You can tell so much from looking into somebody’s eyes. The look of love, a stare of anger or simply ambivalent boredom. As my old boss used to say to me, ‘You only truly know about a wine when you can look into the eyes of the winemaker'. During a tasting of the iconic Nine Popes, I was surprised and humbled with what was in the eyes of winemaker Charles Melton.
Charlie is one of Australia’s most fervent characters. He’s right up there among the likes of Vanya Cullen, Geoff Merrill, Peter Lehmann and Len Evans as the shapers of the wine trade today (not just Australian wine – the work they put in in the 1980s and 90s set the standard by which New Zealand, South America and more recently South Africa have thrived). They gave wine from Down Under a personality, verve and vigour that enraptured its audience, and backed it up with some of the most mind-blowingly bang for buck wines the planet has ever seen – the Marvel heroes of the southern hemisphere’s vinous world. So good were they at selling their nation’s wines you’d think it was a veritable utopia down there. But that outward-facing charisma can often hide the darker side of the industry.
The young Mr Melton spent his apprenticeship in wine with Peter Lehmann, and a fruitful one it was too. It was Peter who gave the young cellar rat Graham Melton his new moniker of Charlie. Lehmann set up his winery to combat the surplus in grapes that was the scourge of the industry at the time. His model was simple – he would process the grapes but wouldn’t be able to pay the growers until the wine was sold. And sell he did! Without this scheme, many of the wines we know and love from the Barossa today would simply not exist (no exaggeration whatsoever).
It was during this time that Charlie started to notice the incredible quality of not just the Shiraz coming into the winery, but of the old-vine Grenache as well. When the fashion for consumption changed and winegrowers were replanting their vineyards with white varieties, Charlie decided he was having none of it and sought out specific vineyards consisting of older vine Rhône varieties, with Grenache being an outmoded favourite. From these, the wines of Charles Melton were born.
Back to my old boss. He remembers travelling to Australia in the early 1990s on one of the ‘Oz Flights’, a trip to put the movers and shakers of the UK wine industry in front of the blossoming Australian wine industry. One of the main things he recalls from the trip was the charisma and confidence of a certain Charlie Melton. ‘I knew the wines were going to be amazing before I tasted them – it was just there in his eyes.’ That energy is still there, but now there’s something else.
We were in the middle of tasting a back catalogue of Nine Popes and Charlie was explaining how he had to convince many growers not to dig up their Grenache. Charlie was asked if there was a point that convinced him to pursue Grenache despite the naysayers and this is when emotion got the better of him. He recalled a time working for Peter when the ‘great vine pull scheme’ had just started to be implemented. Grape prices were at an all-time low and, despite the best efforts of Peter, growers were still having to dump tonnes of grapes. He remembers a man in his eighties coming to the winery door begging them to take his fruit at any cost. They couldn’t take it. ‘But if I don’t use this fruit, God will never forgive me.’ To understand the gravity of this statement, is to understand the history of Barossa – a community of conservative farmers of Silesian descent who were staunchly Lutheran in their faith and escaping religious persecution in their German homeland. The church was the centre of their villages and the farming of their old vines was an integral part of that life, patrimony and heritage. The state of the industry was ruining their livelihoods and challenging their faith. Charlie was helpless. Through moistened eyes Charlie took a moment for reflection. What I saw in his eyes was the humility of wine that is so often hidden or forgotten. The fact that these aren’t products of luxury or triviality but a lifeline that allows communities and families to survive. And that a change in the whims of consumers thousands of miles away can lead to it all being destroyed.
The pain and anguish of that 80-year-old gentleman convinced Charlie that he would always respect the history of the land in Barossa, and old-vine Grenache would be at the forefront of his winemaking thoughts. And so Nine Popes is, in a way, his homage to the forefathers of this corner of Australia.
The wines were both brilliant and modest at the same time. Vintages going back to the early nineties, all from magnums no less, and all a perfect representation of land, vintage and cépages (though generally Grenache-dominated). They ranged from the elegant graphite-laden prettiness of the 1991 to the broad-shouldered chiselled refinement of the 2006 all the way through to the penetrating intensity of the 2013. This didn’t feel like a tasting of how a wine develops with age, but more a journal of how Mother Nature had formed and nurtured each wine.
My perception of Australia has been so wrong through the years. I’d filed it under fun and flirtatious for far too long, and here it was laid bare before me; honest and reflective, full of heart and soul. Truly humbling.