was unsurprisingly a pinot.”
That wine wasn’t meant for commercial release, rather intended for persona consumption, but O’Brien over-catered somewhat. “We had no real plans to start our own wine label,” he says. “I had planned on making a barrel of pinot noir, but I got a little carried away and ended picking over 4 tonnes. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but later came to realise it was a substantial volume of wine to start off with.”
O’Brien was short on winemaking experience at the time, relying on textbooks and bending the ear of local makers for help, as well as borrowing equipment, but the results were encouraging. “After giving the wine some time in barrel, we realised, potentially by pure fluke, that we had come up with a pretty exceptional King Valley pinot noir. We were then faced with the problem of what we were going to do with the ten barrels, so it was at about this point when we first began to think seriously about starting a wine label.”
O’Brien notes, though, that the winemaking became the easier part. “Initially, most of the focus was on the quality of the wine. However, you soon discover that the winemaking side of the business is the easy part. There’s a huge amount of time spent researching and agonising over every little aspect and detail that goes into starting a new wine label that you don’t necessarily anticipate.”
However, that side of the business was not such a challenge for Schofield. “For me, the selling and marketing of it has been pretty easy, cos that’s what I had experience in. I think the important thing to remember is don’t make too much. If you think you can sell 100 cases, make 95. I feel a winemaker is a trade, like a carpenter or a chef or a boilermaker. Some people are good at their trade but maybe aren’t great at running a business and marketing themselves. Also, sometimes the stress of running a business might distract you from the important thing – the quality of your work. But if you can get the balance right, it can be good to be your own boss. I’m basically unemployable anyway, that’s why I had to go do it myself!”
For McLaren Vale, this is picked pretty early, ending up at 11.5% alcohol, with the fruit fermented as whole bunches, making a super-bright style, with wild red berries, rosehip tea, redcurrant jelly, flashes of dried mint and tart red apples. The wine rides on acidity and cool but fine tannins, with some gently earthy notes accenting the vibrant briskness.
There’s an inky, savoury darkness to this, both in colour and flavour profile, leaning on dark fruits with salted bitter chocolate notes, but that’s not to say it’s heavy in any way, with the alcohol sitting at a modest 12.9%. That depth is no doubt coming part due to the old vines that this comes from, but there’s plenty of complexity added by a 100 per cent whole bunch ferment, which never looks stemmy, rather adding layers of peppery spice, star anise, sarsaparilla and a pithy chew to the assertive tannin profile.
This is brightly fruited and lifted with notes of grapefruit, stone fruit kernel, lemon pith and golden apples, along with some orchard blossom notes. There’s ripeness and fruit intensity at a modest 12% alcohol, with a vibrant seam of cool climate acidity sheathed in neatly handled lees, making this a wine of both gently pleasing texture and driving freshness, and seamlessly so.
Lifting from the glass with notes of cherries and wild red berries, with a shading of spice, minerals and a gentle smoky char, this is vibrant and aromatic, with a beguiling fragrance that is equal parts complex and approachable. That theme continues on the palate with a supple play of structure and texture, with some buttery pastry notes, making this ever-so immediate, but there’s more there, too, with detailed flavour elegantly cascading through the long finish, a fine web of tannins neatening up at the end.
Dusty, hazy pink in appearance, this has lifted skinsy pinot gris notes of red berries, blood orange, talc and Turkish delight with a graphite-like mineral feel. There’s a pithy furry tannin feel to this, with lightly soapy – in a good way – slip to the mid-palate, with that blood orange joined by a little pink grapefruit and dried raspberry. This is textural, but light dry and uber refreshing, and with a gentle, joyful spritz.
This has a bright lift of vibrant red fruits, currants, graphite and woody herbs, intense yet bursting with freshness. This has only spent a few days on skins before being pressed to barrel, so while it’s picked up a bit of colour, the palate rests less on tannin, with the cool ripeness of the fruit – only 11.5% alcohol – suspended on a rail of mineral-like natural acid.
From the Bowe Lees Vineyard in Woodside, Adelaide Hills, this is full in its expression, with yellow stone fruit, citrus and golden apples, along with plenty of classic chardonnay winemaking elements – creamy and leesy barrel notes, a decent flash of charry oak and a plush texture, given more pithy interest and flavour from an un-fined/unfiltered feel.
The riesling landscape has become somewhat richer in the last little while, with a wealth of wines that combine electric acidity with balancing deposits of sugar. It’s a very exciting category, one that produces wines that are seductive in their youth and can age astonishingly well, as well as pairing with myriad cuisines.
Gamay is not widely or heavily planted in Australia, but it is quite the buzz variety, with progressive winemakers, both established and newly minted, pursuing the variety with great vigour. There are more plantings coming online over the next few years, with the Adelaide Hills, Tasmania, Gippsland, the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and pockets of North-Eastern Victoria, amongst others, all fielding more representatives soon.
In the 40s and 50s, one of Australia’s legendary winemakers made arguably some of our greatest and most enduring wines pairing pinot noir and shiraz. Today, there is a renewed interest in the blend, and makers from the staunchly traditional to the restlessly creative are getting on board.