Liberty Wines Apprentice 2010
"Nothing else out there gives you such an in-depth perspective on an industry from so many viewpoints."
When I had finished my interview for the Apprenticeship at Liberty last year I was invited to sit down and have a cup of tea with the incumbent and former Apprentices, so that I might question them on what the job is really like. “It all seems pretty straightforward,” I remember thinking. “What on Earth am I going to ask them?”
True, in a way, because no answers they could have given me would have really told me what I was in for! Yes, I knew I'd be working in lots of different departments. But there was no way they could have told me what it would be like to see wine and the wine business from so many different angles in such a few short months.
I spent weeks learning the intricate network of logistics which takes wine to far-flung customers; ringing up courier companies, and moving boxes. How many cases fit on to a pallet? How many kilograms is a case? I came to see wine as freight, and was amazed by the unseen links in the chain between the producer and the end customer.
Then, just as I thought I knew what I was doing, I was plucked out of the office and packed off all over the country to visit customers with the Sales team. I found myself marching between restaurants and shops, price lists clutched earnestly under my arm, tasting through samples with sommeliers and buyers. Wine became a commodity- was it the right price point? Would this sell at this time of year? Could this one feature on the 'by the glass' list?
Then I was whisked away again, and found myself booted up and scrubbing out fermentation vats in the South of France. Wine then became tanks of bubbling grape juice that arrived as fruit from the fields, to be fastidiously cared for on their way towards the bottling line. I found myself wandering through vineyards judging the ripeness of the grapes, and elbow-deep in buckets of frothing yeast. I began to see wine from a producer's point of view.
This is the real value of the Apprenticeship, and what makes it such a unique experience. Nothing else out there gives you such an in-depth perspective on an industry from so many viewpoints. It is just as fun and challenging as I thought it would be, but I had no idea just how much it would broaden my horizons!
Plantagenet Wines, Western Australia - 2012 vintage
"As a parting gift I was told to tread a batch of Sangiovese barefoot while most of the laughing winery staff watched, camera phones in hand!"
Plantagenet Wines was the first producer to appear in Western Australia's Great Southern region, when Englishman Tony Smith bought a farm in Plantagenet Shire and planted it with vines. 1974 was the first vintage; the next year, he bought an apple packing shed in the small town of Mount Barker and converted it to a winery. It was to this prestigious spot I arrived in early March, ready to get stuck into the 2012 vintage.
I was greeted at the winery by renowned winemaker John Durham and his right-hand man Jez; who, as soon as I'd dumped my bag, whisked me away for a look around the vineyards. So within three hours of getting off the plane I found myself in the back of a golf buggy, clinging on as we whizzed up and down rows of Riesling. That weekend was the hottest Mount Barker had had for quite a while - 40-degree hot, in fact - so the Js were concerned that the grapes' baume (sugar ripeness) would shoot up overnight.
Thankfully, later that day I was allowed to collapse in the Vintage House, the digs I was to share with Jez. This was a cheerfully rudimentary affair but to me the squeaky camp bed and barrels for furniture were heaven after 20 hours in the air!
The next day saw this pasty Englishman booted up and ready to go. The two hot days over the weekend had indeed sent the grapes rocketing to ripeness, so that day the white varieties began hitting the receiving bins in earnest. The earliest-picked were from the younger vines, destined for Plantagenet's Omrah range. It was fascinating to taste the fresh juice as it came off the press; such is the quality of the fruit from those vineyards that the varieties were clearly discernible. The Semillon juice was rich and waxy, the Sauvignon green and zingy and the Riesling, the Great Southern's darling grape, beautifully taut and limey. I soon stopped marvelling over the grapes, though, when I found myself scraping them out of a pneumatic press!
And so began work as usual for the first few weeks of my vintage. The Sauvignon and Riesling gradually gave way to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, then Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet. All arrived in small one-tonne crates which protect the fruit from being crushed under its own weight. Through the de-stemmer they went, and either straight into one of the two revolving presses (for the whites) or into a tank ready for inoculation (reds).
Once the stainless steel tanks had started filling up with fizzing reds I was tasked with looking after them. Embryonic red wine needs a lot of attention, I learnt, to coax colour, flavour and tannin from the skins of the grapes into the juice. This was to be done by pumping juice from the bottom of the tanks and spraying it over the floating mass of skins; or, more vigorously, plunging the skins down into the juice by hand. I was often to be found sweating away over the open-top tanks of small parcels of Cabernet and Shiraz, plunger in hand! Seeing the juice take on deep colour and develop recognisable aromas of the variety over the course of the fermentation really brought to life what I'd learnt on wine courses back in London.
The weather continued gloriously day after day. Often I would wander into the lab to find Jez exclaiming with delight a perfectly ripe sample - no adverse conditions forced us into harvesting at any other than the perfect time for all varieties. The only real hurdle I noticed was that a few vineyards had been nibbled by Silvereyes, a bird pest common to Western Australia - but Jordan, the nonchalant vineyard manager, simply made sure any affected grapes weren't picked.
The run of fine days came to an end over Easter. We gloomily watched pixelated clouds block out the Great Southern on the weather forecast, and prepared for the worst. The last remaining parcels of Cabernet were picked quickly before the rains came. The other cellar hands delighted in asking if I felt at home as the deluge hammered on the winery's tin roof!
The sun was shining again within a day or so, and all of a sudden it was my last day. As a parting gift I was told to tread a batch of Sangiovese barefoot while most of the laughing winery staff watched, camera phones in hand! I suspect it was revenge for my part in the water-bucket warfare we cellar-hands had been waging for the past few weeks!
I was genuinely sad to be leaving such a beautiful place and some of the kindest, most welcoming people I've met. Despite Plantagenet's prestigious heritage their wines are still simply products of their unique region, made by local, proud and deeply passionate people. The 2012 vintage looks to be absolutely terrific with the possible exception of the Sangiovese!