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It’s difficult to imagine a more frenetic undertaking than being a winemaker at vintage. Parenting quintuplet toddlers might come close...
Yet somehow, on a busy morning just as Vintage was getting underway, Coldstream Hills’ chief winemaker, Andrew Fleming, managed to find time to talk to WineDown.
It started with a confession: WineDown is experienced in many things, but conducting interviews is not one of them. We needn’t have worried. Turns out, Andrew is as generous with his insights and recollections as he is with the flavour in his Reserve Chardonnay.
When we hooked up by phone, Andrew was in the winery. Having taken delivery of an important parcel of fruit, he was now nursing it through the press – interrupting his own flow of conversation to take frequent gulps of the all-important juice.
AF: Sorry about the slurps.
WD: No worries. What are you tasting?
AF: It’s a great little parcel of hand-picked Chardonnay that came in yesterday. We put it in the cool room and let it chill right down overnight, so it’s nice and fresh. That's why it's just being processed now.
WD: So, what are you actually doing?
AF: It seems crazy, but I’m just standing here next to the press and tasting the juice that comes off. The harder you squeeze it, the more flavour you can extract. So, if you stop pressing early, you can miss out on flavour and character; but if you take it too far, you’re gonna get bitter, chalky phenolics...
WD: So, you’re looking for your Goldilocks moment...?
AF: [Slurp] Sorry. What?
WD: Nothing. How’s it looking? Er, tasting?
AF: It’s great juice. Hopefully, it’ll make Reserve*.
WD: So, what will you do to it (the juice)?
AF: Bugger all. We just have to respect what the vineyard delivers. The vineyard guys do a hell of a lot of work getting it right, quality-wise, so we just have to do the right thing by it. The juice that's in here will go straight into barrel, and then hopefully it'll start fermenting in a couple of days’ time, and it'll stay there until the end of the year, or thereabouts. Hopefully, it’ll do all the right things, and end up as Reserve Chardonnay.
WD: You make it sound easy.
WD: Let’s go back a bit... You grew up in country Victoria, yes?
AF: Yes, Mildura, far northwestern Victoria. Very hot part of the world.
WD: And your family were winemakers?
AF: No. My father was a doctor. I come from a long line of doctors. I’m the black sheep.
WD: I’m sorry, I just assumed you had come from a winemaking family, because why else would a 13-year-old boy decide to make wine in his dad’s shed?
AF: Ha! Yeah, it’s a bit weird isn’t it. I’m not really sure... We lived right next to a vineyard. And there was no fence – you just walked into the vineyard. I think I must have seen something on TV about “how you make wine”. All you’ve got to do is...
Sorry, just two secs... I'm just going to taste this juice again... I don't want it to get too far down that track, so what I'm doing is I'm just... [slurp]... I know we're getting close to that spot where I'm going to press the stop button...
AF: No, not yet. What was I saying?
WD: Vineyard next door. A 13-year-old having a crack at making wine in the shed.
AF: Yeah, so I must have seen it on TV, because I remember getting a brick and a colander. And I put some grapes in – they were pretty ordinary grapes, but that didn't matter, and I just got the brick, and used that to squeeze the juice out. And I think that they must have mentioned a sugar fermentation or something, so I added sugar. And then I put it into lemonade bottles and screwed the lids on tight. Thank God for lemonade bottles that actually had decent glass, because I came pretty close to blowing up Dad’s shed... I couldn't work out why, every time I went to sample, most of the contents of the bottle would just fly clean out.
WD: But how did it taste?
AF: It was... it was just... horrible. Vinegary and... disgusting. So that was my somewhat less than illustrious foray into winemaking.
WD: But you got better at it...
AF: I hope so.
WD: Pretty sure you did. So, is that when you decided on a winemaking career?
AF: Not really. I did an Ag. Science degree, but it was pretty broad. I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do. But I was really lucky because in my last year, a bloke by the name of Bob Hollick, who was the Director of Mildara wines back then, said he was going to Barossa for the day – and would I like to spend the day with him, just having a chat about things?
WD: You said yes?
AF: I said yes. It was fantastic – and I must’ve asked the right questions, and showed enough interest, because he rang me soon afterwards and said if you get through your exams, we'll give you a job as an assistant winemaker. I thought – fantastic! Three days after I finished uni, I was employed...
*Coldstream Hills Reserve Chardonnay is only released in years when the fruit is deemed to be exceptional.