Basking in success
- Friday 1 August 2003
Hunter Valley winery Brokenwood is renowned for its Graveyard Shiraz. But the white wines it has introduced more recently are also winning acclaim. By TIM GRANGE
In 1882, the town planners responsible for designing the new settlement of Pokolbin in Australia's Hunter Valley sketched out the entire town in advance, only to find that their optimism was not shared by many prospective inhabitants. Today, though a large number of wineries now quote a Pokolbin address, settlement remains sparse.
When James Halliday and a couple of other solicitors from Sydney came to establish the Brokenwood winery in 1970, they named their vineyards (and the resultant wines) according to the sites they occupied on the original town map. Hence a winery whose fame has been built on its Graveyard and Cricket Pitch.
Since the first vintage in 1973, Brokenwood has built a reputation as one of the Hunter Valley's most formidable wineries. Not the best-known Hunter name outside Australia (Rosemount, Lindemans and Rothbury all established more of an early profile in the UK), Brokenwood is nevertheless justly renowned for its Graveyard Shiraz. But though its success is built on Hunter fruit, Brokenwood today vinifies and blends from a wide range of quality sites, employing a formula well known and practised by canny businesses all over the commercial world: build the name, then diversify.
It is this pragmatic approach that has led the team to commit to replanting the Graveyard with Shiraz, at the expense of Chardonnay. This will inevitably lead to the demise of the single-vineyard Graveyard Chardonnay, and is bound to upset fans. But the company prefers to make the best wine possible. And in the Graveyard, that means Shiraz.
Now a syndicate of 23 partners, Brokenwood produces 17 different wines from McLaren Vale, Beechworth King Valley, Padthaway and Cowra/Canowindra in addition to the Hunter. That translates into around 40,000 cases per year of Shiraz, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon, Chardonnay, Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot, botrytis Riesling and Verdelho.
When in 1982 the partners decided to diversify into white wine production, they appointed Iain Riggs (formerly of Bleasedale and Hazelmere in McLaren Vale) as winemaker and managing director. Just a year later Brokenwood's output was 70% white. Fast forward to 2003 and Riggs is still running the show (now as part-owner) but has since been joined in his winemaking duties, four years ago, by Peter-James Charteris, a New Zealander responsible for creating Yattarna for Southcorp. Charteris is now largely responsible for the winemaking at Brokenwood, especially for the whites – witness the new Forest Edge Chardonnay, entirely his creation and the subject of 'a huge amount of debate', says Riggs. 'It's a little bit different from the norm.'
Putting the finished wines together is shared between both of them: Charteris admits he'd 'rather have two minds on a blend than one'. Painting the bigger picture about the direction Brokenwood takes is also a joint effort, though here Riggs takes an important monitoring role, ensuring consistent quality and style through regional blending where appropriate.
It is Riggs' intention to build on the company's success at the premium end of the market through the production of (predominantly red) single-vineyard wines. Working with the right growers is crucial if the wines are to compete at the top level. 'We visit our growers several times a year,' says Riggs. 'They're an open and friendly bunch. After the Rayner Vineyard Shiraz won a major wine award in London we did a vineyard tour and growers were only too anxious to show us what they'd been doing. They're pretty competitive. One grower virtually retrained his whole vineyard, then lost the entire crop after a poor fruit set.'
Riggs is a regular wine show judge. He is 'a huge fan of the wine show system. It's enabled the industry to learn a lot in a short space of time,' he says. 'As a result, what we've achieved in a technical sense is amazing.' But has it short-changed wine lovers by encouraging homogeneity? Riggs is scornful: 'I don't accept that at all. The wine show system is for winemakers, and is nothing to do with consumers. It demonstrates what is acceptable in terms of fruit purity and technical competence.'
Charteris also regularly judges his way through hundreds of wines at a sitting. 'You get used to it,' he says. 'It's a question of concentration.' Unlike Riggs, he accepts that the show system in the past has led to a tendency in the industry to produce copycat wines. But while 'that might have been the case a few years ago, I think we've moved away from that now,' he adds. But is it skewed against idiosyncratic winemaking? 'It'll root out idiosyncratic wines that are technically faulty – you can always learn something from that.'
So what lies ahead? 'The biggest challenge for the Australian wine industry,' says Riggs, 'is the next 10–15 years – once we've got the technical side down pat. You have to continue the momentum. Brokenwood must never stop going forward.'
Riggs discusses the possibility of a restructure for Brokenwood. 'The partners have regular soul-searching about what to do, because the partnership is getting older, but no one has yet come up with any big dollars.' In the short term, Riggs is concentrating on trying to get into new export markets and on introducing new wines. 'The domestic market is tough – mind you, so's export – but we're working on a few new wines. Take our vineyards over at Beechworth [where Brokenwood has a fruit contract on 36 hectares]. We're looking at Pinot Gris, Viognier, Sangiovese, Cabernet-Merlot and new Pinot clones – the Pinot potential there is breathtaking. And we're working on another McLaren Vale single vineyard Shiraz that's awesome, but different to the Rayner.
'Cricket Pitch has a huge following, and rightly so: it's great quality for the price. We've always taken pains to use fruit from the best areas and we'll continue to do so.'
Brokenwood has a strong hand to play. Great vineyards, small growers queuing up to become part of the Brokenwood fold, and some excellent quality wines at modest price levels. A far cry from the few cases of Cabernet-Shiraz 1973 made by three Sydney-based solicitors. Perhaps there's something to be said for slow and steady progress after all.