Alex Beckett started in the wine industry fresh from school as a means of putting himself through university. But falling for the industry and its people led him to shift his studies to winemaking, along with a head-first immersion into the wines of the world, with a lengthy stint in fine-wine shops giving him a global perspective. A swift rise to becoming the winemaker at Pokolbin star Briar Ridge in 2018 now seems him overseeing the making of classic, regional wines alongside emerging varieties, with both the traditional and the experimental treated with the same curiosity to make even more pure, subtle, layered and textured expressions.
“We are a winery focussed on pushing boundaries and constantly improving and evolving what we do,” says Beckett. “We use a range of vessels, from various oak forests around the world to terracotta and clay in various sizes. Many of our wines are un-fined and some unfiltered. We have changed bottles in recent years for a higher recyclability percentage and we are constantly evaluating our packaging choices.
A Hunter Valley native, Alex Beckett skipped from high school straight to the wine industry, starting his working life at Drayton’s Family Wines, Pokolbin, alongside his best friend from school. A stint in the cellar door at Tyrrell’s followed, with seasonal vineyard work supplementing his income.
To begin with, that work was dabbling, a means of support while he was completing an applied linguistics degree, but, as it so often does, the wine industry bit deep and it held its grip. The University of Adelaide wine science course followed, with the four years of study and practical experience shadowed by another kind of apprenticeship at two legendary Adelaide wine retailers – Edinburgh Cellars and East End Cellars – learning about the benchmark wines of the world.
In 2016, Beckett returned home for vintage at Briar Ridge and Pepper Tree Wines. He was awarded a Sydney Wine Show Scholarship the same year, along with completing his WSET Diploma and being offered an assistant winemaker role at Briar Ridge. Two short years later he was the winemaker in his own right. Continuing his education by joining the Master of Wine program in 2020, he also received the 2021 Alasdair Sutherland Scholarship from the Hunter Valley Wine Industry Association.
Becket makes the Briar Ridge Wines at Pepper Tree Wines, with both being owned by the Davis family. The range trips through the Hunter Classics – including a homage series to the great Karl Stockhausen, former maker of some of Lindeman’s greatest wines and the Briar Ridge winemaker until he retired – with semillon and shiraz taking the lead, along with a pinot and shiraz blend, an ode to the great Maurice O’Shea.
But Briar Ridge is more broad ranging, with fruit also coming from Orange and South Australia’s Wrattonbully, along with a solid push into emerging varieties. “I see us building on our growing success for alternative white varieties such as albariño and fiano,” says Beckett. “We don’t aspire to be a large company. And we believe the best wines are from unique small plots, so our wine volumes lack the ability to increase. As younger vines come of age, we will hopefully be able to keep up with the demand as well as continuing to experiment with growing the vines.”
Barbera and tempranillo also feature in the mix, but there is no set playbook with the classic varieties either, with Becket having complete creative control over their direction. He says that this starts in the vineyard, where he works collaboratively with the vineyard manager, Belinda Kelly. That has seen a reduction in chemical use and a targeted approach for nutrition, water and other management through precision agricultural technology.
“Collectively, we have been working towards drastically changing the way we farm semillon,” says Beckett. “From a complete overhaul to our training system, through to precision shoot thinning followed by bunch thinning and strategic leaf plucking, we have begun to see significant improvements in flavour development at lower alcohol potentials. This is in combination with multiple harvest passes ensures we are building flavour complexity through rigorous bunch selection.”
Becket says that he makes all his winemaking decisions with the aim of achieving restraint, elegance and purity of fruit flavour, while also “embracing texture from gentle phenolic extraction as well as lees contact”, which he also employs for their preservative effects to reduce sulphur adds to finish the wines. “My focus as a winemaker is about crafting a unique perspective on the classic styles of our region to add value and show the diversity of expression that we are capable of,” he says.
“To make these wines is really about the slow process of studying the site over years… I learnt early on that ultimately you achieve far more by doing far less. I think you can see this most demonstrably through our fiano bottlings; the early vintages were savoury complex and full of winemaking artifact but over time they have evolved to be far less overt with a food-focused texture.”
Beckett’s approach is very much one that embraces history and progress in the one philosophy, with a constant quest for knowledge. “We are multi-faceted region with so many exciting developments, and I’m excited to be able to share what’s possible in our landscape,” says Beckett. “The Hunter Valley is Australia’s oldest wine region; it’s home to unique old clones and vineyards, diverse soils, altitudes and importantly wines which are unique. I love working in a region that makes styles recognised around the world for their longevity, complexity and distinctive character.”