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The McHenry Hohnen vineyard in Margaret River

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 edition of Grapegrower & Winemaker.

 

After 10 years of working in prestigious wine regions around the world, and within Australia, Julian Grounds realised that status meant the sacrifice of a healthy challenge. Camellia Aebischer sat down with him to find out why Margaret River was the region he chose to take on next.


Over its 50 years as a wine region, Margaret River has seen plenty of growth and success. Despite returning to Western Australia in January this year, Julian Grounds thinks an overhaul is in order, and it’s worth hearing him out.

Grounds is currently head winemaker at McHenry Hohnen, whose winery sits on the outskirts of the Margaret River region. He accepted the role in January, after working as senior winemaker with Giant Steps in the Yarra Valley for the previous five years.

Starting out

At university, Grounds graduated top of the class and was offered a scholarship to complete a vintage in Fuissé, Burgundy, the home of low intervention Chardonnay. After that, he vintage hopped between Central Otago, where he met his wife, and Oregon, in the United States.

Julian and his sidekick, Stevie Nicks

“A lot of things that are hard to grow elsewhere are easy to grow in Oregon because they have great soil and it’s on the 45th parallel which is perfect for Pinot. I would say it’s far easier to grow there than anywhere else.”

“When you’re living there it’s like ‘oh yeah winemaking is fun and it’s easy and really profitable’, but it’s really not.”

“[My wife and I] lived in Oregon for a couple of years, then I got a call asking if I’d ever thought about moving to the Yarra Valley.” Which brought him to Giant Steps.

The experience of working in depth in wine regions around the world, combined with a sharp mind, has encouraged Grounds to affect change in Margaret River.

While the McHenry Hohnen label is adored by locals in Western Australia, its market doesn’t extend very strongly to other parts of the country. For some winemakers, moving from the Yarra Valley to the edge of Margaret River would be a step back, but not for Grounds.

“From no fault of their own McHenry Hohnen isn’t a very well regarded winery outside of Margaret River,” he said.

“When you’re in the Yarra Valley, it’s like everyone’s doing very well, and it’s hard to leave.”

 

“It’s crazy beautiful, they farm biodynamically and the winery has some of the best facilities that I’ve ever seen. You just don’t get that when you’re a young winemaker hey.

“When you’re in the Yarra Valley, it’s like everyone’s doing very well, and it’s hard to leave. In a way it’s almost a better reason to come here because it means you can be part of something unique.”

Aside from the bonus of being closer to his family, Grounds was keen to take on the role at McHenry Hohnen and push Margaret River toward a more progressive style.

Making the West the best

“It’s very hard to affect change in places that are already cool. How do you go into Melbourne and be like ‘oh I’m going to be the first guy to open a really cool café’.”

“Someone said to me the other day that Adelaide is fast becoming the Portland of Australia and it makes sense because it’s cheaper to live there. When you have a vacuum of creative energy, it’s really easy to go in there and put something down,” he said.

“My gut feeling was that I respect a lot of these people, but they’re comfortable, and when you’re comfortable you don’t find much and nothing changes.”

The sandstone wineries of Margaret River are worth celebrating, and they will do so this month as the region celebrates its 50th birthday. But Grounds believes that to make a sustainable impact and position Margaret River as a notable region, the focus needs to be more on the place rather than the people.

“My gut feeling was that I respect a lot of these people, but they’re comfortable, and when you’re comfortable you don’t find much and nothing changes.”

 

“I changed the back labels this year to reflect more of a sense of place. You know, the whole thing about a blurb and it being in French oak, etc. Who cares?

“When people go eat at Nobu or something they’re fed the beautiful story of where things came from. So now I don’t have any words on the back label it’s just basically latitude, planting density, everything about the land. That’s kind of where we’re going,” he said.

The logic behind his decision comes from the natural variation of the Margaret River region.

“Something you also might hear people banging on about is that southern Margaret River is very, very different to northern Margaret River. It’s a huge cape. Like from north to south it’s 100km. That would be like going from the tip of the Mornington Peninsula to Mount Macedon.

“There’s a huge amount of variability in that region, and it’s the same here.

“We’re actually closer to Augusta, which is the southern ocean, as opposed to the warmer parts of the Indian Ocean which would be up at Yallingup. So we’re a completely different wind and climate pattern and within that comes different soil types and light, etc.

With that in mind, there are plenty of ways to market the region differently. Luckily for Grounds, he has found a community of drink industry folk who are on board with the push.

Banding together

“When I got here I started hanging out with some of the gin guys and beer dudes and there’s this whole effort to change the mindset of just doing something because it’s Margaret River, to thinking that you can take things more Australia wide,” he said.

Grounds believes that the ‘tall poppy’ mentality of Australia restricts success in regions like Margaret River, as big ideas can be quickly shot down.

“We so often tell people about what we’ve done in the past and I feel like we need to just get over that, because we’re all just comfortable that we belong here.

“There have definitely been so many amazing founders and we’re grateful to those people, but the next chapter has to be about this place being the most perfect place to grow grapes in Australia. People get that it’s beautiful but it’s actually perfect for grapes.

“What we’re trying to say is, take the message off the people and bring it back to the land. So yeah, that’s the kind of hope for the future. It’ll probably take a good crew of people to keep hampering on about it.”

The idea of changing the reputation of Margaret River isn’t so unreasonable for Grounds, as he’s already seen these kinds of changes happen in his time.

“The whole time I lived in the Yarra, it went from a few small guys to everyone knocking it out of the park. Then these guys (McHenry Hohnen) rang me up and the hope is that it happens here!”

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