Winemaker Mark Hunter spills the inside goss on this remarkable success story that is Sanguine Estate.ANDREW MOLE September 5, 2014 3:01am
Sanguine Estate hit the headlines when it became a five-star winery in the James Halliday Wine Companion.
That was good, but now it has a Red five-star rating, putting it well into the top 10 per cent of all wineries reviewed.
Nearly 18 years down the track what seemed like a good idea at the time has proved to be a bloody brilliant decision.
Because when Heathcote’s Sanguine Estate dedicated about 95 per cent of its plantings to shiraz, shiraz and more shiraz that was putting a hell of a lot of eggs in the one wine bottle.
Sure shiraz and the Australian wine industry was on a roll, but everyone knows nothing lasts forever, but anchored with a good Southcorp contract for the bulk of its production Sanguine was doing nicely.
But founders Tony and Linda Hunter had a bigger vision, to create a family-run boutique vineyard where quality, passion and energy would be reflected in the wine.
As Tony recalled, ‘‘From the moment we laid eyes on the land, we knew we had discovered something special.’’
That something special was the rich undulating fields in the shadows of Mt Ida just outside Heathcote.
And in turn the vision was embraced by their family, with children Mark and Jodi and their respective partners Melissa and Brett helping rapidly expand Sanguine Estate’s 6.4ha to 22.2ha in just five years.
This was no flash-in-a-pan program, the family link to the land and winemaking stretches back more than a century with Pietro Dorsa, Tony’s great grandfather, leaving Italy in 1868 to make a new life in Australia and becoming a vigneron in Maldon, 100 km west of Heathcote.
Today Mark continues this family tradition as Sanguine Estate’s full time vigneron and winemaker in conjunction with Jodi as general manager, Melissa as finance manager and Brett as international sales manager — a true family business.
Mark Hunter was, as he put it, ‘‘rapt with the Halliday rating’’.
And when Jodi pointed out that put them in the top 8.4 per cent of the 2800 wineries reviewed by James Halliday his rapt was ratcheted up a notch or two.
‘‘We have had two wines scoring 94 points in recent years and got our first five-star rating in 2012, but this year it was fantastic to see how many we had in the 90s, up to 96 points,’’ Mark said.
‘‘Of course our location is such a big help, and the grapes do all the work, so my focus is on the vineyard first.
‘‘We are increasingly using organic methods, with straws and manure.
‘‘We aren’t certified, but we are working with a strong organic emphasis.
‘‘And as our vines age they are really starting to mature and deliver more consistency.
‘‘The results which have got us the red rating are all from 2012, which has been our best year to date.
‘‘Before that it had been 2006.
‘‘While we were supplying Southcorp we had already started tinkering on the side.
‘‘When we planted it was the heyday of Shiraz and the Heathcote region and now there has been a shift from the big, high alcohol wines, that rich, red style and I believe Heathcote is poised to dominate shiraz with its elegance, a wine that is not lean but is still lightly structured.’’
Sanguine started with olives in 1996 and the first vines did not go in until a year later, but today there are hardly any olives left and those that are are still being pulled and replaced with grapes.
The family worked weekends to establish the initial 6.4ha of vineyard and now, apart from row on row of shiraz marching across the property, there is still another 2ha (affectionately referred to as the fruit salad block) running eight other varieties to trial what else could Sanguine can do well in the Heathcote microclimate.
That includes chardonnay, viognier, petit verdot, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, tempranillo and one variety that is unknown in Australia.
‘‘A variety that’s an exciting mystery that’s worth an explanation,’’ Mark said.
‘‘After our first vintage was already bottled, my father was reading a book on early Victorian viticultural history called Better than Pommard by David Dunstan.
‘‘At the back of the book it lists early Victorian vignerons and it was there my father discovered Pietro DOrsa registered as a vigneron in Maldon just a hop skip and a jump away from Heathcote.
‘‘This discovery was simply amazing.
‘‘We have since visited the site of Pietro’s vineyard, met family we never knew existed and who still own the property and found remnant vines we have since had DNA tested.
