Australia’s 10 Best Winemakers
August 5, 2014
by Jeni Port
We asked 100 wine experts to decide the country’s top 10 wine producers – and found a male domain has been invaded.
In 2003 we dared to ask the question: who are Australia’s best winemakers?
Who got the pulse racing, the lips smacking in anticipation of not just a wine but something magical and truly uplifting in a glass?
The results showed a mix of old-school, technological brilliance and new wave, with Riesling winemaker extraordinaire John Vickery of Leo Buring fame in first place followed by Petaluma founder Brian Croser and chardonnay master Rick Kinzbrunner of Giaconda.
Today, we revisit the question.
Who are the best living/working winemakers in Australia? We have asked 100 winemakers, wine buyers and sommeliers across the nation and here are the results.
As you will see, a lot has changed in 11 years.
In 2003, there were no women in the top three. There were two in the Top 10 with the highest placing going to Vanya Cullen at number four.
In 2014, three women are now considered among the best winemakers in Australia. Is this a step towards greater recognition in what has been a traditionally male domain? It seems that way.
Eight winemakers (including both ”equal” fourth-place getters) in the 2014 Top 10 represent small wineries where some of the most idiosyncratic and exciting winemaking developments are taking place in Australia.
But it also appears that the role models many winemakers hold dear today are long-time industry stalwarts. Five winemakers in 2014 also appeared in the Top 10 back in 2003.
Gold, Silver and Bronze winners are:
1. LOUISA ROSE Yalumba
Number five: Rick Kinzbrunner of Giaconda Wines, Beechworth.Number five: Rick Kinzbrunner of Giaconda Wines, Beechworth.
To her Barossa Valley winery colleagues she is Lou but to her admirers – and she has legions among her colleagues – she is a “rockstar”, a “leader” and a “great communicator”.
Louisa Rose’s correct title is head of winemaking at Yalumba and the Hill-Smith Family Vineyards but in simpler terms, she is the custodian of both Yalumba tradition and innovation at the 165-year-old winery. It’s a big task but one she has been groomed for since her first vintage at Yalumba in 1992 straight from her wine studies and her parents’ vineyard in the Yarra Valley.
Her gifts as a taster and winemaker have been on display ever since.
She is acknowledged as one of the country’s top riesling makers, the voice of Eden Valley riesling under Yalumba’s Pewsey Vale label. And then there’s viognier. It’s her baby, the wine she is now most closely associated with, simply because Yalumba dared to believe the Rhone Valley white grape had a future in this country.
“She took on the winemaking challenge with gusto,” recalls her mentor, former Yalumba chief winemaker, Brian Walsh. He considers Yalumba is the most influential producer of Viognier in the world today due in large part to her work.
The great Viognier project turned into an often frustrating search for flavor.
“Of all the grape varieties I deal with, Viognier has relatively no flavor until it is ripe,” she explains. “You’ve got to be patient and then one day you’ll taste apricots and honeysuckle (in the grapes). Gorgeous!”
Walsh recruited Rose for her “intelligence” and “practicality” but soon found, he says, a person with a profound work ethic and ability to multi-task. She is not only chief winemaker but farmer, senior wine judge and wine industry representative on many boards and councils. As the chair of the board at the Australian Wine Research Institute, co-chair of the South Australian Wine Industry Council and member of the South Australian Agribusiness Council (among other out-of-hours pursuits) she is one of the most influential winemakers in the country.
— Signature wine? Yalumba The Virgilius Eden Valley viognier $50.
2. JEFFREY GROSSET Jeffrey Grosset Wines
“I would suggest there are few like him,” says Stephanie Toole of her husband, Jeffrey Grosset.
Toole, a winemaker in her own right, acknowledges what everyone who has met the man behind Grosset Wines knows: that he is all consumed by wine.
“People talk about him being focused, disciplined and all of that but I guess until you actually live or work with the person you don’t realise how true that is. I would say very little comes before wine – me and the kids included!”
