|It’s an acceptable influence in almost every aspect of our lives – the friends we make, the careers we choose, the cars we drive and the clothes we wear. But when it comes to wine, the influence of the winemaker’s personality is rarely discussed. Campbell Mattinson ventures out to see just how much the winemaker’s personality affects the wines they make.Sometimes you just get lucky. There I was lapping at a glass of Dalwhinnie shiraz, a wine I had never experienced before and, damn it, a quality I had never before encountered. It was just – oh, I was raving, I was mad, I just had to babble – as a wine, it gleamed, it beamed, it careened. It wasn’t just that it tasted clean and juicy and lusciously black-berried – more, it was polished. And bold. And rounded. It was a wine completely in tune with the environment of wine, and of drinking, and of absolute, alcoholic, hedonistic transport.
Ba-boom. Something clicked.
You see, whenever we talk about art or sport or fashion or fame or who’s knifing who in parliament or who’s getting laid or who, thank god, isn’t – we always factor in attitude, personality, charisma; the driving creative force that sucks it all in and forces it all out in a purely individual way; into a feat or an action or a dress or a great roaring song or immigration policy or whatever.
With wine though – the most romantic, the most everyday, the most savoured and reckless and brilliant of all nature’s displays – we reduce it to just that: nature. We talk about vintage. About sun and ripening. About frost. Hail. Drought. Rain. Bushfire. Even wind. It sometimes sounds like a goddamn Greenpeace rally.
And when we’re done talking about that, we mention wood; how new the oak barrels were or how long we let the wine curl up inside those sweet, tight barrels – if we’re being really generous we might mention, indeed, the winemaker’s name. And that’s it.
What about how the winemaker’s personality came together with all that rain and heat and stress and constant staring at the sky and staring into the dark green foliage like they’re expecting a team of old winemakers to come drifting out – what about whether the winemaker’s personal life was in turmoil or if he/she had just bought a new sportscar and was feeling really daring or – any number of possibilities. Is all this talk of vintage, even the whole idea of vintage ratings for entire regions, really just trainspotting gone mad?
It’s a point that people new to wine often ponder – and like a lot of things, it’s people not clouded by too much knowledge who see the clearest. I know someone who had the same experience that I had with Dalwhinnie, but at a New Zealand winery: “I met this bloke in NZ (from Neudorf wines), Tim Finn (no, not him). A really quiet, stylish, refined, gentlemanly sort. And his wines were, you know how they say, ‘more European’ – more refined … like him.”
When you think about it, it’s one of the main reasons why, when you travel around a wine region tasting a whole heap of, say, cabernets, you find a pile that you hate and a quite a few that you like – but, possibly, for different reasons. In some ways, the style of the winemaker drills directly into the style of the wine, and can be responsible for that difference.
No one illustrates this better than Gary Farr at Bannockburn vineyards near Geelong. Here’s a winemaker who almost transcends his wine region. His wines are Gary Farr wines, and that’s that (which basically means wonderfully flavoured, complex wines: at their best, wines that swoosh and duckdive in all sorts of wonderfully aromatic ways). As if to prove this point, the heavens opened up and destroyed almost the entire Bannockburn crop in 1998, only to be replaced by the immense generosity of Australia’s leading wineries – who trucked in donated parcels of their best fruit for Gary to play with. The result is the 1998 range of Bannockburn wines; while there’s a lot of Barossa and Coonawarra fruit in them, the wines still taste distinctly Bannockburn. Distinctly Gary Farr.
It’s a point that Judi Cullam, of Frankland Estate in WA, won’t dispute. A stylish, thoughtful woman who makes stylish, thoughtful wines, Judi says: “I meet a winemaker and love their passion and feeling and gentleness, and I know before tasting that their wine is the same and vice versa. I taste and know the person who made this wine has soul.”
So, if you get a batch of ripe grapes and give them to ten different winemakers, you’d get ten different wines?
Vicky-Louise Bartier (a sensation at semillon, among other grapes) at Yunbar Estate in SA leaves no room for doubt. “You could give the same parcel of grapes to 1000 different winemakers and always produce a different wine. It is just that some are more different than others.
Mandy Jones, of Jones Winery in Rutherglen, thinks the same. “Winemaking is a craft, and we as craftspeople exert our craft in different ways – and yeah, personality comes into that – especially with varieties like riesling and pinot noir, which lend themselves more to manipulation in the winery.”
Mandy makes another point: if the winemaker can have a say in when the grapes are picked, then you’ll really see the differences. How ripe the winemaker chooses to pick them at will ultimately have a dramatic effect on the wines – and this decision often comes down to the personal tastes of the winemaker. Or even the personal mood of the winemaker. Mandy says: “If you’re feeling in a carefree mood, or uptight, or indecisive – for whatever reason – it could affect the decisions you make.”
The idea that some grape varieties allow more of the winemaker’s personality to show through is one supported by Blair Walter at Felton Road in NZ: some just respond more to winemaking techniques and pinot noir is the classic example of this, he says. “Someone who’s fairly liberal, who’s thinking outside the square, may use wild yeasts and ‘riskier’ European techniques, while someone who’s more conservative will have more of a ‘control freak’ approach.”
Not everyone agrees entirely with all this though – or at least, it can be put into perspective. As Robert Diletti at Castle Rock Estate in WA points out: “I have a quiet and somewhat reserved personality, and I am sure that you can apply that to Castle Rock Estate wines. However, while our wines are on the elegant side of things, to be honest this is due to our cooler climate more than anything. I am a great believer that wine quality is made in the vineyard and winemakers generally can only really change the wine style.”