Bryan Martin profile

  • Region: Canberra District, NSW
  • Years in the industry: 18
  • Annual crush: 25 to 35 tonnes
  • Standout wines: Riesling (tastings), Shiraz Viognier (tastings)

At the International Riesling Challenge in Canberra in 2012, Ravensworth’s 2012 Riesling hit the jackpot, beating all comers to win top wine of show, an amazing achievement for a small-production local wine in international company. If nothing else, it signaled to the wider world that Ravensworth had arrived, something we scribes already knew as we’d been enjoying Bryan Martin’s wines for years.

It was no flash in the pan: the 2013 was judged best wine at the 2013 Canberra and Region Wine Show (as well as best Canberra wine at the International Riesling Challenge), and the 2014 (tastings) was champion wine at the NSW Small Winemakers Show at Forbes.

The wine is deliberately made to taste quite different to Clonakilla’s (tastings). Some batches are fermented with solids, some in ceramic ‘eggs’, and ambient yeasts are used, so it’s a bit wilder and less pristine than Clonakilla riesling.

In case you hadn’t picked it up by now, there’s a connection: Bryan Martin is the right-hand man of Clonakilla boss and our 2013 Winemaker of the Year, Tim Kirk.

Martin is Clonakilla’s secret weapon. He’s been full-time operations winemaker/winery manager since 2008 and has worked there every vintage since 2004. He and Kirk seem joined at the hip.

Martin came to winemaking from a useful angle as he worked as a chef for five years and is an accomplished cook, a forager, a writer of books and newspaper columns on food (with a weekly column in the Canberra Times since 2005). He approaches wine from the standpoint of ‘how well does this wine go with food?’ and ‘what sort of food?’

He and his wife Jocelyn have a vineyard of their own at Murrumbateman and Bryan makes the Ravensworth wines at Clonakilla. Not surprisingly, the Ravensworth style has a lot in common with Clonakilla – the wines are aromatic, light to medium bodied, soft of tannin and modest in alcohol. They are beautiful, seductive wines that emphasise fragrance, texture and drinkability. The reds, led by sangiovese (the first wine Martin ever made for himself – tastings), have very gentle tannins.

As at Clonakilla, shiraz is the key variety and the main wine is a shiraz viognier, made in exactly the same way: co-fermented with about 5% viognier and one-third whole bunches, but slightly less new oak. The key difference is that Ravensworth’s vineyard is slightly higher altitude (50 metres higher at 650) and picking starts after Clonakilla has finished. The wine is also slightly lighter and lower in alcohol. This is partly because of the cooler site and partly that Martin likes to preserve the maximum natural acidity by picking early. “I try to make as few additions as possible, such as yeast nutrients and acid, and in some cases I don’t filter.”

Apart from riesling, sangiovese, shiraz and viognier, Ravensworth also grows the whites which are blended to form The Grainery (tastings) – a superb, loosely Rhone-styled blend of marsanne, viognier, roussanne and chardonnay. Most Ravensworth wines are estate-grown, although nebbiolo (tastings) is bought in from Hilltops and chardonnay (tastings) from Tumbarumba.

Martin’s involvement in wine began with a job in a London wine-bar, Langan’s Bar & Grill, where he discovered French wines. Coming home, he worked for Farmer Brothers in Canberra and then Melbourne. They sent him to Tasmania as manager of the hotel they owned at Eaglehawk Neck, The Lufra, where he had a crash course in cookery. He returned to Canberra when Jocelyn, a teacher, was transferred. Bryan was primary carer for their children and cheffed at the Hyatt at night. He’s always been the family cook, and has also taught cookery.

Looking for something to occupy himself, he embarked on an external viticulture course at Charles Sturt University while working at a local winery, Jeir Creek (tastings). This led into the wine science degree and the whole took seven years to complete.

“Land was cheap then, so in partnership with my brother and my wife’s father, I bought land at Murrumbateman and planted vines.”

He met Tim Kirk after collecting viognier cuttings from Tim’s father, Clonakilla founder Dr John Kirk. Tim and he had children the same age and started having each other over for dinners, and the friendship flourished. “At the same time, another vineyard popped up. It had cabernet and sauvignon blanc planted: it was well set up, with water, but the wrong varieties.” With partners, they bought it in 2002 and Ravensworth was born. “I was buying fruit and experimenting with winemaking by then. We realised we didn’t need two vineyards, so we sold the first vineyard to Lark Hill (tastings).”

In 2004 he began grafting or replanting the cabernet and most of the sauvignon blanc over to four clones of shiraz, three of sangiovese, three of riesling and smaller plots of viognier, marsanne, roussanne and chardonnay. The total planting is now 2.8 hectares. This is boutique stuff, notwithstanding about half the 2015 crush was bought-in fruit. Volumes have fluctuated: 2015 was Ravensworth’s biggest vintage yet, producing 3,500 cases of wine.

The food thing is critical to Martin’s aesthetic. “I cook more than most people, and I’m always trying different things, new techniques. It’s the same with winemaking. Drinkability is uppermost. I don’t want extraction in reds, but middleweight, savoury, food-ready wines.” Happily, the region suits the style.

Of Canberra District, he says “The biggest surprise is what we can do here: we have hero varieties like shiraz and riesling, but we can do all sorts of others. The world is our oyster.”

First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine – Aug-Sep 2015.

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