wine-bottles - background for headline pageBy Nathan Gogoll

The old Macquarie dictionary that sits on my desk defines ’boutique’ as… a small shop selling fashionable or luxury articles esp. for women. Not exactly helpful in the context we are considering. Yet, apart from the inherent sexism of the old national dictionary, there you could easily tweak this to suit small, independent winemaking businesses… a small winery selling fashionable or luxury wines.
To go one step further and classify the size, you just need to take a look at the Association of Australian Boutique Winemakers Inc. It defines a boutique wine company as one which crushes and bottles 250 tonnes or less annually under its own label and is owned independently.
Which now provides both the practical definition and the aspiration for many of the wine producers who fall into this category.

A quick scan through the 33rd edition of the Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Directory reveals the scale of small producer involvement in the industry. There are more than 2000 Australian wine producers crushing less than 250 tonnes and more than 420 NZ producers who fall into the same category. In fact, the vast majority of producers across the Australian and New Zealand wine landscape (84%) crush less than 250 tonnes.And there is some excellent wine being made by the small producers, with brands from Alpha Box & Dice, Amato Vino and Ata Rangi through to Yabby Lake, Yelland & Papps and Wooing Tree all featuring in this category.
There’s also no shortage of acclaim from wine writers and wine shows for the products from this section of the industry. Try this on for size, of the past four Jimmy Watson trophy winners, two have been from the boutique category (and across the past 10 years of this award, only three of the winning wineries crush more than 500 tonnes).
A close look at the sixth edition of the Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine reveals that close to 40% of the wines across the three tiers (exceptional, outstanding, excellent) are made by wineries, you guessed it, that crush less than 250 tonnes.

Favourite fives

We asked a range of wine writers/industry insiders to come up with a list of five small producers that are currently ‘at the top of their game’. It was no easy task (and we even had people tell us it was too hard to manage) but we think their choices make for interesting reading…

JANE FAULKNERJane Faulkner
Wine writer and wine show judge

La Violetta
Great Southern, Western Australia
Crush: Less than 20 tonnes
La Violetta began producing small quantities of wine at Denmark, on Western Australia’s south coast, in 2008. Grapes are sourced from a handful of trusted growers with exceptional vineyards, some amongst the oldest in the state. The idea is to keep production at a small-scale so that each wine is personally hand-crafted.

Before being lured west by the quality of Great Southern grapes, winemaker Andrew Hoadley worked all over Australia’s cool and hot zones and in Piedmont, Abruzzo and Washington State.

Sami-Odi
Barossa, South Australia
Crush: Less than 20 tonnes
Bespoke packaging and miniscule production sets Fraser McKinley and his Sami-Odi wines apart. The Kiwi has been in the Barossa for more than 10 years and has worked with Torbreck, Massena and the Standish Wine Company. His wines have been described as “truly unique, idiosyncratic, and genuinely rare”.

Ruggabellus
Barossa, South Australia
Crush: Less than 50 tonnes
Abel Gibson has a strong Barossa background and, in his words, he takes “great pleasure in exploring its strengths – an ancient landscape with a great resource of young and very old vines”.

For a few years Abel has worked with small parcels of Grenache, Mataro, Syrah and Cinsault and more recently with old vine Riesling, Semillon and Muscat.

Billy Button
Alpine Valleys, North Eastern Victoria
Crush: Less than 50 tonnes
Jo Marsh started her career in Southcorp Wines’ (now Treasury Wine Estates) Graduate Recruitment Program, before working her way up the ranks at Seppelt Great Western. She then joined Feathertop Wines in Porepunkah and fell in love with the Alpine Valleys. In 2014 she made wine under her own label on Alpine Valleys turf. Marsh’s plan is to “impress the socks off serious enthusiasts and everyday drinkers alike”.

The Wanderer
Yarra Valley, Victoria
Crush: Less than 10 tonnes
Andrew Marks makes The Wanderer wines in the Upper Yarra Valley where his family vineyard, Gembrook Hill, is located. His aim is to deliver individual wines of flavour, character and balance. Marks works with low-yielding vineyards and relies on ‘minimal winemaking’.

