The word viticulture conjures up picturesque views and long drives through the countryside. But that's the problem for a lot of us - the long part. Luckily for Sydneysiders one man is saving you the drive by bringing wine country to the city! Alex Retief has set up Australia’s first large scale metropolitan winery, Urban Winery Sydney, in Sydney's Inner-West which includes a full functioning open winery, cellar door, event space and wine bar.
Located in St Peters’ Precinct 75, the winery offers wine-blending sessions, winery tours and masterclass tastings, as well as chef long table lunches and regular producer evenings.
This week Alex chats to us about his inspiration for opening an urban winery, fostering connections and why we should be paying more attention to NSW wines.
Hi Alex! Tell me a bit about you and your history with wine?
I first got into winemaking in the mid-90s when Mum and Dad planted a small vineyard on our farm outside of Wagga. At the time I was doing an arts science degree at ANU in Canberra, and had no real idea why I was doing it and where it was leading me. Helping Dad plant the vineyard on holidays, I thought winemaking sounded a lot more interesting than more Foucault! Charles Sturt University offered one of only two winemaking courses in the country at that time so I enrolled and started the next year. From there, I got the traineeship place at the uni's winery, worked for a harvest in California's Sonoma Valley and then worked for 3 years as winemaker at Margan Wines in the Hunter, squeezing a vintage in the Languedoc as well. My wife and I then moved to Bordeaux where I ran a winery in the Entre-deux-Mers for two years, and popped back later for a vintage with Cheval Blanc. I started my own label after we returned to Australia, using grapes from vineyards in the Hilltops, Tumbarumba as well as Mum & Dad's vineyard in the Gundagai region, which is flourishing and now completely biodynamic! That label has now been going for nine vintages so it's safe to say I made the right call dumping the arts science degree!
Definitely! So what gave you the idea to create Australia's first large scale urban winery?
So many things! I missed the connection that everyone in Bordeaux seems to have for their local wines, and thought a winery in the city could be a way to recreate a little of that involvement here. I really love the diversity of NSW wines and wish we had the same passion for them as South Australians have for the Barossa or the Bordelaise have for Bordeaux (putting aside the endless jokes about the Medoc!) I've also loved showing people around a winery, particularly those who had been a bit intimidated by wine!
Yes! People like me. Tell me, have there been many challenges in opening a winery in the middle of a city??
Surprisingly few! Though there was a moment in vintage this year when I realised Barney (the truck driver from Tumba) might wake the St Peters' residents if he and his semi-trailer arrived in the middle of the night! Luckily, we thought of it before he arrived and he rejigged the trip to arrive at 6am. Also, there's a bit more admin than just having a wine label that I'm still learning to smile about!
Ha! That's always fun. So what's the most important thing to you about showcasing locally made wine?
There's such a diverse amazing range of wines in NSW that people just don't realise. And some really great winemakers in the state making really smart, different wines like Ravensworth, Freemans and Usher Tinkler. I particularly love wines from the cooler climate regions that my grapes come from, especially Chardonnay from Tumbarumba and alternative varietals from the Hilltops.
Do you think we're embracing local wine as much as we are other wines, say from France?
We're embracing local wine more and more. I think it's a consumer confidence thing - people often think French guarantees quality! But of course you can have fantastic and terrible wines from France. Just like you can from NSW and all over Australia!
For sure. What’s one distinction between wine from NSW and that of other regions?
Did you know NSW has 14 different wine regions, each with distinct climatic characteristics? No other state had as many regions. That's a lot of different wines to explore!
Absolutely! What do you envision for the future of wine in Australia?
I hope it just keeps getting better and better! Putting aside the WET debate, I hope small producers just keep coming as they really do inject variety and experimentation into the industry. I've always loved how Aussie winemakers travel the world, teaching and learning, so I hope there's more of that!
I hope so too! To finish off, can you tell us one thing about wine that we might not know?
I learnt last week that the chemical component that gives pepper its smell is also present in Shiraz (particularly from cool climate regions) hence the peppery nose in so many Shirazes. Also, the real secret with wine is just to find what you enjoy and not over complicate it more than you want!
The Wine bar and Cellar Door are open Wed - Fri 5pm - 9pm, Sat 12pm-9pm, Sun 12pm-5pm.
The next lunch is on Feb 26th, with Brendan Cato from The Farmed Table. Tix $110 pp, 4 courses, 6 wines and the next Producer Evening is Thurs Feb 9 with Salumi Australia, Tix $80 pp, 6pm - 8pm.