Wine Region Spotlight: Southern Highlands
At National Liquor News, we love wine and the people who make it. Like many industries, Australian wine has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and so to support the sector so dear to our hearts, we’ve launched the Wine Region Spotlight series. Each spotlight we’ll focus on a region, to celebrate its local producers and shine a light on what’s happening there. This week, we take you to the Southern Highlands, NSW.
Nestled in the Great Dividing Range just south of Sydney is one of Australia’s premium cool climate wine regions – the NSW Southern Highlands.
While being a relatively smaller and newer region than others across the country, it’s certainly not one to be overlooked. Some vineyards date back to the 1800s and since then, most notably in recent decades, the wine region has grown and developed a community of passionate people, experts in their craft and their pursuit of the highest quality wine experiences.
The advantages of the Southern Highlands’ cool climate high altitude vineyards, according to NSW Wine Industry Association, is that it can provide the perfect condition for Pinot Noir, something the region receives a lot of attention for.
But Mark Bourne, President of NSW Wine and Winemaker at Cuttaway Hill in the Southern Highlands, said the offering of the region is vast, varied, and intriguing.
“We’ve got some quite distinct varieties that go quite well. Sparkling wines are very strong, crisp pressed whites, but in particular the two Pinots are the stars – Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir – and there’s many different offers from all the wineries in the Southern Highlands around those varieties,” Bourne said.
“Because we live in a really cold and beautiful area, there’s a distinct four seasons. And so, whatever time you come to the Southern Highlands, there’s always something different. There’s always a different character to the region and there’s always something new to explore.”
But even with so much on offer and the growing interest in the region, 2020 has been far from easy. National Liquor News spoke to some of the people behind the region’s wineries, including St Maur Wines, Tertini Wines, Artemis Wines, Southern Highlands Winery, Eling Forest Winery and Mount Ashby Estate, all of which described the year as being one of the most challenging ever.
However, they also look on the bright side about the potential of the region and how their wineries fit into that.
As Marco Panizzutti, Owner of St Maur said: “The NSW Southern Highlands is building a strong reputation as a wine region for its cool climate wines. As a boutique producer, St Maur offers premium quality, distinctive wines that are becoming renowned and sought after by more and more people and knowledgeable, quality wine merchants.”
Short and long term challenges
“I must admit, it has been one of the most challenging years, not only in the Southern Highlands wine history, but also the entire New South Wales 192 year history of wine production,” Bourne said.
Starting from one of the worst droughts in memory, the year barrelled into our most ferocious fire season, with significant amounts of smoke blanketing the region. As the smoke finally cleared, COVID-19 plunged the industry into further issues with lockdown.
Eddy Rossi, CEO and Winemaker at Southern Highlands Winery, described it all as “six months of hell”.
He said: “2020 has been all about challenges. Firstly we had the fires that whipped out our 2020 vintage with smoke taint. We were looking forward to the 2020 vintage as it was shaping up to be a great one, only to be taken away by smoke taint. We had to deal with that, then came along Corona lockdown March 23rd… It was basically six months of hell that no one would want to go through again.”
While there’s a slight positive in the short term with visitor numbers picking up slightly since restrictions were lifted, some effects are more long term, as noted by the Cellar Door Manager for Artemis Wines, Sanne Jeannet van der Lubbe.
“The bushfires caused very bad smoke damage for all the Southern Highlands vineyards, the effects of this will be felt in the next one to two years when the current vintage has been sold and no new wines are being produced,” van der Lubbe said.
Tertini and St Maur also lost crops because of the bushfires, but still were able to mark highlights this year, as well as find the silver lining.
Craig Moxey, Manager at Tertini, said: “Most challenging was definitely our loss of crops, due to the fires and subsequent smoke tainting of the grapes… a highlight though was winning the trophy for the best Pinot Noir in Australia and retaining our 5 star Halliday rating.”
Panizzutti meanwhile said: “Testing at the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) in South Australia found the risk that wines made from our 2020 vintage grapes might be affected by smoke taint was very high. With the results being so unambiguous, we took the difficult decision not to pick and process the 2020 crop. Quality is paramount for St Maur, therefore, there will not be a 2020 vintage of St Maur Lot 41 wines from the estate.
