the curious winemaker project

can a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs make a truly special wine?

Even we were sceptical; could a bunch of enthusiastic but untrained amateurs join together and make “good” wine? Not just plonk, but a truly special wine, worthy of drinking, appreciating and sharing.

We gathered 20 “curious winemakers” together and decided to find out.

We thought forking out to purchase the grapes ‘up front’ might be a big ask, but within days our inaugural Vintage 2015 class was full of keen and curious winemakers, from all walks of life.

Some had always wanted to ‘look under the bonnet’ of a winery, some were gifted the project as the ‘tricky to buy for’ Christmas present, and some even had their backyard vineyard starting to fruit, and were keen to learn how to make their own wine next year. And, under the tutelage of our winemaker (curious in his own way!), John Harris, they set out learning the ropes of how a great wine might be put together from the most basic beginnings.

‘Summer school’ involves lots of tasting: Warm vs cool climate Shiraz, the effects of ripeness, oak, acid etc, how the addition of Viognier might affect the finished Shiraz. By the time vintage rolls around our curious winemakers are starting to know what they liked and what they liked less.

We explore the vineyard at Moonambel, nestled in the Pyrenees Ranges in Western Victoria — a bastion of great cool-climate Shiraz fruit for decades. Shiraz loves it here in these hills- it’s a safe bet for our first curious winemaking vintage.

Amongst the vines we learn about the ripening process, testing sugar and alcohol, tasting the nuances in different blocks of the vineyard. We plan which fruit to pick, and importantly, when to pick. The Curious Winemaker project is a democracy: questions of fruit choice and winemaking techniques are settled with online voting.

Mother Nature is kind to winemakers in 2015 — a moderate ripening season, early if anything, but without any damaging extremes. For our project, we pick half a ton of delicious Shiraz, and a sprinkling of Viognier grapes that would add some lifted fruit notes and slippery mouthfeel to our finished product. It’s then back to our Mitchell Harris Cellar Door in Ballarat to complete the Shiraz alchemy.

For small-batch winemaking like this, it’s back to all the old practices. Yep, the best way to crush our Shiraz bunches was with the crushers on the end of our legs! Pigeage is the age-old practice of jumping into the fermenter and gently breaking up the berries with our heels and toes. It doesn’t hurt that this is also one of the most fun parts of the job!

After 10 days in a big open-top fermenter, the fermentation process is through — the sweetness of the fruit on the vine replaced with some classic cool-climate Shiraz tastes: white pepper and a lovely black-cherry tang. It’s time to press!

Once again, with these small batches, the old ways win out: a small basket press and plenty of shared muscle! Soon our “Curious Winemaker Shiraz” runs freely away from the skins, bunches and press, and into an old French Oak hogshead (330L) barrel to further mature.

Throughout the year, our curious winemakers, will choose labels, bottles and closures. Our project will culminate in a bottling and boxing day later in 2015.

..and will our Curious Winemaker Shiraz be everything we hoped of this project? A truly special, delicious, shareable wine?..

…only time will tell.

Are you interested in becoming a Curious Winemaker in 2016? Drop us a line here and you’ll be first in line when we open the class later this year…

…and if you liked this article , we’d love it if you’d hit the ‘recommend’ button or share it on… Cheers!

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