Winemaking’s new generation

Winemaking’s new generation

When Jock Tulloch hosted a tasting event to showcase his family’s wines this year, he threw a party in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with a DJ, tapas and an upbeat vibe. “I didn’t want anything stuffy,” says the 31-year-old. “No sit-down dinner, long speeches or overdosing on technical jargon. Wine should be fun.”

Jock’s childhood friend Lisa McGuigan would thoroughly approve. She describes her Tempus Two wines, with their pewter labels and curvy bottles, as a “fashion accessory”. “It’s a girl thing,” she says, “just like choosing what to wear to dinner. You pick your Prada handbag, but which wine will you take?”

Resort parties and designer labels are a world away from the blokey, grape-stained traditions of Australian winemaking, but Jock and Lisa know that better than most. Despite their 21st-century approach, both can trace their family history to the origins of Australian viticulture. The Tullochs first grew grapes in NSW’s Hunter Valley 113 years ago. The McGuigans have been there since the early 1900s, when Owen McGuigan laboured in vineyards metres away from where his great-granddaughter now stages concerts featuring Elton John and Jackson Browne at the Tempus Two winery’s 10,000-seat amphitheatre.

These two innovators belong to a small but influential “rat pack” of wine family heirs who are transforming winemaking with radical ideas and cutting-edge technology. Their names – Henschke, Tyrrell, Hardy, Seppelt, Scarborough and more – represent the founding fathers of the Australian wine industry. But their modern methods would have astounded those venerable ancestors.

Says Lisa McGuigan, who’s a youthful-looking 41, “If I had told my grandfather Perce all this he would have said, ‘Why don’t you think about a sewing career?’ It would have been an alien concept to him. It’s out there even for Mum and Dad’s generation.”

Jock Tulloch, whose dark-haired good looks and playful sense of humour made him much sought-after when he worked as a salesman for the family wines in Sydney, says, “My image of wine when I was growing up was old guys, a bit overweight, losing their hair. It wasn’t very sexy. But the newer generation are changing that. It’s a breath of fresh air.”

So far, their instincts have been proved right. Tempus Two, launched by McGuigan in 1998, won three wine-show awards for its very first batch and is now a 250,000-case international brand. Jock’s sales strategy has taken Tulloch wines into Asia for the first time, rapidly building new export markets in China, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.

His auburn-haired twin sister, Christina, is general manager of the company. Daintily featured and charismatic, as an ex-PR executive she is fluent in the language of marketing. Instead of wielding oenological phrases, Christina speaks of branding, points of difference and premiumisation. “In my father’s day and the generation before him, the challenge in Australia was to make really good wine,” she says. “We all do that now, it’s a given. The challenge now is to find a place to sell your wine and still make money.”

Smart marketing, she says, is not just an interesting development; it’s a winemaker’s most urgent priority. “For a long time, Australia has had the monopoly on producing good-value, good-quality wines. Now the rest of the world has caught up. We can’t afford to be complacent anymore.”

While commerce is a preoccupation for this new generation, some of its youngest prefer to focus on the heart of the business – the wine itself. Down at the Eden Valley Henschke estate in South Australia’s Barossa Range, sixth-generation winemaker Johann Henschke is set on his career.

At 25, he has followed up a winemaking degree at the University of Adelaide by travelling to New Zealand, Italy and California, working the harvests at major wineries and honing his craft. He says he’s “bursting with inspiration” after arriving back to celebrate the family business’s 140th anniversary.

“Our generation is so lucky to have been able to travel,” says Johann, whose sister Justine – a 22-year-old actor who works part-time at the winery – shares his blue eyes and winning smile. “Compared to previous generations, we’ve had a lot more opportunities to visit some of the most intriguing wine regions in the world. It’s shaped our ideas and influenced us to take new directions.”