“We still have good stocks of previous St Maur vintages and we are confident that we won’t run out of wine for our retailers and customers.”
With an increasingly building reputation for high quality product and a passionate wine community, another positive is that the consumer interest and love for the Southern Highlands has only gotten stronger.
As Mount Ashby’s Chris Harvey said: “Highlights have been very little, except for many happy customers.”
Together through adversity
One of the good things to come through the tough times of 2020 in the Southern Highlands, is the connectivity and togetherness of people banding together to helpe each other and support local.
Van der Lubbe said: “We have seen a big increase in tourism since mid-June this is still continuing and we experience that a lot of guests specifically travelling to support (small) local businesses which I think is very thoughtful.”
Contract Winemaker at Eling Forest, Michelle Crockett, said this initial increase has been so valuable.
“We were just trying to see out from the smoke when we were forced to face the reality of Covid restrictions… We were extremely happy to reopen when restrictions lifted and the support during the school holidays was great. Things have become much quieter again now,” Crockett said.
“We love our regular customers, they keep us motivated. Local support is vital to many Highlands businesses, how lucky we are to have so many amazing places to visit and see in our region.”
Internally, that togetherness was also important to keep the wine businesses going through lockdown and through to the other side, as Rossi described at Southern Highlands Winery.
“During lockdown it was like we were at a stand still… All we could do was takeaway for the locals as well as home deliveries that allowed us to continue to trade just to keep the full time staff working. Restaurant managers became delivery drivers, chefs became receptionists – it was all another world,” Rossi said.
At St Maur, that spirit of connectivity was extended on to retailers, both locally to Sydney and NSW, but also across other regions.
“With the limited opening hours of the cellar door, our key staff wore many hats and retailers were delighted to discover that the St Maur Owner was making their deliveries,” Panizzutti said.
“It was great to talk to people on the floor and see how bottle shops were coping with lockdown. Staff at stores were also able to learn more about St Maur and speak with someone that is involved hands on in all aspects of St Maur wines – from tending vines, through production, to tasting and sales.”
Panizzutti said moving forward, he will continue to deliver St Maur wines to retail customers and build that relationship further. Swapping knowledge is something he sees as being of the utmost important to overcoming challenges like those 2020 has thrown at them.
Southern Highlands reasons to shop local
There’s certainly a lot to celebrate about the Southern Highlands, and so many reasons to support local producers like the ones included in this spotlight. Bourne also spoke of the passion of these people, something shared across the whole region.
“They’re really focused because we are small family operated businesses, there are no corporates in our region. And so when you do come to the Southern Highlands, you get a chance to talk to the owners and the operators quite frequently, and they’re really passionate about their product, their vineyards and their wines,” Bourne said.
“That’s what you get with the Southern Highlands, and that’s a real strength we have, I think.”
Moxey said Tertini believes that on top of this, supporting local wineries is something that can help push communities through the hard times they’re facing as a result of COVID-19.
“Given the current situation we all face, I think it is important for everyone to consider who they buy from and what flow on effect that might have to local communities and job sustainability, no matter where you live in NSW or Australia. It is important that we support each other,” Moxey said.
Rossi also said that making these informed buying decisions in relation to local producers is key, and that is also may pleasantly surprise retailers.
He said: “We are all about local and keeping it local… it would be great if retailers would be able to support us and support local produce. They may be surprised and fall in love with our produce!”
All the wineries from this story agreed that there’s great value to the Shop Local movement in relation to the Southern Highlands wine. A statement that wraps all these sentiments up nicely comes from Panizzutti, who said: “After a crazy first half of 2020, it would be great to see wine merchants get behind the NSW Southern Highlands… We would welcome the opportunity to work with retail to educate them about our wines and create ranges that generate great sales.”
Do you have a story of 2020 survival you want to share? We want to hear it! National Liquor News is looking to hear from businesses about how they’ve persevered, pivoted or pioneered their way through the challenges this year has brought. Get in touch at email@example.com to share your story!