Sometimes, dining out, I yearn for something larger than pleasure for pleasure’s sake: I want to be educated. And this is where Winemakers’ Dinners come in, this their great advantage. Not only are you assured a considered mating of food with wine but you learn a little or a lot about the wines as well. It was at a Winemakers’ Dinner that I learned, for example, the difference between Pinot Grigio, which I love, and Pinot Gris, which I do not. A sheer difference in picking times of the same grape resulting in a light and zingy wine for the former and a rounder, richer, fuller one for the latter: it made both wines, as well as my response to them, so much more meaningful.
I had been excited about an SC Pannell dinner up at Fins restaurant from the moment I had read about it. McLaren Vale-based Stephen is regarded with much respect in winemaking circles for several reasons, which include award-winning wines and an experimental approach to his craft. Formerly the chief red winemaker at Hardy’s in its heyday, he has gone on to garner accolades for lesser-known varieties such as Nebbiolo and Grenache. On a midweek night there seemed no more agreeable prospect than an evening downing superior reds to the accompaniment of Snowy’s superlative food.
Indeed for the fifty-odd guests it was a wonderful event. We met Steve (the winemaker) at the outset, boyish though balding, oozing energy and charm in spite of a virus preventing him from sharing one of his gently flinty, delicate Sauvignon Blancs for starters. Steve runs what is known as a virtual winery, like many modern winemaking operations, which means that rather than owning a physical winery he utilises contract growers and someone else’s winery space, both in the Adelaide Hills and the McLaren Vale in South Australia. Winemaking is in his genes, his father having founded Moss Wood in the Margaret River then the Pemberton winery Picardy, now run jointly with Steve’s brother. Steve himself has spent a lot of time overseas working in such celebrated wineries as Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux, Domaine des Comtes Lafon in Burgundy and in Italy’s Barolo region.
With local cuttlefish, asparagus and lemony edamame we drank an unusual blend of pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and riesling. With prawns, beef cheek sausage and lentils there was a touriga tempranillo. With possibly the most tender lamb I have ever eaten – slow- braised shoulder on celeriac puree – we drank his award-winning Nebbiolo. It was an effortlessly exquisite match of magnificent food and wine, warmth and intimacy on the Fins deck.
Much later, I asked Steve a few questions.
V What do you think sets you apart from other winemakers?
S I believe in making unique wines. The recent history of Australian wine has been one of copying or emulating wine styles, especially French. Copying will only ever leave you second best.
V Do you think that Australian winemakers are getting better all the time?
S Yes, I do. We have only been growing Chardonnay in Oz for just over 30 years and we now make world-class Chardonnays. We are free to experiment without rules like the Appellation system of France which restricts experimentation and gives power to the old establishment much like a class system.
V What do you love most about making wines? S I love many things about winemaking. It is a crazy mix of the artistic and the scientific.
V What are the biggest challenges?
S Keeping alcohol levels down, making wines without having to make additions… and most importantly getting people to drink Australian wine and try new varieties and blends.