Bart van Olphen Chalmers
Bart van Olphen got lodged in Australia after a one-off vintage gig in McLaren Vale turned into an eight-year stint, before dropping anchor in Murray Darling, specialising in growing and making Italian varieties at Chalmers. He works across the main Chalmers range – including vermentino, fiano, greco, aglianico and sagrantino – as well as the everyday Montevecchio wines and the small-batch Dott. and Chalmers Project labels, which focus on less-familiar varieties, like schioppettino, piedirosso, grechetto and pecorino. The Arturo and Le Sorelle labels, which employ non-Italian grapes, round out the portfolio.
Van Olphen had been to South Australia before as an exchange student, from the Netherlands, when he was 18, but since had been diverted from an agriculture degree across to viticulture. That led to work and study in the Pfalz, in Germany, followed by winemaking roles in Michigan, USA, before that vintage job that never stopped. Since 2011, Van Olphen has been based at the Chalmers HQ just outside Mildura. He is deeply involved in both growing, a life-long passion, as well as his role as Chief Winemaker.
That addictive vintage job was at Tinlins on Kangarilla Road, which is perhaps not the winery you’d think would most seduce a visitor. No offence to Tinlins, but on the surface, it’s a producer of bulk wine, and one where you can fill up a 21-litre drum of shiraz, and at very modest prices, with no-one batting an eyelid. It is one of the premier contract producers in the country, which is not that much more romantic. But When Van Olphen landed there, owner Warren Randall (formerly of Seppelt) had Stephen Pannell on the books as head winemaker, and the combination of two of Australia’s most influential winemakers was more than enough to kick on in the role for eight years. Van Olphen also managed vintages in Burgundy and Priorat during his time there, before moving to Mildura in 2011 to take up a role at the Chalmers vineyard.
Chalmers main headquarters is in Merbein, a town just north of Mildura. It’s where their 100-tonne winery is situated, as well as their vine nursery. That nursery has been the lifeblood for growers interested in Italian varieties, with over 50 varieties planted, some for nursery stock and some for production purposes. Bruce Chalmers invested heavily in Italian grapes based on advice by the late Dr Rod Bonfiglioli, believing the diversity in material there would make it an ideal source of grapes suited to Australian conditions. What followed was a deep love affair with Italian grapes, both in the Murray Darling and at their second base in Heathcote. The Heathcote project was led by Bruce’s daughters, Kim (Van Olphen’s wife) and Tennille, where they planted to give better voice to some 25 varieties. The Chalmers sold their original nursery and vineyard, some 600 hectares, in 2008, but sprang up again in 2010 at their current location, with the winery built in 2017.
The vineyards are managed using organic nutrition and fungicide programs and non-residual weed control, and all fruit is hand-picked based on tasting the grapes rather than simply testing them. All the fruit is fermented with ambient yeasts, and fining and filtration are avoided wherever possible. From varietal expressions of familiar and unfamiliar Italian grapes to experimental batches of little-known varieties and techniques, such as skin-contact with white grapes, there is incredible diversity across the Chalmers wines.
“Within these I get to do all sorts of styles. Minimal add, hands-off varietal expressions, co-fermented field blends, traditional styles and unique wines from rare unknown grapes. We are always doing experiments and little collaborations too, so it’s never boring, with new ideas and wines every year,” he says.