Over the last year or so there has been a shuffling of chairs in the local wine scene, mainly with winemakers moving to new opportunities with other producers. When Tony Southgate decided it was time to move on from his role as winemaker at Brightwater Vineyards owners Gary and Valley Neale threw the net very wide to find a replacement.
They had about 50 applications from around the world; from all corners of New Zealand to America, Italy and France, there was a lot of interest in becoming a winemaker in our little slice of paradise, and they chose Liam Clarke from Western Australia.
I thought moving from a winemaking region famous for it’s high temperatures and where they predominately produce full-bodied red wines, to a cool climate winemaking region is a big change for any winemaker but when I had a chat with Liam a couple of weeks ago he told me that wasn’t such a big deal.
“Moving to another country is a bigger deal than I thought it was going to be, not just the shift but sorting out things like getting an internet connection, learning about how electricity companies operate here, finding my way around and where to buy stuff are all things you need to learn when you change countries.
“Winemaking fundamentals are universal and it’s a case of adapting to different styles of wines made from fruit grown in a different region.”
Liam had visited Nelson five or six times previously and had worked for a vintage with Brian Bicknell at Mahi Wines in Marlborough so working in a cooler climate is something he has experienced before.
But “It’s only been the last few days I’ve taken my thermals off, working conditions are decidedly cooler here than the heat near Perth in Western Australia. Having said that there are parts of the region there where the temperature does get to below freezing, it’s just hotter during the day.”
Liam has been making wine for about 17 years and has been running a wine business for a number of those years, “in that role I did everything from pruning, helping hand pick fruit, making the wine and helping to market and sell it. It was the nature of the business and what I took on, it was also half the size of Brightwater Vineyards.
“I really enjoy a hands on approach, I like to get my hands dirty, put some blood, sweat and tears into my winemaking and my experiences in all aspects of the wine business mean I can bring some new ideas to this job. It isn’t about coming in, throwing everything away and saying do it my way, but I have a different approach that I can share with Dale Springer, the viticulturist at Brightwater.
“He can teach me about this specific vineyard and together we can trial a few things, I’m keen to make a sparkling wine at some stage so we will need to alter how some of the grapes are grown to achieve that, shared knowledge with everyone at Brightwater is essential, we can make decisions based on the knowledge we all have.
“Brightwater have made many award winning wines, wines that are also very popular with consumers and the last thing I want to do is damage the reputation of the winery, my job is to keep making great wine and to bring a few new ideas to the table.”
Moving from just outside of Perth to Nelson will offer new challenges to Liam too. “Where I used to work we had two seasons, summer and winter. It can be wet and cold in the middle of winter with average daily temperatures of around 15 degrees but summer is a whole different story.
“Summer averages over 30 degrees and some days we were picking when it was 45 degrees measured in the shade, in sun it’s 10 degrees hotter! Lifting 25kg bins of hand-picked fruit in extreme heat is better than any workout at the gym.”
When Liam was at Heafod Glen Wines (his previous role before this) he was a top 10 finalist for Australasian Young winemaker of the Year in 2012 and he says while he didn’t win it showed the wines he was making were good wines. “The critics said I shouldn’t be able to create these wines in the Swan Valley. I made my mark and my winemaking reputation there by defying expert opinions to produce delicate, refined wines rather than the big fat reds and fortified wines the region is typically known for.”
While Heafod Glen Wines produce around 3000 cases a year across seven different varietals Liam has a passion for sparkling wines, “the Swan Valley is the polar opposite to Champagne in terms of heat, there are plenty of people who will tell you it isn’t the right place to make sparkling wines” but Liam won the Trophy for the Best Sparkling Wine at the Cairns Wine Show for NV Sparkling Blanc de Blanc he made for Heafod.
“I essentially made the wine in the vineyard by restricting or slowing down sugar development in the grapes by managing the leaf canopy to slow down photosynthesis, it is a wine that’s atypical of the region with under 13% alcohol but with lots of flavour and punch.”
“I’m excited to be here and the opportunity to work with new fruit and varieties I don’t have a lot of experience with, varieties like pinot noir and pinot gris. I have lots of ideas, but I have a lot to learn too, I need to adapt to this place and it will take me realistically at least a year and a vintage to just start to understand the region and the fruit as well as understand the styles of wines that can be made from the vineyard.
“There are maybe a handful of aspects of making wine and growing grapes that are hard and fast and you interfere with them at your own peril, then there are a thousand variables and it’s those variables I get to play with as a winemaker. From the vineyard to the bottle, I need to look at all the variables to make the wine Gary, Valley and I want to make.
“I’m not looking at not breaking the wheel but I am excited about what I can bring to the table and sparkling wine is one of those things.” Watch this space I say.