Perfection bottled: Winemaker awards

A new award for the Viticulturist of the Year was added to the 16th annual Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine 2013 Winemaker of the Year awards.

It went to Ray Guerin, a veteran with enormous cool-climate experience who worked 18 years with Hardy’s before joining Shaw + Smith two years ago. Guerin specialized in southern Victoria and Tasmanian viticulture with special influence on Hardy’s Arras sparkling wines, where he worked closely with chief sparkling winemaker Ed Carr. Carr, who won the big award – Winemaker of the Year – in 2011, believes there are few in Australia with Guerin’s knowledge of cool-climate viticulture. It was very much “in the family” at the awards night on Tuesday, as Guerin was accompanied by Martin Shaw – who with cousin Michael Hill Smith is a former Winemaker of the Year finalist – and their winemaker Adam Wadewitz, who was also a finalist while working at Best’s Great Western.

For Shaw + Smith to snap up Guerin in 2011 was a coup. They had bought the established Tolpuddle vineyard in southern Tasmania immediately beforehand, to add to their Adelaide Hills holdings. Guerin had been buying Tolpuddle grapes for 20 years prior, mainly for sparkling wine, and knew the vineyard as well as anyone.

Shaw + Smith will launch their first wines from this vineyard, a chardonnay and a pinot noir from the celebrated 2012 vintage, later this month.

Early in his career, Guerin left his family’s vineyards in McLaren Vale and moved to the Yarra Valley to establish the Hoddle’s Creek vineyard, later bought by Hardy’s, who made the Bastard Hill wines from its grapes. Much later, Guerin established his own Yarra Valley vineyard, Applejack. Giant Steps, which leases the vineyard, a fortnight ago won four trophies including champion wine of the Yarra Valley Wine Show with its 2012 Applejack Vineyard pinot noir (tasting). Oakridge also made an outstanding pinot from this vineyard in the 2012 vintage (tastings).

The Winemaker of the Year Awards now consist of four awards: the Young Winemaker Medal, the Winemaker of the Year, the Len Evans Award for leadership, and now the Perpetual Viticulturist of the Year (sponsored by Perpetual). As one of the six judges, I can safely say that in previous years there has been an inclination toward recognizing viticulture as well as winemaking, with dual winners twice for a winemaking and viticulture team (Sue Hodder and Allen Jenkins of Wynns, and Stephen and Prue Henschke of Henschke Wines), as well as nominating people who are what the French call vignerons, a term that encompasses both winery and vineyard realms. People like Jeffrey Grosset of Grosset Wines, Gary Farr of By Farr (and formerly Bannockburn), Vanya Cullen of Cullen Wines and Rick Kinzbrunner of Giaconda are examples of that.

This year’s Winemaker of the Year is Tim Kirk of Clonakilla (tastings), who has produced a stunning succession of shiraz viognier wines since taking the reins at the family vineyard from his father, Dr John Kirk, who established it at Murrumbateman in 1971. Last year, a 20-year retrospective tasting confirmed the wine’s great pedigree. Kirk is a perfectionist and does not rest on his laurels. He also makes a superbly delicate riesling, a powerful syrah, and one of Australia’s best viognier dry whites. In recent times, he’s released a chardonnay, a pinot noir and a remarkable grenache shiraz mourvedre blend, adding excitement to the portfolio. The latter is brand-named Ceoltoiri, which means a gathering of musicians – one of several proudly Irish names that adorn Clonakilla labels. The Kirks are a musical family: Tim plays guitar and composes, and his father plays the Irish flute.

In his acceptance speech, Kirk acknowledged his father’s pioneering work and the contribution of long-standing winery staff including his friend and co-winemaker Bryan Martin. He emphasised his belief that wine is a beverage that connects mankind with the earth and nature, and – like all beautiful things – is a source of mystery and fascination that enriches our lives.

Tom Barry is the youthful scion of the Barry family, who has recently taken over the winemaking role at Jim Barry Wines. Roseworthy educated like his father Peter and grandfather Jim, the winery’s founder, Tom seems set to continue the tradition. He will marry his fiancée Olivia in a few weeks, and they will settle down in the Clare Valley. He has shown great promise in his early career and an aptitude for improving and embellishing the breed as well as cherishing the traditions he inherits. One of those traditions is riesling, and Tom has worked in riesling wineries in Austria and Germany and implemented techniques at home to further refine the already-excellent Jim Barry rieslings.

The Len Evans Award had a particular resonance this year as winner Iain Riggs of Brokenwood was very close to the late Evans, both being Hunter Valley-based winemen and keen golfers. Riggs has been pivotal in the annual Len Evans Tutorial, which aims to educate and encourage talented younger members of the wine trade. He is a community spirited man who has helped unite Hunter winemakers and inspire the younger ones, and the roll-call of young winemakers who have come under his influence while working at Brokenwood and gone on to distinguish themselves is extraordinary.

Riggs has been active in wine industry affairs and has served as vice president of the Winemakers Federation of Australia. Riggs’s palate is in big demand for wine show judging, and he is currently chairman of the Sydney Royal Wine Show and Shanghai International Wine Challenge. As Brokenwood’s chief winemaker and manager since 1983, he has created many wines, including the Hunter Valley icons Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz (tastings) and ILR Reserve Semillon (tastings).

The Len Evans Award is presented each year by Len’s eldest daughter Sally Evans, who conducts an options game, as her father would have done. The mystery wine is usually connected in some way with the winner – whose identity is yet to be announced. The winner is not only ignorant of the wine’s identity, but also unaware that he or she is about to receive the award.

The game is a great leveler, and indeed, Riggs got the first question of this options game wrong: he thought the Brokenwood ILR Semillon was a riesling – as did Jeffrey Grosset!

The full list of Winemakers of the Year

1998 Jeffrey Grosset – Grosset Wines (tastings)
1999 Philip Shaw – Rosemount (tastings)
2000 Vanya Cullen – Cullen Wines (tastings)
2001 Gary Farr – Bannockburn (tastings)
2002 Phillip Laffer – Orlando/Jacob’s Creek (tastings)
2003 Rick Kinzbrunner – Giaconda (tastings)
2004 Andrew Spinaze – Tyrrell’s (tastings)
2005 Pete Bissell – Balnaves (tastings)
2006 Stephen & Prue Henschke – Henschke (tastings)
2007 Steve Webber – De Bortoli (tastings)
2008 Louisa Rose – Yalumba (tastings)
2009 Andrew Wigan – Peter Lehmann (tastings)
2010 Sue Hodder and Allen Jenkins – Wynns (tastings)
2011 Ed Carr – House of Arras
2012 Virginia Willcock – Vasse Felix (tastings)
2013 Tim Kirk – Clonakilla (tastings)

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 1 October 2013.

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