The Canberra District Wine Industry- Jeir Creek Q & A
The Canberra District has a thriving wine industry that has changed over the many decades since its inception. Jeir Creek Winery owner and wine scientist, Robert Howell, has been working in the local wine industry for 34 years. Since Jeir Creek Winery was first established in 1984, Robert has seen the industry develop from an art to a scientific process. I sat down with Robert to discuss the current climate for local winemakers and I wanted to ask some of the burning questions people have about wine.
Chelsea: Do you think that the emergence of these (wine) events shows a growing engagement in the wine industry?
Robert: Definitely. There’s a couple of points to be thought about there. Jeir Creek was the first one in this district to suggest that we have a Harvest Festival. All the other wineries didn’t want to know about it because they didn’t want to be annoyed by too many people being around. I said to them guys, people want to see what happens, what we do and how we do it. So I was the first one all those years ago and then people (other wineries) found out about how incredibly popular it was and how much wine I sold. So the next year about five or six were on board and then it just exponentially increased after that… I think it’s pretty worthwhile.
Chelsea: Do you think it’s important to let people know the process?
Robert: Absolutely. People think it’s a wonderful, romantic industry until they come out and see how hard we work and they say “ooh”(laughs). There’s a great thought about the wine industry being romantic and great fun. It must be nice Rob, having all those vines so you can sit in the middle of a row and have a picnic with your friends. And I’m sitting in the middle of a row saying I’ve gotta go and put a spray on soon, ooh there’s weeds there, so it’s a completely different depiction of it.
Chelsea: I don’t know a lot about the production process so how do you get from grapes to the bottle?
Robert: It’s fascinating…it’s an enzymatic conversion of the natural grape sugar using yeast as the catalyst to produce carbon dioxide in alcohol. Now the alcohol is what we do, even though we don’t like to think about alcohol being an integral part of wine, it is. So the harvest is done, the fruit is taken to the de-stemmer crusher, augered through, which knocks all the berries off any stalks, lightly crushes each berry, the stalks are separated and just put out one end to be used as compost later. The lightly crushed berries then drop into a big open throated pump and if it’s reds they get pumped straight to a red fermenter, because it’s got to ferment in contact with the skins.
Vitis Vinifera is the botanical name for wine grapes and they’re characterised by all the colours in the skin. The flesh is actually green so to get the colour into the wine; you’ve got to ferment in contact with those skins to extract the colour.…whites are different, depending on the type of white. Riesling you want it away from the skins as soon as you can, so you’re not extracting any bitter sort of phenolic compounds and so it goes straight to the press, where it gently pressed the juice away, then it goes to a tank… Chardonnay I ferment at about 16 (degrees), Riesling at 12-13 (degrees), Pinot Noir happy to ferment through at 30 degrees. So you have to consider every variety and the style you’re trying to achieve, as you’re doing it.
Chelsea: With the colour and smell of a wine, do you think that wine drinking has become more of an experience?
Robert: Without a doubt, it used to be…well I think the best way of explaining my response to that question is the bag in the box, the ubiquitous bag in the box. The silver bags that were an Australian invention. So a lot of people used to drink bag in the box; they would go out and get a four litre cask and just cough away at it without thinking too much about what it is. But for not too much extra money these days, you can buy a bottle with much better origin, much better wine making techniques and people sit down with their glasses and swirl it, look at the colour, talk about it. But you don’t have to talk about it too much because there’s nothing worse than wine wallies as I call them. People who think they’re very smart, they know all about everything and they’re so bloody boring.
Now I’m a wine scientist, I’ve been in the game a long time, more than a third of a century and I don’t like people like that. I host a lot of dinners where we sit around the table and we open a good bottle of wine and then we look at it, and talk about it, and then it gets pushed aside, and we start chatting again, and just appreciate the wine without going crazy.
Chelsea: How do you pair a wine with a meal?
Robert: That’s the most fascinating thing. Gone are the days where white meat, white wine and red meat, red wine. Now there’s a big overlap in the styles. I love Pinot Noir for example and I would drink Pinot Noir with smoked salmon, I would drink Pinot Noir with Lamb. So it’s the weight of the wine…The food or the wine shouldn’t dominate the other component, so you don’t want a huge big red with whiting fillets for example, because it will just blow them out of the water. So you’ve just got to be careful, you don’t want a huge tasty meal with a very wussy light elegant wine, because it will just blow it away. So it’s basically the weight of those components, both components have to be in balance and it’s a fascinating thing.