Johann speaks without pause of exciting alternative grape varieties, such as their plantings of tempranillo, graciano, nebbiolo and barbera. “We’ve also played around with a little gargenega,” he says. “Mum is always getting excited about clones; she can’t wait to get her hands on some gruner veltliner!”

While he rhapsodises about other upcoming trends, including more elegant, complex wines and glass bottle stoppers, he’s enveloped in his personal history. Just across the road is the family’s 19th-century Lutheran church. Inside, it carries portraits of the Henschke clan – generations carefully watching over their legacy.

Just a couple of kilometres away is their beloved Hill of Grace vineyard, home to shiraz vines called the “grandfathers”. These knotted veterans have been the soul of unforgettable reds since the 1860s and one of Johann’s earliest memories is stopping on the way home from school so his mum Prue, the company’s chief viticulturalist, could tend to her precious “old soldiers”.

Back in the Hunter Valley, Chris Tyrrell, also 25, is working as a winemaker on the same dirt floors his great-great-grandfather Edward Tyrrell built into the family’s winery in 1863. Tyrrell’s Wines has also celebrated a landmark birthday this year – it’s 150 years old. Like their friend Johann, Chris and his siblings – Jane, 28, the company’s sales manager, and their 26-year-old brother Johnny, who works across several areas in the winery – combine an appetite for innovation with a deep pride in their heritage.

“All the old wine families have produced these amazing characters. Whether it’s our grandfather Murray, or Wolf Blass or Brian McGuigan, you can only admire what they did for this country’s wine,” says Chris. “They took it to the world, told its story. Murray was a great trailblazer in varietals; he produced the first commercially available chardonnay in the country in 1971 when everyone said it would never work. He worked tirelessly in taking our wine to the public and overseas.”

Chris believes the rich past of wine dynasties could be the crucial key to their future success. “What I find exciting now, especially in winemaking techniques, is that what’s old is new again,” he says. “There’s a move back to single vineyard wines and a recognition that if you don’t get great fruit you’re not going to have a good product. Henschke’s Hill of Grace is a perfect example, and Tyrrell’s is also a company that has focused on picking the best vineyards and letting them speak for themselves, instead of making a generic style each year.”

He points out that Australian wine families’ vines are often older than those in France, many of which were wiped out by the phylloxera epidemic that obliterated European vineyards in the 19th century. The vines at Tyrrell’s, and some other old Australian vineyards, grew from original cuttings of those now-deceased vines. Says Chris, “A lot of our old vineyards are in family hands and there are young guys like me saying, ‘Hang on a second, my vineyards are twice as old as the French and my wines are better.’ The younger generation are standing up for that now.”

Chris has identified an irony which would have made his great-great-grandfather smile: despite all the technological advances of the modern world, the 200-year-old Australian wine industry is staking its fortunes on where it all began – in this country’s fickle, stubborn and sometimes surprisingly generous soil.

At Bindi Wine Growers, on the slopes of Victoria’s Mount Gisborne, second-generation winemaker Michael Dhillon considers land his family’s greatest asset. Although the property, 35 minutes from Melbourne, has been in his family since the 1850s, Michael’s father Bill only discovered its potential for vintage chardonnay and pinot noir in 1988.

“He’d wanted to plant vines back in the ’70s,” says Michael, 40. Later research revealed quartz in the soil – a key contributor to wine structure, texture and length. The result was a series of award-winning wines, which the Dhillons now export to 10 countries. “The quartz imparts the stamp of the site to the wine,” says Michael. “And now my children, the fourth generation to live on this property, will inherit that. It’s easy to have a piece of land that’s great for raising horses or breeding sheep, but it’s wonderful that this land is excellent for viticulture and the wine has the personality of the place.”

Land can sometimes be even more valuable than name. Just ask 26-year-old Bec Hardy, who belongs to the sixth generation of the South Australian Hardy wine dynasty. Bec, who studied at university alongside Johann Henschke, was 10 years old when the family company, including the Hardy name, was bought out by the international liquor behemoth Constellation Brands after the collapse of the State Bank of South Australia. The name Hardy then came to mean mass-market, export-orientated wines and, says Bec tactfully, “is thought of quite differently from when we were in control”.

