‘Chase your dreams,’ they said. I certainly chased this one – right into a lift after the Sydney Royal wine show. Can you imagine my delight when Justin Purser, winemaker at Best’s offered me a vintage several months later?!
‘Vintage’ is the term given to the time of the year when the grapes are harvested, fermented and processed into barrels and tanks. In Australia, this typically occurs between the end of January and early May. Due to the intense nature of the work, finding your first vintage can be tough. Training ‘freshies,’ requires much time and patience, so many wineries ask for up to four previous vintages. I was very lucky that the dutch-courage, assertive approach worked. Having a long list of new skills and permits i.e. forklift, confined spaces, winery experience no doubt helped too.
Best’s Wines, Great Western
Best’s is one of the oldest continuously family-run wineries in Australia. Originally established in 1866 by Henry Best, the winery has now been run by the Thomson family for five generations, since 1920. Capable of processing approximately 800 tons of fruit from the family’s Concongella vineyard in Great Western, their other local vineyards and from local growers. The total crush also includes several contract wines. However, in 2018 only around 600 tons were processed as most of the Concongella vineyard, like many in the local area, was badly damaged by a black frost in November 2017.
Signature wines are the Thomson Family Shiraz (from 150-year-old vines) and Bin 0 Shiraz. Best’s also grow Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Dolcetto, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meurnier. In good years the wines may be separated into old clone wines and younger vine wines, though their youngest vines are still around fifty years old.
In my opinion, the most exciting wines, come from the Nursery Block. Planted in the 1860s by Henry Best, this 1.2-hectare block is thought to be one of the biggest pre-phylloxera plantings remaining in Australia. This museum-like block is host to nearly forty separate varieties, eight of which are yet to be identified. A red and white field blend from these very special vines are also produced. Blind tasters would hate you for bringing them to the party, but taste buds rejoice!
Three hours form home, in regional Victoria, commuting was not an option. Cue, our little vintage cottage on the grounds of Seppelts winery, a former giant of Great Western. My housemates, and other casual vintage co-workers, were Sam and Dai. Originally from New Zealand, but having lived in Melbourne for a decade, I recognised Sam from The City Wine Shop, where he had worked for four years. Former wine merchant, Dai, from Japan, was doing his first international vintage. Sharing meals from the start, we became a tight team and explored our mutual interest in wine most nights, and often with blind tastings. My palate improved heaps.
Work began at 7am and ended between 3.30 and 5.30pm, with a thirty-minute lunch break at midday. Due to the loss in fruit this year, overtime was limited, as were shifts on Sundays and during public holidays.
Gripping our first cupper, thanks to our esteemed winemaker, we gathered around the white board for the daily dishing-out of jobs. Casuals were responsible for the twice daily pump-overs. In between, tasks including wine transfers and lots of cleaning were completed. According to the boys (with previous vintages) we were given a good deal of responsibility and variety of tasks. Beers at the end of the day were a most welcome sight. Now I know with great certainty, why it takes beer to make wine!
Reflecting on these jobs, they seem very straight forward. However, for those of you that are yet to do a vintage, I will try to express the roller coaster of emotions that I went through. With a PhD in Biochemistry, on paper at least, I look like a clever girl. During those first few weeks I felt like an education centred around engineering would have been much more useful.
Getting to grips with a variety of pumps was my first obstacle. Combined with lugging heavy hoses, caustic chemicals and thousands of litres of precious wine, the responsibility seemed enormous to me. At the end of each day I crawled into bed, a little sore and bruised, and worried… a lot. Over time, as I became more proficient at the jobs, with team mates’ shared hints and tips and Justin’s patient reassurance I settled into the job. Now I am actually looking forward to vintage number two.
Tanks, floors, hoses, fittings and barrels all need meticulous cleaning to avoid contamination of the wine. Some spoilage microorganisms, like Brettanomyces, are resistant to sulphur dioxide, so reducing their population in the winery is essential.
Ferments need to be closely monitored as yeast the turn sugars in the grapes to alcohol, releasing carbon dioxide. In red wines this gas pushes up the skins of the grapes forming a ‘cap.’ To ensure that the cap stays moist, preventing volatile acidity (vinegar) and providing optimal skin contact with the wine, it must be punched down or pumped-over. Samples taken during our morning rounds were tasted by Justin to determine how we would ‘work the caps’ on each ferment.