 

DAVE BROOKESDave Brookes - Image courtesy of the BGWA
Wine writer and wine show judge

Encouragement award:
Sentio Wines

Beechworth, North East Victoria
Crush: Less than 20 tonnes
“Chris Catlow works out of the corner of the old mental asylum (yes you read that correctly) in this beautiful part of North-East Victoria. Syrah, Pinot Noir and a terrific trio of Chardonnay hailing from Beechworth, Macedon and the superb Lusatia Park vineyard in the Yarra Valley. A fantastic lineup and a name we’ll be hearing more of in the future, I am certain.”

Most improved:
“I’m going to paint with a broad brush here and just say Chardonnay. Who would have thought a variety could rise phoenix-like from the ashes of the ‘ABC’ movement and get to a point where the wines at the upper echelon easily give the big names of Burgundy a run for the money at a fraction of the cost. So a polite golf-clap for all the wineries out there crafting some superb, world-class wines and giving the odd Frenchman heart palpitations.”

Most consistent:
Head Wines
Barossa, South Australia
Crush: Less than 50 tonnes
“Alex Head has to be the most consistent and consistently improving boutique producer out there, in my humble opinion. He sources fruit from great vineyards and shows great respect for those raw materials in the winery, guiding the wine to the bottle in a considered manner and the results are just delicious.”

Outstanding example of ‘daring to be different’:
Ricca Terra Farms
Riverland (Barmera), South Australia
“Time to give a grower some props, Ashley Ratcliff from Ricca Terra Farms in Barmera does a fantastic job championing alternative varieties and raising the profile of the Riverland. Supplying fruit to a collection of great boutique producers – Brash Higgins, Bellwether Wines, Amato Vino, Unico Zelo, Sam Scott Wines and some of the bigger companies, his raw product has gone into a number of award-winning wines and the producers are proud to put ‘Riverland’ on the label, great for the region, grower and producer.”

Most popular:
Ochota Barrels
Adelaide Hills, South Australia
Crush: Less than 20 tonnes
“Taras Ochota is whipping up some amazing wines out of his mothership in the Adelaide Hills, at Basket Range. Bright, textured, aromatic whites; soulful Pinot Noir; and without doubt, the finest Grenache in the country. Would go close to taking out the award for best wine names as well. Just great wines.”

 

JENI PORTJeni Port
Wine writer

Paradigm Hill
Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
Crush: Less than 20 tonnes
A paradigm shift for Ruth and George Mihaly saw them turn from established careers in food and medical research to viticulture and winemaking, respectively.
A focus on balanced, healthy vines producing carefully selected, exceptional and low yielding fruit is the backbone of the estate-grown wines. Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Shiraz.
“Perfectionist, excellent Pinot Noir maker among other things,” said Port.

Ravensworth Wines
Canberra District, ACT/NSW
Crush: Less than 50 tonnes
Bryan Martin is also a chef, food educator and writer (he has just published a cookbook). He raised black pigs to slaughter and make into ham just because he “wanted the experience”. With wine he experiments with whites on skins, zero additions, slightly sparkling Pet Nat Riesling, carbonic-macerated whole-bunch Gamay, long-soaked Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Barbera, Pinot Gris made in ceramic eggs along with my bread and butter Shiraz Viognier and Riesling.
“Bryan Martin works at Clonakilla but his off-duty Ravensworth wines are every bit as meticulous in their making,” said Port.

Holm Oak Vineyards
Tamar Valley, Tasmania
Crush: Less than 100 tonnes
Established in 1983, now 12Ha planted to Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Arneis, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyard is owned by Ian and Robyn Wilson and is leased by Rebecca and her husband Tim Duffy. Grapes grown, wine made and bottled on site – which means full control from vineyard-to-bottle.
“Does everything so very well,” said Port.

Wines by KT
Clare Valley, South Australia
Crush: Less than 50 tonnes
Kerri Thompson has lived and made wine in the Clare Valley since 1998 and started her own wine business in 2006. The Peglidis and Churinga vineyards, in Watervale, provide the single-vineyard wines (Riesling, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo).
“Superb Rieslings,” said Port.

