Grant Burge, the Quiet Achiever

Imagine you’re a winemaker, proudly based in the Barossa Valley, and you want to expand by producing popular grape varieties that don’t grow well in the Barossa. Sauvignon blanc and pinot noir are the big growth varieties in question, so Grant Burge’s answer is to source them from New Zealand: both are from Marlborough. The brand-name is Drift. So successful has the sauvignon been that Burge expects it to be among the top 10 selling sauvignon blancs in Australia by next year. Drift sauvignon blanc (tasting) is $15 and pinot noir $25 (tasting), and neither of them mentions the name Grant Burge anywhere on the label. Burge reasons that his name is so closely associated with the Barossa, it should only appear on Barossa wines.

Burge has done all this without fanfare. He is one of our quiet achievers. Many observers will be surprised to know that he’s doubled the turnover of his Grant Burge branded wines (tastings) in the last five years – at a time of great difficulty in the wine market. This of course doesn’t include the Kiwi wines. The big movers are Burge’s mid-priced Barossa Vines wines, priced around $15, and the $40 Filsell Shiraz (tastings), sourced from the same old vines at Lyndoch as Meshach (tastings), his flagship $155 Barossa shiraz (tastings).

Burge reckons Filsell is his best value for money wine. “It’s a third the price of Meshach, but it’s not a third of the quality.” The current release 2009, reviewed in these pages on August 30, recently won the judges’ shiraz award at the InterContinental/Advertiser South Australian Wine Awards.

Meshach is Burge’s most concentrated, powerful and complex shiraz. It’s a blockbuster which ages well, but it’s never been an over-the-top style. It never hits the extremes of alcohol of some of its compatriots, but holds its structure and balance.

The 2011 Barossa vintage was very difficult due to the rain, but there will be a 2011 Meshach. In other words, there was more top shiraz harvested at Grant Burge in 2011 than in either 2007 or 1997, which are the only years since 1990 that a Meshach hasn’t been issued.

Burge professes to be happy with the vintage, widely deemed the worst in the Barossa since 1974. “My winemaker Craig Stansborough reckons the cabernet is the best he’s ever seen,” says Burge. The cabernet did well because it has thick skins, and is more resistant to moulds and mildews than shiraz or grenache. And Barossa cabernet makes its best wine in cool seasons – the region being probably too warm for great cabernet most years – and 2011 was cool. Shadrach is a Barossa/Eden Valley blend these days and the ’11 will be mostly Barossa floor, where Burge says the cabernet is dark and berry-like, as good as he’s ever seen.

What went wrong for the region in 2011, says Burge, is that some grapegrowers didn’t spray at the right times – and they needed to apply far more sprays than in a normal season: about 12 and up to 16 times. Some couldn’t afford the cost of all that expensive chemical, and some tried to skimp, with disastrous results. “We sprayed everything at least twice as much as I’ve ever sprayed before.” But the payoff came in plenty of sound fruit.

Burge is in a good position to control his fruit quality, as he grows most of his own grapes. He owns no less than 300 hectares of vineyards. On the other hand, he has very few growers. His stepson Toby Mifflin is in charge of the vineyards – reporting to Grant of course.

Burge recently sold his former cellar door sales building, on Jacob’s Creek, to Orlando. “They’d been wanting to buy it for years,” he says. It makes sense for them because it adjoins the property where they built their new cellar door, the Jacob’s Creek Visitors Centre, a few years ago.

It didn’t make sense that Grant Burge Wines was running three cellar doors – at the Illaparra winery in Tanunda (formerly Basedows), Jacob’s Creek and Krondorf – so he will cut back to two and fix up the Krondorf winery, which he says desperately needed renovation anyway.

Burge makes wine in two wineries: whites at Krondorf and reds and fortifieds at Illaparra. He sells a vast amount of fortified wine through Illaparra, and anyone who drives through Tanunda has seen the sandwich board outside, advertising bulk port for sale. Grapegrowers still bring their flagons and demijohns to have them refilled. Burge reckons his fortified wine sales are very healthy – partly because “everyone else except Seppeltsfield and McWilliams have basically abandoned it”.

But that’s Grant Burge for you, a great survivor and opportunist. Way back when Mildara under Ray King was selling all its vineyards, Burge was buying them – inexpensively – and building his formidable land-holding. Now he’s sitting pretty.

Another piece of the jigsaw that enables Burge to be doing well at a time when many others aren’t is that he’s separated his wholesale activities. Sydney wholesaler Young & Rashleigh sells to the restaurant trade, while Grant Burge Wines has built its own sales force to handle the retail trade, warehousing with ALM.

Burge was managing the retail side from the Barossa, until he had the good fortune to hire Brian McGrath, a former Orlando man living in Sydney. “Brian convinced me to set up my own sales force in NSW which he now manages, and it works beautifully.” To complete the team, he hired Nick Doumanis as sales director, based in Sydney, who “has the advantage of coming from a non-wine background and looks at everything with a fresh set of eyes”.

“The Grant Burge brand is as big as Peter Lehmann now,” he says proudly.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 27 September 2011.


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