Punch-down – the cap is submerged below the surface of the wine in smaller open fermenters or variable capacity tanks
Pump-over – wine is pumped from the bottom of larger tanks over the top of the cap
Additions of nutrients, oak chips and acid were sometimes made during pump-overs and temperature and Baumé (sugar level) measurements were made.
From the time grapes are received, grape must, juice and wine needs to be moved from tank to tank, tank to barrel etc.
Racking – After a period in a tank/barrel solids in the wine/juice will settle to the bottom. Racking wine removes only the liquid fraction from the tank, leaving the solids behind.
Transfer – Carried out on finished wine, transfers take all of the contents from one vessel to another.
I often had to set up hoses and pumps to transfer and rack wines around the winery. Special care must be taken when moving a white wine, to ensure that it doesn’t come into contact with any red grape matter. One of my favourite movements, however, was the emptying of fermenters destined for the press. I’m not sure why, especially as I lost a fair bit of knuckle skin and its a seriously tough job. But, if there was a fermenter that needed digging, I was there in my hot pants and wellies, shovel in hand.
Barrel work was mostly carried out by the boys and involved racking the 2017 wines to tank prior to bottling, cleaning them and refilling with 2018 wine. However, topping barrels is a job required monthly as water and ethanol evaporate through the oak. This loss of liquid is affectionately called the ‘angels share.’ 6000 L a year for Best’s angels – sounds like they know how to party to me!
Aside from the enormous learning journey, the experience of working with such talented people in a winery steeped in history was invaluable. The modern winery is nestled up against the original brick structure, and comes complete with an underground cellar for the finest wines. Viv and the rest of the Thomson family went out of their way to welcome us to the team and share some stories. As a real treat, Justin took us on an extensive barrel tasting on our final day, which put much of what we were doing into perspective. It is clear that Best’s is a very special place.
Favourite amongst Viv’s stories, was a tale of a flooded cellar in the 1970s, when water seemed far less scarce than now. Hearts skipped a beat when he presented us with one of said bottles, a 1976 Pinot Meurnier. Still so fresh, this was the oldest wine I had ever had the pleasure of tasting. The conditions of its maturation may never be repeated. Other cellar highlights included a 1979 Hermitage and a 1984 Bin 0 Shiraz, again showing prized aged characteristics and remaining longevity. Younger wines like the 2015 Thomson Family Shiraz were assessed and enjoyed at home, where imaginations were ablaze with their ageing potential. Justin works hard to make the wines seamlessly well-balanced; drinking well now and for the foreseeable future.
Vintage is hard. Really hard. Much harder than I really anticipated. Seven weeks is considered by most to be a shorter vintage too. What am I going to do to ensure that I survive another, potentially longer one?
Regularly read over my notes. Pumps, fittings, everything felt new to me this year. After working hard to grasp an understanding of the equipment and procedures, I want to ensure that I take these news skills into my next placement.
Get stronger. Having attempted to get fitter for vintage and failed, I wonder if it would have made a difference. My height was a disadvantage that could be worked around, but it took a few weeks to get strong enough to do the job efficiently.
Going into my next role with a good foundation of skills and procedural knowledge, coupled with the required strength for the tasks, will hopefully enable me to tackle longer days and keep my anxiety at bay. Working at Best’s has given me the best possible start to my future as a winemaker, for which I will be forever grateful.
I would like to sincerely thank the winery team at Best’s: Justin Purser, Winemaker; Justin Burns, Assistant Winemaker (Your tip about pumps – ‘It’s just like food – in through the front, out through the back’ helped immensely; Hadyn – always coming to my aid; Leanne – thanks for always being on hand to show me the most efficient methods; Jamie – for rescuing that barrel spear, thank goodness for the cooper amongst us!
My housemates and vintage crew: Dai and Sam, you have expanded my wine-mind and kept me just sane enough, loved living with you guys!
The Thomson family: Viv, Chris, Hamish, Ben, Nicole – thank you for making us feel so welcome and for sharing a slice of your history with us
The Best’s finance team and cellar door staff
Bruce and family for being both our landlord and friendly local publicans