Photo: Winemakers Colby Quirk (right) and Yuri Berns (left), hosting Lim Hwee Peng at Sitella
By Camellia Aebischer
At 29 years of age, Yuri Berns has just stepped into his new role as president of the Swan Valley & Regional Winemakers Association (Swan Valley Winemakers).
Berns is the winemaker at Sittella Winery in the Swan Valley, WA, where around 40% of their production is sparkling wine.
Before Berns took an inkling to winemaking, the winery at Sittella produced mostly still wines. His penchant for sparkling had developed at a young age while traveling through Italy and France on family holidays.
“I just took an interest in it, I don’t really know why,” he said.
Having a fondness for wine helped Berns enter the winemaking profession. Like all teenagers, he was uncertain about his future after high school.
“I had two days off – Saturday and Sunday – and dad said ‘what are you doing?’ and I said ‘I don’t really know’ and he said ‘you’re coming to work with me’, so I went into the vineyard on Monday.”
While cutting his teeth at Sittella, Berns brought in an influence toward production of sparkling wines.
“We made a few bubbles here and from then on I really didn’t look back. That kind of got me hooked, the sparkling side of the wine industry,” he said.
Making wine for Sittella over the next four years filled the penchant, but soon enough a desire to experience new regions took hold.
“I worked here and in Napa Nalley Clos Pegase in 2008. When I came back I went and started university.”
During his studies, Berns was also fortunate enough to win the Vin de Champagne award.
“That was my first trip to Champagne as a semi-professional. From then on I’d always wanted to work in Champagne – that’s something I’ve wanted to do before I died. At that time if I didn’t do I wouldn’t have died a happy man,” he said.
“Post-uni, I won a scholarship through Curtain University and I met a grower in Champagne and I’d made a relationship with him. Then in 2013 I finally did a vintage with him.”
Between the scholarship and a vintage in Champagne, Berns worked down in Margaret River at Howard Park before returning home to the Swan Valley, at Sittella, to push forward the sparkling wine program.
The sparkling at Sittella is unusual for its region, as the Swan Valley’s climate isn’t typical for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Currently, Berns gets fruit in from Pemberton and the Porongurups for their cuvee and blanc de blancs, and makes a house wine using Chenin Blanc from their vineyards.
“Mum and Dad started it but the whole program [really] started when I got back from uni in 2012. We wanted to push the boundaries on warm climate sparkling fruit,” Berns explained.
“We were joined by winemaker Colby Quirk and we both had an interest. Obviously along with Mum and Dad we wanted to sort of push WA sparkling to gain some sort of awareness.
“I certainly wanted to put WA on the map.”
Berns can see the value that the Swan Valley region has to offer being situated only 15 minutes from Perth’s central business district.
Now he’ll be influencing promotion of the region in a new role with the Swan Valley Winemakers.
“I went there to join the executive committee and also the show committee. The Swan Valley wine show is an integral part of the region’s marketing in terms of creating awareness of products and the wineries.
“That’s the main reason I wanted to get involved. For the benefit of the Swan Valley and the love of the region.”
Although he didn’t join with an intention to become president, Berns’ love must have been apparent because in late November, he was elected by the board.
Berns said that he’s a little nervous, but excited to see what he can make happen in his two-year term.
“Something I’m really passionate about for the region is obviously trying to create better quality wines, but also talking more about finding regionality and unique sites within the Swan.
“Talking about the region from that point of view first, then obviously what else it has to offer from wine tourism.
“It’s fairly multidimensional. It makes wine, grows food, has breweries, distilleries, etc.
“In terms of creating awareness of that, being so close to a capital city, people find that a major advantage.
Berns is aware that the branding of the Swan Valley is crucial to increasing tourism and interest. It has to stand out and make a unique impact.
“The council has been working hard at rebranding the region over the last five or 10 years and they’ve done a good job at that but from the wineries’ point of view talking about what we do best and what’s unique to the region is what I want to make people aware of,” he said.
Though this will be his first term as president, Berns previously served the last term as vice president, so he has plenty of background knowledge.
Between advocating for the Swan Valley region and working on Sittella’s sparkling house style, hopefully Berns can squeeze in two days off here and there.