Melanie Chester had squeezed an awful lot into her winemaking career when she took the helm at the highly regarded Sutton Grange Winery in 2015, with a wake of accolades and high-quality experience trailing behind her. She was only 26. Since then she has worked tirelessly to further enhance an already stellar reputation built by Gilles Lapalus, expressing the vineyard’s granitic soils with ever more clarity and verve. The wines under the Fairbank imprint tend to the approachable, from a methode ancestrale to a crunchy field blend white to a sangiovese dripping with smashed cherries and wild herbs. While the Estate range includes benchmark textural rosé, viognier and fiano, but is perhaps championed by the intricately spicy, wild-fruited and mineral ‘Estate’ Syrah. Chester was named the People’s Choice of 2018.
It’s all about the site and not the winemaker. That’s the philosophy of Melanie Chester, the winemaker behind Sutton Grange Winery’s two labels: the playful, fruit-forward and approachable Fairbank and the terroir showcase that is the Estate range.
“This place is not about me at all,” Chester says of Sutton Grange Winery. “A big part of my philosophy is that the wines talk of the place and not about things that I do to them.” The place in question, Sutton Grange, sits some 30 km south of Bendigo with 32 hectares of vineyards, including shiraz, cabernet and Italian varieties suited to the Central Victorian climate. The first vines were planted on the property in 1998 after it was identified by local legend Stuart Anderson as an ideal vineyard site. Founding winemaker Gilles Lapalus jumped on board in 2001 and introduced organic and biodynamic farming practices. In 2015, Chester made the move west from Seppelt in the Grampians. It was at Seppelt where the South Australian-raised winemaker fell in love with inland Victorian vineyards. “We have quite similar terroir to the Grampians: granite, inland with warm days and cool nights,” she says of Sutton Grange.
Chester made the Young Gun of Wine Top 50 in 2017. Then, in the 2018 edition of the YGOW Awards, Chester won the People’s Choice, with the 2016 Sutton Grange ‘Estate’ Syrah and the 2017 Fairbank ‘Field Blend’. She believes these wines best represent the two labels. “Fairbank is our nice, bright, spicy, medium-bodied, juicy, slurpy-durpy range, which we get into bottle early,” she explains. “The Estate [range] is all about poise, texture and terroir.” Her Young Gun accolade followed many winemaking accomplishments ticked off at a young age: first harvest at 17, Len Evans scholar at 25 and Gourmet Traveller WINE Young Winemaker of the Year at 26.
After three years at Seppelt, moving to Sutton Grange presented the “right kind of challenge and change” for Chester, as she could be more hands on at the boutique winery. “Up until that point I had spent a good chunk of my career working with Treasury Wine Estates, which was a fantastic ground base for me in terms of learning and exposure to amazing vineyards and incredible winemakers … I was ready to work in a different sized business structure and really missed being a bit more hands on.” Then there are the Sutton Grange vineyards. “The vineyards here are incredible,” Melanie says. “I’m really excited about the early plantings of Italian varieties; fiano, aglianico and sangiovese were planted here in the early 2000s, which was pretty revolutionary for this part of Victoria.”