The Wild Ones
In winemaking as in business, a little original thinking goes a long way, writes Jeni Port
His father, Colin Glaetzer, is a noted winemaker in the Barossa Valley. His uncle, John, a Barossa legend, was an international winemaking superstar for more than three decades with Wolf Blass. His brothers, Ben and Sam — you guessed it — work as winemakers in the Barossa. So what went wrong with young Nick Glaetzer?
That was the unspoken — sometimes spoken — question left hanging dangerously in the air when the Nick announced in 2005 that he was moving to Tasmania to grow grapes and make wine. Even more disconcerting for some was his choice of grapes to be planted. Alongside pinot noir and riesling, two undoubted vinous strengths of the state, was shiraz.
There was, and still is, precious little shiraz grown in Tasmania’s chilly climate. Too cold to ripen the grapes successfully, most said. Heads shook. The Barossa Valley was the grape’s natural home in Australia; why would anyone question that? But Nick had tried a couple of bottles of Moorilla shiraz from the Tamar Valley made in the ’90s.
“I was blown away,” he remembers. “It was like, ‘Wow! These are like Rhône Valley’,” he says, referencing the original home of syrah/shiraz in France. “They had that meatiness, the tapenade and the savouriness. They weren’t the fruit bombs that Australia was so good at making.” And so the shiraz seed was sown in Nick Glaetzer’s brain. Was he up for the challenge of his life?
Nick joins a long run of Australian wine dreamers and explorers; the brave, the foolhardy, often going somewhere they shouldn’t — on paper, at least. There’s a touch of the gambler about them, too. When Dr John Kirk moved to Canberra from Ireland in 1968 to take up a position as a research scientist with the CSIRO, he knew little about where he was heading. The land, its culture, its people: it was all new to him. Yet within a short time — just three years — he conceived an idea to grow grapes and make wine. Never mind that grapes weren’t already in the ground, that there was no established local wine industry or that he had never made wine before.
The year he planted, 1971, was followed by the 1972–3 drought. After that there would be regular frosts and disease pressures, not to mention the dangers of a marginal climate. Many considered Canberra simply too cold for growing grapes.
Still, Clonakilla, with a one-hectare vineyard and winery at Murrumbateman, was born.
Frankly, not everyone was on board.
“To be sure, the early wines were mixed in quality,” remembers John’s son Tim. “We received flak from local armchair critics, some of whom opined that the wines were overpriced for what they were. A certain cultural cringe operated in the first couple of decades.”
How, then, do you explain the kind of continuing belief and drive the Kirk family showed? Tim, a man of faith, says with a cheeky grin that he believes there is a God because his father not only was a pioneer of the Canberra wine district (he was actually one of two CSIRO scientists to plant around the same time, the other being Edgar Riek at Lake George), but also eventually produced some pretty outstanding results, which caused his own conversion from a Melbourne-based religious teacher to a Canberra winemaker. And Tim, in turn, brought a great Australian wine into being: Clonakilla shiraz viognier.
Australian winegrowing started with white settlement. Vines arrived with Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet in 1788. Its history is strewn with the stories of men and women like Nick Glaetzer and John and Tim Kirk. In some cases, individuals succeeded where others dared not go, or where others had gone yet missed their mark or mistimed their efforts. In some cases they got to reveal something of such rare quality that the wine world stood to attention. For Nick and the Kirks, both streams of wine history combined.
Once set up in southern Tasmania’s Coal River Valley as Glaetzer-Dixon Family Winemakers, Nick Glaetzer and his wife, Sally, looked to a few local growers for shiraz while they considered their options to plant the grape. It was quickly made clear to Nick that shiraz was not hanging out on the vine long enough to fully ripen. “No-one likes green wines, particularly shiraz,” he says. The answer was to encourage growers financially to leave the grapes out for longer. Once in the winery, he set to work.
“I made an ’09, you know, according to classical mainland winemaking training,” says Nick. “I like those kind of wines but they lack a little middle palate structure. After ’09 I thought, ‘Right, what can I do to fill it out a bit?’”
Fill it out he did, including sourcing barrels from the Rhône Valley and leaving the wine on skins post-fermentation for up to five weeks to extract as much structure as possible. The 2010 shiraz, which he called Mon Père in honour of his father, won one of the most coveted prizes on the Australian wine show circuit: the Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy, at the 2011 Royal Melbourne Wine Show. A new cult wine was born.
For Tim Kirk at Clonakilla it was a matter of lucky timing and placement that gave rise to the idea that changed everything. A chance planting by his father in 1978 of shiraz as a blending tool for cabernet, later followed by the planting of viognier in 1986, set the scene. Then, in 1991, Tim visited the Rhône Valley and happened across one particular Côte-Rôtie maker, Guigal, which was celebrated for blending shiraz and viognier. It was, he remembers, a “transformative” moment. The inclusion of a splash or two of the white grape viognier to shiraz created the most extraordinary elevated aromatic aromas. The grape also brought a translucence to shiraz’s red colour. Tim was “transfixed”. “I thought at the time that if I was ever able to produce wine from our humble vineyard at Murrumbateman that got close to that level of complexity, refinement and beauty, I would be a very happy man,” he says. In 1999, the ’98 Clonakilla shiraz viognier won Wine of the Year In NSW.
It was followed for the ensuing decades by award after award.
There have been many shiraz viognier copycats, but Clonakilla’s still stands alone as an Australian icon. While Clonakilla found genuine and widespread acceptance for its brave move into the unknown, Nick Glaetzer’s level of acceptance was a little more patchy. Family and friends, he says, generally appreciated what he did — bar one. “Uncle Johnny was not so supportive,” he recalls. “He told me he’d rather drink light beer than pinot.”
As for the shiraz, Nick’s still not sure what John thinks of the wine. “I caught up with him earlier this year for lunch in the Barossa,” says Nick. “He bought a bottle of the 2010 Mon Père, the Jimmy wine, along to lunch because I had swapped him 12 bottles soon after I won [the trophy] for some of his wine. I couldn’t work out whether he was proud to share it with me or he had no-one else to share it with because none of his mates drink cool-climate shiraz.”
This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our sixth edition, Page 116 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “The Wild Ones”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.