Our communications manger Kristin went to meet with winemaker Alex Retief, to talk about his newly opened Urban Winery in St Peters and the philosophy behind his wine.
The Urban Winery is nestled in the middle of the creative Precinct 75 just of Mary Street in St Peters, the precinct is home to a variety of businesses such as design shops, florists, breweries and a bakery.
It’s through a discrete door in one of the courtyards that you’ll find the home of A.Retief’s wines. A familliar smell of barrels, wine and pressed grapes hits your nose as you enter, just as warmth hits your heart as the golden winter sun reflects its warmth through the back windows. Alex greets me at the door wearing his trademark cowboy boots and big smile.
Retief entered the world of winemaking in the mid 90’s by pure coincidence. He was home visiting his parents during a summer holiday from Uni (where he was studying an arts degree) and his parents had decided to plant grapes (Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon) on their family property near Gundagai. The 250 hectare property has been in Retief’s family for generations, mainly used for grazing and crops. ‘I got put to work; we did it all from scratch. It was a very hot September and the soil was rock hard so it was a lot of work, but fun and it got me interested in the whole process of making wine.’
‘I decided there and then to give up my Arts degree and study wine science instead. I studied wine science at Charles Sturt University in Wagga the following year. Once I finished my degree I joined wine maker Greg Gallagher as a trainee at the University Vineyard.’
Following his traineeship Alex oversaw a vintage in California in 2002. He then came back to work with winemaker Andrew Margan in the Hunter Valley for vintages 2003-04 and 2005. Between seasons Alex would travelled to France and oversaw vintages in Languedoc before being appointed as winemaker at Chateau de Lagarde in Bordeaux in 2005 where he ended up staying for 2 years.
What made you travel to California?
When my traineeship finished in June 2002 I had some spare time before the next harvest in January. I was eager to practise my new skills so I got a job in the States and went over there for 8 weeks.
Did you find that there was a big difference working over there ?
It was massively different in terms of volume. I worked at Fetter Vineyard which is one of the largest Organic vineyards in the Russian River and they processed more in one day than we did for a whole vintage back in Wagga. We had 50 tonne tanks in America processing 250 tonnes of grapes a day.
So is working with Organic wines something that’s important for you?
Yes absolutely! Being organic is something that has been close to my mum’s heart for as long as I can remember. We always chose organic produce and ate what was in season when I was growing up. So it is something that comes naturally to me.
Our whole family farm was certified Organic in 2000 and Biodynamic in 2003. This is something we are very proud of, for, as I mentioned earlier, this used to be a grazing property and the soil was pretty much like concrete, and now, after 13 years of being certified, you can walk through picking up handfuls of soil – rich and full of worms.
So what’s the difference between Organic and Biodynamic?
While most people understand Organic, the whole idea of Biodynamic is a step up, using the lunar calendar. Its about trying to attract life into something to then get rid of something else, let’s say bugs for example, instead of spraying them you attract the birds that eat them. So basically you create a natural order of things.
The best thing about Biodynamics is that the whole vine becomes balanced – it will only produce enough fruit for which it can get nutrients and so you’re not stressing the plant. In this way the plant will give you a beautiful amount of flavour and yield for that vintage.
So that means that the vintages can really vary in flavour, for example our 2012 Shiraz has 11.5 % alcohol and has very white /black pepper flavours. It’s really soft and very much a Rhone-style, whereas next year’s vintage balances itself out more and is a bit stronger and has a much more chocolate-cherry flavour. And I love that it can differ so much. It makes my wine expressive as if the grapes can speak for themselves.
In 2012 we really saw the benefits of being Biodynamic. We had such a heavy rainfall that we had to close the vineyard because flood water was running through the vines, and while other vineyards around us were covered in disease, our vines were strong enough to withhold the relentless rain. We managed to produce ripe fruit-driven grapes at a time when I didn’t think it would be possible.
Your wine is predominantly produced in NSW so tell me about your Crianza
Well in 2010 we had a really bad year here in NSW, so I went over to Spain (which happened to have their best vintage in more than 30 years) and found a vineya
that would sell me some grapes. I selected Garnacha, Mazuelo and Tempranillo grapes, made the wine there and shipped it to Australia in barrels. Today I only work with NSW wine from different vineyards including my parent’s farm but also from Hilltops and Tumbarumba. I love how different the regions are within NSW.
So what brought on the Urban Winery
Well something that I really liked when I was in Bordeaux was how involved everyone was in the wine and the local vineyards. It was almost like the way we
follow football, they would follow their local vineyards and it was very competitive between the east and west sides of the river. I really loved how involved everyone wa
s and I wanted to bring that here to Australia and to create a space where people could get involved with the wine-making process.
I had read about other Urban Wineries in America and Canada and I decided that that’s what I wanted to do. I started off with a side project a couple of years ago where I did an event with Bourke Street Bakery. First we organised a “Pressing Party” where people where invited to help us press the grapes at the bakery, then that was followed with a “Bottling Party”. It was a great turn out and everyone had so much fun. So this year I decided that it was now or never, so here we are.
I’m hoping that this will only be the start of getting people more involved with the process of wine making. Not only will we do all the pressing, bottling and storing here, but we will also host wine tasting events and wine dinners.
What grape varieties are you working with at the moment?
2016 vintage we did Sauv Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Tumbarumba, Mum and Dad’s Cabaret and Shiraz as usual and Temprenillo from Wagga, Hilltops this year was Mataro, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Where the blend will go we will just have to wait and see. Blending was something I really learnt in Bordeaux, its great experimenting with different grapes.
What advice would you give to any person considering a career as a winemaker?
For anyone starting out or thinking about starting out producing their own wine, I couldn’t recommend a wine making degree highly enough.
If you’re talking about general wine knowledge, best advice would be to try as many different kinds of grapes as possible and don’t let anyone tell you what you should be tasting and what your palate should be tasting. Don’t let anyone influence whether you should like a wine or not.
To find out more about Alex Retief and the events at the Urban Winery visit http://urbanwinerysydney.com.au/whats-on