Simon Killeen claims he’s occasionally mistaken for rugby legend Billy Slater. But with his growing list of accolades, it’s surely only a matter of time before Slater gets mistaken for the wine superstar. The 28-year-old, seventh generation winemaker has created his own wine label, sits as a judge at one of Australia’s most prestigious wine shows and has been recognised nationally for his commitment to the industry. Emilie Reynolds reports.
Born into generations of winemakers, Simon Killeen grew up on a farm with a vineyard and a small winery in Rutherglen. For someone who has never known any different, the wine industry seemed like a natural choice and one that Killeen made at a young age.
“Most of my weekends and school holidays were spent on the farm doing sheep work, pruning, helping with vintage or bottling,” Killeen explained. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else.”
Killeen’s family history of winemaking goes back seven generations. His great-great-great-great grandfather Timothy Stanton planted vines at Rutherglen in 1875. That venture is now called Stanton & Killeen Wines, also known as S&K.
“Dad was a winemaker and so was Grandpa,” he said.
Growing up on a winery introduced Killeen to the craft, but a passion for winemaking and viticulture pushed him to pursue a career in the industry.After finishing Year 12 in 2004, Killeen gained some hands-on work experience, completing 15 vintages across Australia and Europe.
He was a cellar hand at Gapsted Wines in the Ovens Valley, Brokenwood Wines in the Hunter Valley, and Voyager Estate in Margaret River.
Working his way up the ranks, Killeen then travelled to Griffith where he was a cellar supervisor at Casella Wines for a year before completing vintages in Alpine Valley and back home in Rutherglen.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” Killeen said.
Setting his sights a little further, Killeen travelled across the globe to France where he gained invaluable knowledge working at M. Chapoutier in Tain l’Hermitage for five months.
Two years ago Killeen revisited Europe where he joined Benjamin Leroux in Burgundy before travelling south to take up residence with the world renowned Taylor Flagdgate Yateman port house in Portugal.
But not every part of the journey has been easy. The Rutherglen community was rocked by the tragic passing of Simon’s father and mentor, Chris Killeen in 2007.
“Losing my dad and grandfather within three years of each other when I was at the age of 20 was pretty ordinary,” Killeen said. “I lost two of my greatest influences and mentors at a very early stage of my career.”
In an enormous feat of courage, Killeen walked away from S&K to pursue a dream of running his own wine label, a move which he credits as one of his biggest achievements and challenges to date.
Simão & Co. Wines was created with a dream to inspire a new generation of fortified wine drinkers.
“I really want to try and capture the last two generations of Aussie drinkers who have paid little regard to fortified wine and re-engage them,” Killeen said. “The Simão brand is about showing what north- east Victoria can do well.”
Killeen said the region has a broad array of mesoclimates and soil types which can produce a varied range of wines, perfect for exploring innovative and creative wine styles.
“In one part, you can make brilliant powerful, unctuous Muscats at home in Rutherglen but then drive 45 minutes down the road and get access to some of arguably the best sparkling fruit in Australia,” he said. “I love the diversity in winemaking opportunity you can choose from.”
Opting to shift the focus to his first name, Killeen said Simão, the name given to him when he worked in Portugal, also grew to be symbolic of his winemaking style.
“It ties in with a few winemaking philosophies I learnt while being in Portugal, along with my love for native Portuguese varieties such as Touriga Nacional, Souzão and Tinto Cão.”
Killeen said he wants Simão & Co. Wines to have drinkability, freshness and class but with one exception.
“My vintage port style. I’m aiming for power, depth and longevity that will sit alongside any great Portuguese or Australian port and hold its own,” he said.
Obviously passionate about vintage port, Killeen said he would be lying if he didn’t name the style as his favourite wine.
“Old vintage port is seriously cool,” Killeen said. “However, I do love Shiraz. Cornas, Saint-Joseph and Hunter and Canberra Shiraz would be the majority of my cellar. Aussie Shiraz is so damn good at the moment.”
Between working a couple of different jobs to get Simão & Co. off the ground, Killeen still finds time to keep fit by running and cycling, while keeping his brain active too.
“I have a bit of a green thumb so I’m in the garden a bit,” he said. “I’m also a history nerd and love researching the early days of the wine industry, especially Rutherglen, the Victorian industry and the devastation of phylloxera.”
Killeen’s commitment to the wine industry was acknowledged last year when he was nominated for the Wine Society Young Winemaker of the Year award at age 27. His nominator, Sally Pines, summed up Killeen’s attitude towards winemaking in a statement to the society. “He is one of the most passionate and enthusiastic winemakers around,” it read. “His knowledge of wine at his age is amazing and his love for all things wine is infectious.”
Recognised throughout Australia as one of the brightest young winemakers, Killeen was also given the opportunity to train with the best judges in the industry at the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards last year.
Held over five days, Killeen said the experience helped to broaden his wine knowledge.
“It helps me make better wines. Some winemakers can get what’s called cellar palate – they only drink their own wines, make their own wines, and they get a bit insular,” he said.
For those staring out in the industry, Killeen said it’s important to stay on top of your game and love what you do.
“Be a sponge for knowledge, have patience, be humble and never stop having fun,” he said.
Killeen’s passion for the wine industry is palpable, as is his excitement about the future and the direction in which he’s headed.
“Right now, the north-east is an exciting place to be for wine,” Killeen said. “It’s a hive of activity with a stack or 20 and 30-somethings going out on their own or taking over the reins of their family’s winery and making some seriously smart wines.
“It’s really cool to be a part of it. Watch this space in the coming years!”
This post has been adapted from an article first published in the May 2015 Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
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