Bellarmine Wines
Pemberton, Western Australia
Crush: Less than 100 tonnes
Estate grown wines, 20ha of the Bellarmine property are planted to Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. First vintage was 2004.
“All-rounder, but a mighty selection of Riesling from Pemberton,” said Port.

 

ALEX JOHNAlex_John BW
Industry supplier (AP John Cooperage)
and wine fan

Pyramid Valley Vineyards
North Canterbury, New Zealand
Crush: Less than 20 tonnes
“Mike and Claudia probably started pushing boundaries well before it was being considered elsewhere across New Zealand and Australia. Biodynamic, large use of Amphorae, unconventional methods. They let the purity of fruit speak for itself. Great stuff, gaining a huge following.”

Dalrymple
Pipers Brook, Tasmania
Crush: Less than 100 tonnes
“At the forefront of the Tassie Pinot wave. Pete Caldwell Turning out wonderfully focused wines, single vineyard example Coal River Valley the ones to watch. Better and better each vintage.”

William Downie
Gippsland, Victoria
Crush: Less than 20 tonnes
“Probably the most pure, vibrant Australian Pinot Noir. Wonderful fruit tannin and structure from his gentle winemaking methods. Understands Australian Pinot is not the same as Burgundy and is trying to make a product that speaks of a place and it’s ‘terroir’.”

Honeymoon Vineyards
Adelaide Hills, South Australia
Crush: Less than 20 tonnes
“Hilton McLean and Jane Bromeley produce really expressive, terrifically made sparkling, Pinot Noir and Shiraz. One of the best Adelaide Hills Shiraz out there, estate fruit. 2012 took out last year’s AH Cool Climate Shiraz.”

Ruggabellus
Barossa, South Australia
Crush: Less than 50 tonnes
“Abel Gibson makes complex Grenache/Mataro/Shiraz blends. The three different wines each with their own character and personality. It is great to hear him refer to them as people through their life spans. Savoury, textural Barossa fruit.”

 

DENIS GASTINdenis gastin
Wine journalist and consultant

Bloodwood
Orange, New South Wales
Crush: Less than 100 tonnes
“Stephen and Rhonda opened a new chapter in the Australian wine story when they planted grapes in ancient, elevated soils in the Orange region in 1983, paving the way for a rapidly expanding new local industry. Working with Riesling and Chardonnay for the whites and Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir for the reds, they have set new elegant and restrained cool climate styles that are presented with great gusto and humour at the cellar door. Frankly, it’s worth a visit just to sign up to the hilariously entertaining Bloodwood newsletters.”

Chapoutier
Heathcote, Victoria
Crush: Less than 200 tonnes
“Here, one of the global wine giants and signature producer from the Old World, presents its carefully evolved range of boutique Australian wines. Chardonnay and Riesling, in addition to the wines based on traditional Rhône varieties.”

Pierro
Margaret River, Western Australia
Crush: Less than 200 tonnes
“More of a shed, rather than an ‘Estate’, a visit to Pierro’s cellar door delivers new experiences. Apart from the world ranked Pierro Chardonnay and the Cabernet-based Margaret River style stalwarts, a compelling reason for visiting for wine adventurers is the unique Pierro Pinot Noir. This was a first for the region, a style derived from unconventional vineyard practices (for Australia) with very low yielding vines planted way back in 1980 when this variety was rarely thought of in Australia, especially for this region. The wine is a delight, and still a surprise in this region.”

Cobaw Ridge
Macedon Ranges, Victoria
Crush: Less than 50 tonnes
“One of the pioneer wineries in the still emerging Macedon Ranges, Cobaw Ridge has been a leader in pioneering the benchmark Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays for which the region is now renowned. On their isolated vineyard on the northern slopes of the Ranges Alan and Nellie Cooper, and now son Joshua, manage their vineyard strictly according to the organic and biodynamic codes in order to deliver what they believe their terroir represents and were the first Australian winery accredited under the exacting viticulture standards of the France-based Renaissance des Appellations.”

