Alex Sherrah’s career path was not always headed down the wine path, but his organic chemistry degree was useful as a building block to complete a winemaking diploma. That was after a vintage in McLaren Vale in the early 2000s that saw him fall for the work and the people. A practical apprenticeship for the next decade and a half followed, with his Sherrah label lunched in 2017. Today, his focus is firmly Vale-centric, with both familiar varieties and those emerging getting equal airtime, while expressions range from elegant takes on the classics to a skinsy white, pét-nat and zero-sulphur red.
“Wine to me is not about tasting blackcurrant and cigar box but how the wine ‘feels’ to drink,” says Sherrah. “I believe in balance; a great wine should have no sharp edges – it should have beautiful smooth curves from front to back. My wines are a culmination of my experience in the industry which now enables a heavy dose of gut instinct …They are my interpretation of the variety, style or vineyard.”
Today, Sherrah is the winemaker for Haselgrove Wines, which produce estate wines but also acts as an important contract winemaking facility in the Vale. That allows him total control over his production working his day job, while on the sales side he shares a “quaint little cellar door” with Vale stars Bondar and Lino Ramble on McMurtrie Road.
His own Sherrah label was launched in 2017 with four wines from the 2016 vintage. “I took the leap with a great friend of mine who was in sales and marketing of wine,” he says. “I’d make it, and he’d sell it – perfect combo! We would do it as a side hustle to our day jobs, use it to fund a few fun trips around the place together and basically have a ball doing the things we loved doing for others, but for ourselves. In an ideal world we would grow it into our main gig.”
From an investment of a few thousand each, the business has grown to about 4,000 cases. “John very sadly passed away all too early at the end of 2018, nearly three years after we started the brand,” says Sherrah. “Unfortunately, he did not see it grow into the brand and success it has become. Liz, my beautiful wife, has been there since to support me in keeping the brand going, and she is now an integral – if not slightly reluctant – part of it.”
A degree in organic chemistry and pharmacology was where Sherrah started out on his career, with no clear plan on how to use the qualification. It did, however, give him the leg up to complete a post-graduate diploma in winemaking after a vintage at Tatachilla with what he describes as a “Vale roll call of ratbags” making him fall in love with the process.
“I’m making wine primarily because I fell in love with the people and the industry,” Sherrah says. “An actual love and appreciation of the product came later. I’m trying to make technically sound wines with structure and balance and importantly interest. It does not take much ‘intervention’ to make great wines, just some experience, thought and care.”
Working for eight years in the Clare Valley, at Knappstein and O’Leary Walker, Sherrah has also worked in California at Kendall Jackson’s Cardinale, as well as vintage stints in Burgundy and Austria. “When an opportunity to join Coriole’s team presented itself, I jumped at it and we haven’t looked back,” he says. “I love the Vale; we have Adelaide 40 minutes away, yet we get to live in a rural setting. The beaches are world class, and we are also spoiled with some of SA’s best restaurants and wine bars.”
Sourcing from the same growers each year, Sherrah’s aim is to showcase the varieties that he believes are best suited to McLaren Vale, which he describes as having one of the best viticultural climates in Australia. “Moderate temperatures, warm dry summers, mild winters, and the ocean acts as a huge heat sink regulating our temperatures. We have very low rainfall and therefore next to no humidity, giving us very little disease risk. I have been known to constantly refer to the Vale as ‘god’s country’ – it’s truly one of the finest places to grow grapes in the world.”
Working with McLaren Vale’s historic strengths, shiraz and grenache, Sherrah also focuses on the emerging varieties that are making significant inroads in the region, namely fiano and nero d’avola, along with the resurgent chenin blanc. His making veers from classic to modern yet sympathetic methods, while he also makes a preservative-free wine, a pét-nat and a skinsy fiano. “Experimentation with skin contact fiano has been a massive personal win; it started small as a blending component of my fiano, and it has now morphed into its own product, the ‘Skin Party’, which really shows the lovely complexity.”
Sherrah credits his time at Coriole with helping understand the intricacies of the region and how different grapes perform across it, working with about 17 different varieties. “This was invaluable in forming my own opinions about which varieties are best suited to our climate and geologies, and which ones probably didn’t work so well. Mark Lloyd was an amazing example of someone who was not scared to think outside the box and try different things.”
Learning from what he describes as “some very technical and learned mentors”, Sherrah says that he has seen many different approaches. “All my wines are technically made but with a light touch, if that makes sense,” he says. “I have seen the different sides of winemaking. The old-school fining-based finishing, and the more progressive and obvious idea of getting it right to begin with, thus requiring no fining. It is completely wanky but if you make a wine properly to begin with you don’t have to muck around with it later.”
Sherrah is pretty clear about his family’s future, with feet firmly planted in the vale, and his label only using fruit from the region. “In my dreams, I see a little winery with a cellar door and hopefully one of my good mates pumping out some delicious food for the punters to enjoy. My trusty hound and assistant Pip, the border collie/kelpie, will still be by my side and chasing bungs. I’m not aiming for huge expansion, but a Wendouree-style mailing list would be pretty good!”