A new crop of winemakers
University of Adelaide alumni have featured strongly in this year’s Young Guns of Wine, an initiative to celebrate Australia’s best up-and-coming winemakers.
Among our talented young winemakers in the Top 50 are Damon Koerner, Melanie Chester, Michael Downer and Tessa Brown. All four are making a name for themselves, producing excellent wine and bringing enthusiasm, new ideas and passion to
the nation’s wine sector.
Melanie Chester, Sutton Grange
Celebrating delicious fresh ideas
Melanie Chester entered the Young Guns of Wine competition because a couple of mates had done it before and found it a great way to communicate with a different audience.
She says the whole focus of the awards is young people in the industry or people who are young at heart doing interesting things.
“Kids my age don’t want to talk about nuances of peppercorn and leather in wine; we want to enjoy wine, celebrate it and make something that is delicious,” she says.
“That’s the thing that younger people bring to the industry, fresh ideas and a way to communicate with our generation.”
At just 28, Melanie is the winemaker at Sutton Grange, a little farm of 38 acres located in Bendigo, Victoria. The vineyard grows seven grape varieties including sangiovese, fiano and classics like shiraz.
She credits her career success to date to hard work and an opportunity she received while studying viticulture and oenology at the University of Adelaide.
In her third year of study Melanie won The Treasury Estates Wine Prize, an award for the student showing greatest aptitude, enthusiasm and application to winemaking as judged by staff teaching the course. The prize entailed doing a vintage as a winemaker at Wolf Blass in the Barossa Valley.
She clearly made an impression because they told her to look out for a winemaking job coming up at Sutton Grange and she won the position.
“Sutton Grange has been an amazing opportunity for me to run not just the winemaking side, developing an individual wine style, but also working alongside my vineyard manager to grow good grapes and develop good wine from those grapes,” she says.
As for being recognised in the Top 50 Young Guns of Wine 2017, Melanie says it’s great to be associated with the ‘cool kids’ communicating wine to a new generation of consumers.
Michael Downer, Murdoch Hill
Michael makes his mark on family business
Michael Downer took out the top award at this year’s Young Guns of Wine, joining a list of young winemakers he holds in great admiration.
“I think young people bring a lot of personality and flair to the wines they make, and don’t feel restricted to the larger, corporate winemaking rules,” he says.
“From using different winemaking techniques and processes to different grape varieties, they give consumers the opportunity to try new styles.”
Michael joined the family winery, Murdoch Hill in the Adelaide Hills, after studying oenology at the University of Adelaide and completing vintages locally, interstate and overseas.
Winemaking under the Murdoch Hill label had previously been contracted out to winemakers making good quality classic styles, so Michael’s parents needed some convincing to let their son try something new to make his mark.
“I think bringing the winemaking in-house has allowed me to develop a more personal style with more detail,” he says. “It’s enabled me to work with lots of small batches to understand different parts of the vineyard, and play with different ideas to produce quite a different style of wine.
“I started in a little corner of the shed with a few batches and it just evolved from there – that little corner has slowly expanded to take up most of the shed.”
In addition to sauvignon blanc, which Murdoch Hill and the Adelaide Hills region is well known for, the winery now produces excellent chardonnay, shiraz and pinot noir.
It’s very much a family affair at Murdoch Hill where everyone gets involved, including Michael’s brother, a graphic designer who creates the wine labels and who is a good soundboard for new ideas.
Looking ahead, Michael’s focus is on consolidating the range of wines he has introduced and putting more time into the vineyard, focusing on vine health and more organic practices.
“This will involve improving the stature of the vines to be less reliant on chemical sprays – a slow evolution to more organic viticulture,” he says.
There are also plans for a cellar door, which Michael hopes to have up and running sometime in the new year.
Damon Koerner with brother Jono, Koerner Wine
Love of winemaking born among the vines
Damon Koerner had an upbringing which beckoned a career in the wine industry. His parents are grape growers and Damon and his brother grew up on the vineyards owned and managed by the family for 35 years.
The farm provided a wonderful training ground to learn about growing grapes – but it also sparked an interest in winemaking.
