Solid as a Rock
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICHARD CORNISH
Melanie Chester walks through the Sutton Grange vineyards with her dog Myrtle. The 2018 vintage is in the tanks and quietly fermenting away. Melanie looks relaxed and quietly confident. “My wine starts here in the vineyard,” she says. “I want people to be able to taste the place and the year.” With this she looks to summit of Mount Alexander that soars above the vineyard.
“The Jaara Jaara people call it Lanjanuc,” says Melanie. “It dominates everything we do here at Sutton Grange. It creates its own little micro-climate and the vines grow in the super-hungry degraded granitic soil,” she says. “It’s really similar to the soils in the Rhone,” she adds with a smile.
Melanie is a young and talented winemaker. She took over the role as wine maker at Sutton Grange Winery, 20 kilometres north east of Castlemaine two and a half years ago from the enigmatic Gilles Lapalus, now famous for his Maidenii Vermouth.
She was born and brought up on Dangar Island in the Hawkesbury River. A place with no roads where locals wheelbarrowed their shopping up dirt tracks between their boats and their homes. She moved with her family to the Adelaide Hills. There the lure of the grapes was strong and she found herself going straight from secondary school to the Adelaide University wine making course. There her talent was recognised and she was awarded a scholarship to work with the team at Wolf Blass. “I finished university on the Friday, partied all weekend, then started work on the Monday with a ripper of a hangover,” says Melanie.
She worked there and at Seppelt Great Western making exceptional wines from grapes grown at the Drumborg, Heathcote and Great Western Vineyards. She was approached by the owner of Sutton Grange and left Seppelt Great Western before that wine making operation was sadly closed down by the megalithic owner Treasury Wine Estates. “There was 156 years of wine making history there and I really miss that experience I had there,” says Melanie.
Despite the dry season the vineyard looks extremely healthy, complete with a soft underfoot grass cover between the rows. “We don’t allow glyphosate (herbicide) onto the vineyard,” says Melanie. They use a more labour intensive and expensive hand method to remove vegetation from directly under the vines. “Great wines start with the soil,” she says. She and her team manage the vineyard using organic and biodynamic principles. Compost is made with the left over skins and seeds from the winemaking and applied to the vineyard. Preparations are made from matured cow manure and sprayed over the vineyard to promote soil bio diversity.
We sit in the late autumn sun and try 2016 flagship Syrah. It is a beautiful wine, with aromas of red fruit: raspberries, satsumas, blackcurrant and blueberry with spicy notes of fennel and nutmeg. Her name is called out. She is needed back in the winery. “I love vintage but I also love when it is all over,” she says. “The team and I will head up to the top of Mount Alexander and have a few beers and watch the sun go down.”