Grosset is renowned for his remarkable ability to cipher the soils of his Clare Valley home into graceful, thrilling Rieslings. He is enthralled by the grape, and drinkers, in turn, are enchanted by his interpretation of the classic white variety.
A son of the Clare Valley, he was recently inducted as a legend in the inaugural Clare Valley Winemakers’ Hall of Fame. The award acknowledged not only his work as a winemaker but also as one of the leaders of the Valley’s famous winemaker push in 2000, to embrace en masse the screw cap over the cork as the closure for Clare Valley Riesling. The action sparked a screw-cap revolution across Australia and New Zealand.
With his attention to detail and perfectionist ways he is often compared with Australia’s greatest Riesling maker, John Vickery at Leo Buring and Richmond Grove.
Riesling was his first wine and love. It remains thus.
Plus he’s a pretty dab hand at pinot noir and chardonnay, too.
— Signature wine? Grosset Polish Hill riesling $52.
— Jeffrey Grosset’s top winemakers: Iain Riggs (Brokenwood), Louisa Rose, Vanya Cullen.
3. VANYA CULLEN Cullen Wines
Vanya Cullen questions, philosophises, inspires and leads but above all, she is by any standard an outstanding winemaker.
Everything she has done since choosing winemaking over a possible career in music in 1989 (she still possesses a fine singing voice) has been about improving the breed, making a better wine, discovering more about the connection of land and wine and life.
An environmentalist, she pursues biodynamic wine growing and making principles, as espoused by Rudolf Steiner. That means no synthetic chemicals in the ground or on the vines and no additions in winemaking.
“The soils are healthy, the vines are healthy and the fruit’s healthy and that’s what gives us sustainability and quality,” she noted in a 2012 Q&A with Wine-Searcher.
“The role of the winemaker is then to be a custodian of the land – to get that aliveness from the land to the bottle.”
She likes grapes grown in a natural state and is an enthusiastic believer in allowing things to go their own course. She positively loves wild ferments.
“With Chardonnay, it gives the wine an extra dimension,” she contends. “They’re kind of mystery characters. I can’t really define them, it’s a subtleness and mouthfeel.”
Her Kevin John chardonnay, named after her late father, a general practitioner and author of the world-famous Busselton Health Study (one of the first to highlight the link between reduction in heart disease and moderate drinking) is the epitome of the Margaret River style: warm and round with intensity of fruit but also surprisingly fine in structure.
Cullen looks to four essential ingredients in Chardonnay grapes before picking. “The point at which I am happiest,” she says, “is when I can taste that dusty, lemon-sherbet flavour, a little bit of cut pear, dried pear and fig.”
Like her mother, the late winemaker and environmentalist Di Cullen, Vanya Cullen has a courageous spirit. Her take on the classic Margaret River red grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, is fittingly named Diana Madeline in her mother’s honor.
It is easily one of the best reds in Australia: a seamless entity of subtle power and endless complexity.
A little like its maker.
— Signature wine? Cullen Diana Madeline Cabernet Merlot $130.
— Vanya Cullen’s top winemakers: Louisa Rose, Jeffrey Grosset, Nick Farr.
The Top 10
1. Louisa Rose Yalumba Wines (Barossa Valley)
2. Jeffrey Grosset Jeffrey Grosset Wines (Clare Valley)
3. Vanya Cullen Cullen Wines (Margaret River)
Equal 4: Tom Carson Yabby Lake and Heathcote Estate (Mornington Peninsula/Heathcote); Stephen Pannell S.C. Pannell Wines (McLaren Vale)
5. Rick Kinzbrunner Giaconda Wines (Beechworth)
6. Tim Kirk Clonakilla Wines (Canberra)
Equal 7. Ed Carr Accolade Group (SA-based); Stephen Henschke Henschke Wines (Eden Valley)
8. Phillip Jones Bass Phillip Wines (South Gippsland)
9. Virginia Willcock Vasse Felix (Margaret River)
10. Larry Cherubino Larry Cherubino Wines (WA-based)