David Franz
Barossa, South Australia
Crush: Less than 100 tonnes
“The Dave Franz Lehmann approach to viticulture and winemaking is passionate, intense and artistic – all of which is fully represented in his wines. He launched with the Barossa’s traditional varietal strengths (Riesling, Semillon, Shiraz) and Cabernet, drawing on some of the best fruit grown in the region, including from the Lehmann family vineyards. More recently he has added an impressive Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Adelaide Hills fruit and, very recently, a sticky, a Vincotto and a grape and apple cider.”

 

Clearly, the ‘boutique’ section of the Australian wine industry has a lot of offer. There is huge diversity across this sector and the people involved are taking a risk on their own small business.
It takes great skill and engineering to run a small winery. A lot of creativity to make and package wine. And also a good amount of self-promotion, and good marketing knowledge.
Never mind the ability to wade through the specifications of bottle weights and shapes and all the different ducks you need to line up to get a label stuck to the chosen bottle.

Andrew Marks, from The Wanderer Wines – who Jane Faulkner has highlighted, above – believes small producers can represent the most interesting elements of the wine industry. But he does warn it is “certainly not always the case”.
“The wine industry is in a constant state of flux and the market is constantly picking new darlings being new producers or wine styles, philosophies and varieties,” Marks said. “This does make for a challenging environment for wine businesses, large and small, to be successful. I think there is a temptation for producers to chase the next trend. I am a strong proponent of the Glenn McGrath approach – line and length. If you prosecute your philosophy consistently with good results for long enough the consumer should respect your efforts.”
“I focus on making the best wine I can each season. If I can rely on the wine to speak for itself then my job is a lot easier. I also try and maintain good relationships with all of my markets whether they are customers or suppliers.”
“It is a challenge for small wineries to establish strong brand recognition in a congested market. The beauty of small wineries is that we don’t need a lot of people to know about us for our wines to sell out given our smaller productions. In a small winery you manage the complete chain of production from grape growing, winemaking to marketing and sales. You have the ability to be flexible and innovative without layers of bureaucracy. It is a great reward to be able to turn a vision into reality.”

Bryan Martin, from Ravensworth Wines – selected by Jeni Port – agrees small producers can be more interesting, but not necessarily because of the size.
“It’s possibly a mindset because, being small, you can be very reactive and are probably not living just off the brand solely, as is my case. I work full-time, as does my partner, so this [Ravensworth] doesn’t feed the kids, so to speak.”
“You can be free to be more experimental, which makes me happy. I’m playing around with all sorts of things now, whites on skins, not adding anything to the fruit, a 3 bar (atm) Pet Nat Riesling, carbonic-macerated whole cluster Gamay, a long-soaked Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Barbera, Pinot Gris made in ceramic eggs along with my bread and butter Shiraz Viognier and Riesling.
“I’m also making vermouth based on Grenache and a heap of wild botanicals and native honey from Tim Malfroy with Giorgio De Maria.
“What does it take? I think you need to be reactive and experimental. Maybe it’s just keeping me happy doing this stuff but my brand has flourished over the last two years and I put it mostly down to being interesting and never standing still.
“The challenge is to never forget you are a primarily a farmer, I love working in my little vineyard but we’ve had some challenges over the past few years with hail and frosts, so some years I make very little in response but in good years, like this year, I’m ready and have the resources to take advantage and make as much as I can.
“I do feel lucky to have been working with Tim at Clonakilla for the last 10 years, it’s a job but I’d do it anyway and he has been really supportive of me growing my own brand, possible wonders why I’m doing all this weird stuff but knows that its keeping me passionate and that does come across in the brand, hopefully.”
Martin has outlined a few key points, and one that he quickly touched on is networking with industry peers. I’ve seen this in action, winemakers from small producers are always keen to have a chat and check out what others are doing.

