A winederful chat with Sarah Crowe of Warramate in the Yarra Valley
I was keen to meet Sarah Crowe winemaker of this wine but with Sarah based in the Yarra and me living in Adelaide, it was not possible while the current issue of On the Vine was out in store. So Sarah kindly answered all my questions and when I head over to the Yarra, I will go and visit and take in the beauty of the winery and surrounding region.
Sarah has achieved so much since she started working in the wine trade including being award the Wine Companion ‘Winemaker of the Year’ for 2017, being the first female Chair of Judges at the 2018 Hunter Valley Wine Show and Sarah was the Gourmet Traveller Wine Winemaker of the Year 2019 finalist.
Many winemakers start their career studying at Roseworthy or studying Viticulture and Oenology right after finishing school. Sarah is a bit different moving into the trade during her mid-twenties from 2001. So I wanted to find out more about how it all began.
What sparked your interest in wine during your mid-twenties?
“I guess I had started to enjoy wine when out for a meal, the graduation from beer to wine began slowly. While travelling around Europe it was also quite cheap so when on a backpacker’s budget, it was an affordable beverage choice.”
After starting at Brokenwood in the Hunter, initially pruning, you ended up there for 9 years. What did you enjoy most about your job there?
“It was a great place to learn. Many of our industry’s most respected winemakers would come through and visit and share their wines and knowledge. Brokenwood put themselves in the educators’ hot seat too, during harvest we would have weekly themed dinners and drink some of the world’s best wines that I couldn’t afford to access. You could say Brokenwood is a School of Wine, you just need to work hard while you’re there and they will reward you!”
Did your Horticulture studies (which you completed after you left school) help you with your Viticulture degree while you were working at Brokenwood?
“Horticulture was really my path into wine. It gave me the confidence to think I could go and work in a vineyard and so I called Brokenwood to ask for a job because I liked their wine. It gave me a one subject exemption too which was good and some general background into the secret life of plants.”
Where else did you work vintages in Australia and abroad before moving to Warramate in 2013?
“While at Brokenwood I would look after their Victorian vineyard crush out of Beechworth, I would move down for a month each year and oversee the processing and transport of wine and juice back to the Hunter Valley. This gave me a passion for Pinot and Chardonnay and so I worked harvest in Oregon (Adelsheim in Willamette Valley), USA in 2004 and 2006 (Ponzi in Willamette Valley) focusing on Pinot Noir.
To better understand Shiraz and do some more travel and I worked in the northern Rhône Valley in France (at Paul Jaboulet Aîné) for a month in 2008 crawling all over the vineyards and tasting as much wine as I could.”
What do you love about your job as winemaker of Warramate and Yarra Yering?
“Both vineyards produce very high quality grapes, I differentiate between the two vineyards by guiding the wines into differing styles. I want the Warramate wines to be up front fragrant and immediately delicious with generous palate feel and fruit weight.
The Yarra Yering wines are made to have more structure and tannin as well as very good fruit depth, they also need to have a long cellaring potential.
It’s nice to make accessible wines as well as special occasion, collectable wine.”
How did you feel when you were awarded the Wine Companion ‘Winemaker of the Year’ for 2017?
“It was pretty unbelievable; I mean I never even imagined it as a possibility. When I submitted the wines that year, I was nervous that Halliday would even like them being so close to the vineyard and history we have here. His house sits above Warramate and Yarra Yering and he tells me that nothing happens here that he doesn’t know about!”
You use less oak as you want to respect the fruit. Why is highlighting the vineyard (and not winemaking) important to you?
“The vineyard brings the true expression of this site which carries through to the wine. I can guide the wine style but the inherent quality and beauty is already here. I don’t need to dominate that; I just want to support and highlight that beauty.”
What is your favourite grape variety and why?
“When I arrived here it was definitely Shiraz and that is the most dominant variety on our vineyards and the reason I wanted to move to the Yarra Valley. To make cool climate, spicey and medium bodied Shiraz was my dream job. It’s also very easily manipulated into different styles through different production techniques and co-fermentation with other varieties like Viognier. Then, it’s an awesome partner in crime to so many varieties.”
Where do you source fruit from in the Yarra – is it all from the vineyard or from growers nearby?
“Part of our philosophy is to only make wine from vineyards that we own, this gives up total control and also no excuses! There is no negotiation with a grower about inputs and extra work, we always do what is required to get the best fruit off both vineyards.”
How many people are part of the Warramate team?
“We don’t differentiate between Warramate and Yarra Yering, we are the same company with two brands. The Warramate wines get the some love and attention as Yarra Yering just less new oak and different treatments in the winery. They are super good value, we want to over-deliver with these.
Total staff across both brands is 7 full timers and some cellar door casuals.”
How many bottles/cases of Warramate do you make annually?
“4000 cases (of 12 bottles) including Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon.”
What have been some of the biggest achievements since becoming Winemaker and General Manager of Warramate and Yarra Yering?
“We recently had 2016 Warramate Cabernet Sauvignon listed in Qantas Business Class. That is a great indication of the quality and accessibility of the Warramate wines.”
What sustainable vineyard practices do you use?
“We have been spreading a lot of compost in the form of undervine mulch to minimise water loss and increase soil biology. We also have no irrigation so our vine roots are deep into the soil, this means less water use, no diesel to run irrigation pumps etc.”
Are you looking to expand on your current production?
“No, our winery is at capacity. If we expanded, that would require a lot more infrastructure investment. Also, I think there is a tipping point where you cease to be what you set out to be. Bigger isn’t always better. The aim is to focus on what we do and do it better each year.”
With the big brands out there and the competitive industry, what keeps you going and your brand alive?
“Sure it’s competitive if you want to play like the big brands but that isn’t what we do. We make high quality, hand crafted wines from a dry farmed vineyard, farmed and made with integrity and a consciousness towards the land that we farm. It’s not a race to the bottom and never will be for us. There are customers who understand and like what we do, they come here and get a sense of place, taste the wines while standing in the middle of the vineyard and appreciate the value in that.”
“It’s a mixture of both on and off premise, wine bars and restaurant like to use Warramate as glass pours.”
What do you like to do on your days off?
“Go hiking in the mountains that form the Yarra Valley. I grew up near the coast (Wollongong in NSW) so when I moved to the Yarra Valley I had to embrace the mountains.”
Swanny Cellars is a big supporter of Warramate and Yarra Yering. Warramate Pinot Noir 2018 is recommended by the Liquor Barons Panel in the current issue of On the Vine.
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Text written by Ruth Turnbull, Swanny Cellar’s Roaming Reporter.
About the Roaming Reporter:
Ruth Turnbull is the Roaming Reporter for Swanbourne Cellars. Having studied the WSET Advanced Certificate and WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits, Ruth has worked in the wine trade in both London and Perth for over 15 years. While living in WA, Ruth was a regular Panel member on the Liquor Barons Panel and managed the digital marketing for Swanbourne Cellars. Now based in Adelaide, Ruth focuses on meeting the winemakers and the people behind the brand in order to highlight and share their story on the Swanbourne Cellars blog and social media channels