The French connection

New Eden Road winemaker Celine Rousseau (Photo: Chalkers Crossing Wines)

You won’t find too many French winemakers making wine in Young, NSW. However, Celine Rousseau is not your average winemaker.

Hands-on, largely working on her own, not seeking the spotlight and never afraid of a challenge, Rousseau has spent the past seventeen years making the wines of Chalker’s Crossing, where she has applied her high standards across all aspects of the business including vineyard decisions, sales, marketing and export.

2016 was a remarkable year for Rousseau, including five trophies at the KPMG Sydney Wine Show for her 2014 CC2 Shiraz from Hilltops, including for Best Red, and another four at the National Wine Show of Australia in Canberra, including Champion Wine of Show. Not bad for a $22 wine.

In fact, this shiraz may never have seen the light of day. Klymorn vineyard, the source of the grapes, was destined to be bulldozed. It was up for sale as agricultural land before Rousseau purchased it at auction on behalf of the current owners.

When Rousseau saw the quality of the shiraz off Klymorn in 2014, she knew that she had made the right decision. The fruit was pristine and intensely perfumed, requiring minimal intervention. Her role was to protect and promote the beautiful aromas rather than complicate them.

Having the confidence to take a hands-off approach came from a lifetime spent focusing on the senses. Aromas have always fascinated Rousseau, whether it be remembering the forest and floral scents of her childhood or thinking about the chemistry of perfume. Her nose has always been attuned to world around her.

Paris-born Rousseau was exposed to the wine industry at a young age through an uncle who owned a vineyard, and she was raised in a family that enjoyed and appreciated wine.

Rousseau trained in France, initially studying science at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, specialising in biochemistry and microbiology. She found the winemaking and brewing aspects of the course more practical and inspiring than the medical research elements and decided to continue her studies with a Masters in Oenology and Marketing from the University of Reims in Champagne. For her thesis, she looked at the impact of juice oxidation during pressing in Champagne production.

Rousseau was keen to learn more about red winemaking, so she headed to Bordeaux and while there completed a Diploma of Oenology. Her thesis focused on the aromas and flavours of sauvignon blanc. Experience in Graves and Sauternes exposed her to highly aromatic and flavoursome wines. She also gained experience working in the Languedoc.

Rousseau first came to Australia in 1996 to learn different ways of making wine. She began working at Pierro in Margaret River, which not only gave her experience with a different region but also with a new variety, chardonnay, which Rousseau had not made before. She then returned to France.

A year later, Rousseau flew back to Western Australia to work at Hainault in the Perth Hills.

In 1999, an advertisement in Grape Grower and Winemaker led her to New South Wales where she began working for Chalker’s Crossing, owned by Ted and Wendy Ambler. The Ambler’s had the Rockleigh vineyard, 5km south of Young (planted to riesling, semillon, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon) and another in the Southern Highlands. Her role was to set up the winery from scratch, which was originally planned for the Southern Highlands, however, due to local council restrictions it ended up in Young.

Quality was always a parameter they were all striving for, and Rousseau was fortunate, from the beginning, to have access to the right vineyards and good oak. They made table wine from their Young vineyard, sparkling wine from the Southern Highlands (this vineyard has since been sold) and sourced chardonnay and sauvignon blanc from a single grower in Tumbarumba (which continues today). Rousseau had some early accolades such as ‘Wine of Show’ at Cowra for her shiraz. She was the 2002 Qantas Winemaker of the Year and the same year became an Australian citizen. In these early years, she was fortunate to be able to return to France for vintage, which kept her in touch with the UK wine market, which proved invaluable experience when Chalker’s Crossing began to export.

In 2012, the Amblers retired, and Nice Link Pty Ltd purchased Chalker’s Crossing. New ownership has seen an expansion of the vineyards and the doubling of production, a large proportion which is exported. Locally, Chalker’s Crossing have a good presence in Sydney restaurants, with distribution through Winestock. Her wines can also be sourced directly from the winery website.

Of her Chalker’s Crossing wines, from the Hilltops and Tumbarumba regions, Rousseau describes them as ‘not completely Australian’ (and the wines she made in France as not entirely French). However, when asked about her approach to oak she draws on her French training.

“Oak must be integrated”, she says.

Rousseau strives to make aromatic, flavoursome wines that are,

“attractive, complex and fulfilling with nice perfume”.

And with this approach, no doubt the accolades will keep on flowing.

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