Fraser McKinley from Sami-Odi – another selection from Jane Faulkner – said it is “amazing” how prepared people are to share information. He works with the Hoffmann family at the northern end of the Barossa and regularly catches up with other small winemakers.
“I got to know the Hoffmann family when I worked for Torbreck and I learned about agriculture through them. The first time I went out picking with them there were four generations of the Hoffmann clan out in the vineyard,” McKinley said.
“I’ve also got Abel Gibson from Ruggabellus and Brett Grocke from Eperosa who I catch up with every Friday. Rather than go to the pub we meet in a vineyard or a cellar and share a wine. We do that every week and we’ve never run out of things to talk about. People in this industry are happy to share their information and tell you what they’re doing with their farming.
“I can only speak for the Barossa, but even the big guys are really open, the sharing doesn’t stop with the one-man bands.”

Small producers are also in a position to be more involved in each stage of the process.
George Mihaly, from Paradigm Hill – a Jeni Port selection – believes the personal involvement that small producers have with the vineyards “leads to a more intimate understanding of the vineyard and the season”.
“It is this smaller scale of operation that enables single vineyard characteristics to be captured and in a manner that is distinctive for each season,” Mihaly said.
Of course, this doesn’t make dealing with difficult seasons any easier.
“There is the uncertainty posed by each unique season – and in particular the impact of extreme weather events,” Mihaly said. “Smaller producers don’t usually have a ‘back up’ vineyard from another region to soften the blow of crop loss, like the crop losses from the extreme heat events in 2009 or reduced flowering, fruit set and eventually a smaller crop in 2014.”
Small producer are also not immune to industry-wide issues and, like all producers, they have seen the double-edged impact of a strong Australian dollar – making export conditions tough, but also driving imports of relatively-inexpensive, quality wines from overseas.
But Mihaly believes the small producers that succeed have an “unwavering commitment to quality” coupled with a personal representation which can help to “minimise the adverse impact of these issues”.
“The challenge has been starting from a green field, literally, and then establishing credentials and credibility for a premium wine label in a highly competitive market has been daunting. Then to do so in a fairly short period of time has been the most confronting challenge. On top of this, there is an inherent limitation of a small producer in that there is no economy of scale to contain costs. So justifying the value proposition of boutique wines – by demonstrating the benefits of wines that show a sense of place – has been and probably will continue to be an ongoing issue. Then again, sitting down to a lovely meal with family and friends accompanied by your own wines that seems to be a good deal better than just “okay”, has been a huge buzz. Of course, the sense of achievement from the creation of a brand and range of wines that has attracted recognition for excellence among peers and customers is indeed a very pleasing reward for a smaller producer.”

Small producers are not just more involved, they have more flexibility and scope for personal vision, according to Andrew Hoadley from La Violetta, near Denmark in Western Australia – a selection from Jane Faulkner.
“It’s not always the case, but large operations, in my experience, tend to blend away the quirky edges in the wine, in the packaging. There’s too much money at stake to risk alienating the consumer.
“I’m quite happy if someone dislikes one of my wines. Maybe they’ll go away and think about it, come back to it later on with a different palate.
“In Australia there’s been a space open up for imagining new wine styles – small producers have played a leading role in that.”
Hoadley said relationships are vital to be a successful small producer at the moment.
“Relationships are very important. With fruit growers, with the people selling your wine.”
Access to quality fruit and respecting the value of it is also important.
“I’m happy to pay top dollar for fruit when I know a vineyard is giving me some unique expression. At the end of the day the vineyard – the essential ingredient – has to be sustainable. That’s what it’s all about.”

But more flexibility, or freedom, doesn’t mean a small winery faces any less challenges than a medium or large producer. “It is usually more challenging, I would say, especially if you are operating an estate where the grapes you harvest are purely used for your brand. Obviously then to be successful you rely on terroir,” said Diane Miller, from Bellarmine Wines in Pemberton, Western Australia – selected by Jeni Port, as one of her ‘favourite five’.
“Our challenges are trying not to stress too much about cashflow; separating work from home life; and remembering to enjoy it, because it’s a great industry to be a part of. It is rewarding to be able to follow the grapes through to the wines and then see people enjoy them.”

This post has been adapted from an article first published in the May 2015 Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
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