‘‘This is where the mystery vine comes in.
‘‘For one of the vines there is no record of this particular variety in Australia so it truly is a mystery.
‘‘It’s an aromatic pink grape and just how well it will do in our Heathcote climate remains to be seen, but it’s still very exciting all the same.’’
Shiraz might be king at Sanguine, but Mark is just as delighted it was their tempranillo, which took out a trophy at the recent Heathcote Wine Show against some stiff competition from some very good neighbouring wineries.
Sanguine Estates production is now measured by the thousands of cases, up to 10,000, and Mark’s exposure to other winemakers working alongside him at Sanguine and with contract winemakers in the early days would prove pivotal in his approach.
Of course production is also still subservient to weather.
This year’s harvest was hit hard, first by severe frost and then fire, which took out about 11ha or up to 30 per cent of production.
Yield took a massive hit, but picking in mid April with a low Baumé the alcohol level was down and the quality outstanding.
Mark’s training had taken him from winemaking by the book to wild yeasts, whole bunch ferments and experimentation.
An experience which ignited his flair and he insisted on a minimalist approach, ‘‘letting the grapes speak for themselves’’.
The winery was finally completed in 2004 (the day before harvest) and Mark officially took the reins as vigneron and winemaker for the family business.
Always looking for ways to continually improve and to prevent cellar palate (i.e. ‘‘our baby isn’t ugly’’) Mark said they decided an independent blending expert (particularly now they had more than 300 barrels to blend with) was the next big thing.
From 2005 vintage Sanguine engaged winemaker Ben Riggs (Mr Riggs, Pennys Hill, Zonte’s Footsteps, Black Chook, Wirra Wirra).
Mark calls him a phenomenal businessman, winemaker and viticulturist who has also become a close family friend.
‘‘He keeps us on the straight and narrow and we feel very lucky to have him involved in our family business,’’ Mark said.
In turn, Mark is now the contract winemaker for several vineyards in Heathcote, including Domaine Asmara, Sheoak Hill and Red Red Wine (the label of former Test cricketer Simon O’Donnell).
He is doing a good job for them, turning out rock solid wines and still managing a brilliant job for the family business, which has now racked up more than 30 gold medals across the range — and that Red rating.
‘‘Most of our wine goes local, to the Victorian restaurant trade and our distributor takes it right up the east coast,’’ Mark said.
‘‘Like everyone else these days, we are starting to pay attention to China,’’ he said.
‘‘Some of our varieties, such as the rose, chardonnay and tempranillo, you can only get through our cellar door or wine club.
‘‘And we are not interested in going with the big guys, the supermarkets and their subsidiaries.’’
But wait, there is more.
Sanguine Estate is, of course, an enthusiastic participant in Shiraz Heaven, the Heathcote Wine and Food Festival on October 4 and 5.
Mark said along with 40 of Heathcote’s wine producers Sanguine Estate will be showcasing some of Australia’s best shiraz (and other varieties) in one place over one great weekend.
‘‘We also run our own major annual event, the Sanguine Estate Music Festival, which will be on February 13-15 next year,’’ he said.
‘‘Tickets went on sale last week and can be purchased online at sanguinewines.com.au or by phoning 0408
‘‘The estate weekend pass is $575 and includes five concerts, Sanguine Estate wine, Friday supper, Saturday gourmet lunchbox and gala dinner and Sunday lunch as well as a bus service to and from Sanguine Estate from accommodation.
‘‘The reserve weekend pass at $765 includes all of the above plus a food and wine master class for Saturday lunch, reserve wine on the Saturday and an invitation to the Musical Taster in Melbourne leading up to the festival.’’
‘‘These must be some of the hottest tickets in town because the $3500 per couple iconic weekend pass and Reserve weekend passes are already sold out.’’
Right now it seems Sanguine Estate cannot put a foot wrong, and with the third generation of the family already here the rise and rise of Sanguine Estate looks set to keep going in the right direction.
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The second annual National Herd Development Victorian Winter Fair was in action at the Bendigo Exhibition Centre last Wednesday and Thursday.
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