“For years we watched other winemakers come and buy the fruit my parents had grown and make it into wine,” says Damon. “So, the intrigue in the making part of winemaking was there from a young age.”
This led to Damon studying a Bachelor of Viticulture and Oenology at the University of Adelaide before winning a winemaking role at Peter Lehmann Wines in the Barossa Valley, where he produced his first vintage.
He then worked at wineries in the Adelaide Hills, including The Lane and Petaluma, and spent some time at Tyrells in the Hunter Valley.
To broaden his knowledge, Damon also travelled overseas for vintages in Alsace and Chablis, premier wine-producing regions in France.
At age 27 and armed with a bag full of experiences and ideas, Damon returned to Australia and started the Koerner label in the Clare Valley with brother Jono in 2014.
The brothers work closely with two vineyards – Gullyview which is owned by their parents – and Vivian which is owned by Rob Tiver, to produce both red and white wines.
Their aim is to make bright, fruit-forward, expressive wines that show off both the place and varietal.
Damon says while making the Top 50 in the Young Guns of Wine has been rewarding, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
“The unique thing about winemaking is you only get one shot a year, and every year is different, which always keeps things interesting.
“We hope to just keep getting better at making wine, unique wines that are true to the Watervale region and Australia.”
Tessa Brown with husband Jeremy, Vignerons Schmolzer & Brown
Tessa finds sweet success in winemaking
Tessa Brown grew up in sunny north Queensland where her parents were sugar cane farmers.
But while she enjoyed science and agriculture at school, she wasn’t keen to follow in her parent’s footsteps after witnessing Australia’s sugar cane industry struggle as cheaper imports flooded the market.
It wasn’t until she visited her sister in Victoria and experienced cellar doors in the Rutherglen, renowned for its muscats and ports, that she found a new direction.
“The first cellar door I went into, I took a deep breath, had a look around and said to myself ‘This is something I could be interested in, I’m going to learn about growing grapes’,” says Tessa.
Tessa studied an undergraduate degree in viticulture at Charles Sturt University followed by a Graduate Diploma in Oenology at the University of Adelaide eight years later.
“The University of Adelaide course had a good reputation and I made lifetime friends from all over the world who I still stay in touch with,” she says.
It hasn’t been an easy road for Tessa, who started winemaking at the end of the last boom cycle, trying to get experience as the industry was going through some glut years.
“You could get work, but it was three months of pruning or a couple of months of vintage or vineyard work. Between 2003 and 2007 full-time work was pretty hard to find.”
But she managed to gain good experience at different places which led to a full-time cellar job at Kooyong Wines on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, where she honed her winemaking skills.
In 2013, Tessa and husband Jeremy bought land and planted vines in Beechworth Victoria and started their own label, Vignerons Schmolzer & Brown.
Tessa and Jeremy currently have two hectares under vine, a mix of chardonnay, riesling, shiraz and nebbiolo.
While still a young wine label, Tessa and Jeremy’s wines are attracting the praise of their peers, including the Young Guns of Wine Top 50 finish in 2017 and a Top 12 finish in 2016.
Alumni in the Top 50
Alex Schulkin, The Other Right, Adelaide Hills
Anthony Pearce and Craig Turnbull, Gestalt Wines, Adelaide Hills/Barossa
Brett Grocke, Eperosa, Barossa Valley/Eden Valley
Con-Greg Grigoriou, Delinquente Wine Co, Riverland
Damon Koerner, Koerner Wine, Clare Valley
James Champniss, Ten Miles East, Adelaide Hills
Ricky Evans, Two Tonne, Tasmania
John Hughes, Riesling Freak, Clare Valley
Josh Pfeiffer, Whistler, Barossa Valley
Justin Purser, Best’s Wines, Great Western
Luke Growden, Year Wines, McLaren Vale
Melanie Chester, Sutton Grange, Bendigo
Michael Downer, Murdoch Hill, Adelaide Hills
Philip LeMessurier, Corduroy Wines, Adelaide Hills
Steven Crawford, Frederick Stevenson/Giovanni Armani Giorgio, Barossa Valley
Stuart Proud, Proud Primary Produce, Yarra Valley
Tessa Brown, Vignerons Schmolzer & Brown, Beechworth
Story by Kelly Brown