Bec’s father Geoff didn’t let this setback prevent the family from making their signature quality wines. He established new vineyards on untested ground at Kuitpo, high in SA’s Mount Lofty ranges. Bec, her mum Fiona, brother Sebastian, 20, and sisters Jess, 22, and Hannah, 11, all went to work with him at the vineyard and the resulting flow of award-winning K1 shiraz proved the family’s instinct for good soil.

“I love the outdoors,” says Bec, who has just completed a Wine & Spirit Education Trust diploma in the UK and has inherited her parents’ blonde, blue-eyed, good looks. “Training vines is especially rewarding, because you’re there each week and you get to know each vine very well. Seeing the end product that comes from those vines is wonderful. It’s like something from a friend.”

While the Hardys have overcome past adversities, Christina Tulloch has seen the potential in hers for a compelling marketing story. The Tulloch company was also bought out by a large corporate company in 1969, and although Christina’s father Jay continued to work there, the family had no control until 2003, when the opportunity came to buy it back.

“We did, and that’s a story consumers love,” says Christina. “It’s about the underdog – a small family wine company comes good after years in the hands of the big guys. I don’t think my father ever expected to get the Tulloch name back, and we never expected it to do as well as it has done since then.” She adds, “People with the surname Tulloch working on the Tulloch business really makes the difference, rather than it just being part of a large corporate portfolio that can never love and care for it the way we do.”

For these old families, being absorbed into a giant company is an ever-present fear. Big business has already swallowed up established names such as Wolf Blass, Seppelt and Penfolds. Lisa McGuigan’s father Brian suffered a hostile takeover and lost his beloved Wyndham Estate in 1990, before rebuilding the family company as McGuigan Wines.

But such are the vagaries of the notoriously tough wine industry, and the new generation are more determined than ever to survive – no matter what is thrown at them. “One of the most important wisdoms my dad has passed on to me is to stay positive and optimistic,” says Bec Hardy. “As our history shows, there will always be good times and bad in this industry and you just have to be patient and work hard and wait for the good times to come again.”

Lately, senior wine generations have come to realise that inherited wisdom alone will not be enough to equip their successors to drive the wine industry’s future. They’re devising new ways to mentor young talent, and Christina Tulloch is one of the first to benefit; she’s a graduate of the Winemakers’ Federation’s future leaders program.

“The industry realised they have a problem with generational change,” says Christina. “Up to a couple of years ago if you went to any wine industry national organisation, it was all men, all over 50, even 60. And they realised, ‘We really need to start to get young people involved or all of this knowledge is going to be lost.'” The program grooms its participants to become involved in all aspects of the industry, she says. “They encourage you to get onto committees and boards that drive the industry and teach you how you deal with government and big issues like climate change and water.”

Now the kids who used to splash around in the Tyrrells’ pool in Pokolbin and play together in the dirt of neighbouring vineyards bump into each other on judging panels and in lobby groups. “It’s weird when you’re sitting on some committee with your friends’ fathers,” says Christina, “and you can see them looking at you thinking, ‘You should be a little girl, because how old does that make me?'”

Or perhaps they’re simply astonished that both the male and female faces of Australian winemaking have started to scrub up so well. Says Bec Hardy, “As a single girl, it’s a fantastic industry to work in. There are some great-looking guys – just look at Johann! The new generation of winemakers can’t get away with the steel caps, stained trousers and a faded KingGee shirt their father and grandfather would have spent their life in, because they have to travel out of the vineyard to meet the consumer.”

Christina Tulloch agrees. “Making great wine used to be enough. Now you need a strong brand with a personality behind it – and if you have a good-looking guy as well, that certainly won’t hurt, either.”

Taken from: Sydney Morning Herald