Damon and Jono Koerner are doing things differently in the Clare Valley.
Meet the brothers behind Koerner, who are doing things their way.
Words Casey Warrener.
I rst stumbled upon Koerner at a Melbourne bar. eir easy-drinking red blend, the La Corse, was surprising, and even more so when I found it was from the Clare Valley – a far cry from the renowned styles of this South Australian region. I investigated and discovered it was the work of brothers Damon and Jono Koerner, who grew up around the wineries of Watervale and the Adelaide Hills. e sons of grape growers Anthony and Christine Koerner, their proximity to the family vineyards has been an in fluencing factor, but they are marching to the beat of their own drum. Damon and Jono are among the new wave of winemakers in Australia – learning the science, but using it for their own art.
One of the fascinating aspects of the 2016 La Corse was its inclusion of sciacarello – an obscure varietal by Australian standards, but common on the French island of Corsica – alongside sangiovese,
Damon and Jono Koerner: “Some of our experimentation has included working with
ceramic eggs and largeformat oak, and inding out which varieties are best suited to which vessels.”
malbec and grenache. Jono, the younger of the duo, and the brains behind the brand’s sales and marketing, rst experienced this grape while working a vintage with Christophe Ferrandis of Clos Signadore in Patrimonio, a mountainous area of the island. “Our neighbour Rob Tiver in the Clare Valley went overseas to scope out a bit of sangiovese and when he got back he said, ‘You don’t want any sciacarello, do you?’ I pretty much dropped to the oor in disbelief that he even had it,” Jono says. Damon adds:
“Rob grafted it along with sangiovese and we started making rosé using those two varietals, as well as a bit of red [the La Corse, and the Mammolo, which is 100 per cent sciacarello]. As a pure expression, Jono explains it has a lot of natural acidity. “If you shut your eyes, it’s almost like you’re drinking a white wine.”
Let’s rewind. Before this tiny Clare Valley outfit got its hands on some sciacarello and I drank a glass of its wine, what was going on? Damon, the big brother who makes the wines and works as a viticulturist full-time, says not a lot. “I did a year’s worth of landscaping on Christmas Island in the Indian Pacific, which was a ‘make money’ operation fresh out of school.” Jono, meanwhile, was a DJ for about four years. Koerner is not their sole operation though. “I manage vineyards in the Adelaide Hills, and Jono does sales and marketing for Kilikanoon,” Damon says.
So, why wine? “Well, we love drinking it for one,” Damon says. “We grew up on our family vineyards, so we were introduced to it from a young age. I guess that early exposure has had an influence.” ey also love the travel aspect of the wine world.
“It can take you to some of the most beautiful places. We have been fortunate to travel to some amazing wine regions and we draw lots of inspiration from the people we meet and the di erent winemaking techniques we learn along the way.”
From slinging records and cultivating land, how did the brothers get a smartlooking wine business o the ground? e way they tell it, their experience was deceivingly simple. “I was already making wine with some mates, and then Jono and I made ve barrels. We had to put money away from our pay cheques every second week to afford those ve barrels. at was only four years ago,” Damon says.
“We didn’t have a proper plan, but the wine looked quite good and di erent to others we’d tried in the Clare Valley. So we bottled them, although there wasn’t a lot to sell, and continued to make a bit more each year after that.”
e winery is based in the Adelaide Hills, but the fruit is sourced from a handful of vineyards in the Clare Valley. As well as using the substantial family holdings in Watervale, Damon and Jono look next door. “We source from our neighbours
Rob and Ann Tiver, who have been really supportive of what we are doing. Having more control over the vineyards is the next step for us, but it’s not going to happen overnight. For now, we’re lucky to have access to amazing sites.”
Koerner’s European leaning is apparent, specialising in bright, fresh wines that make them the darlings of restaurants and bars. ere aren’t many big, brash reds here – in fact, their strength lies in their whites. Damon explains that after working in Alsace and Chablis in France, he favours vibrant, acid-driven styles. “We were also in Vittoria, Italy, recently, where we tasted a lot of frappato and nero d’Avola. We like those Italian reds that are 12 per cent alcohol with heaps of acid and avour.”
“Wedon’t want to be in the corner with the super-natural guysand we don’twant to be traditional either;we want to be accessible to everyone.”
e inspiration behind the wines is re ected on the labels, using names that are traditional for grapes in certain places. One example is their Cannonau, which is the Sardinian/Italian name for the grenache grape.
The family influence is broader. “What we’ve taken from them is work ethic, drive, and being open to exploring and taking calculated risks,” Damon says.
“Dad is pretty particular, so we know his vineyard is in good hands. We source a lot of fruit from there.”
In terms of the winemaking philosophy, Damon says they like to keep it simple.
“As long as the fruit is grown with care and we pick it at the right time, technically we shouldn’t have to do a lot in the winery,” he says. “We do play around, but we don’t want to overcomplicate it. e idea is to make clean, expressive, enjoyable wines that are a good representation of their origins.”
The Clare Valley
e brothers are crafting a unique style o the Clare Valley’s famed terra rossa soils. “ ere are lots of people planting alternative varieties here, but you don’t often see them in nished wines – they usually get blended away into shiraz or cabernet sauvignon,” Damon says.
“Plenty of small producers in Australia have a similar approach to us, although they maybe don’t use the same varieties, and don’t work in the same region. We try to pick the fruit when it’s flavourripe but with the acid intact, and aim to produce lower alcohol wines. We’re not the rst to do it, but it’s fairly new for the Clare Valley.”
Jono adds: “ e Clare Valley has cold nights to retain that natural acid and warm days to begin ripening again. It’s also a good t for the Mediterranean varieties that we’re using because of the beautiful breeze that comes over from the Gulf.”
The start of something
It’s an interesting time to be talking to Koerner, just as the operation is hitting its straps and nding its feet. “e winemaking process starts out with a lot of trial and error, and evolves with the intention to get better with every passing year. It’s tough in that respect because you only get one shot at it each year. Some of our experimentation has included working with ceramic eggs and large-format oak, and nding out which varieties are best suited to which vessels. ere are so many variables and there is so much learning that happens along the way,” Damon says. He suggests that it all came together for them with the 2016 vintage. “at was pretty bang-on for our style." Jono adds: “Since then and developing the new packaging, the wine has really taken o . I was in Melbourne for a trade event that had 200 people come through and they were lining up to taste the wines. We’ve still got a way to go though – I de nitely wouldn’t say we’re there yet.”
Koerner made its rst appearance in the Halliday Wine Companion guide this year with an impressive four-and-a-half star rating – no small feat for a three-year-old winery. “We were stoked to get four and a half stars for our rst time,” Jono says.
“It was exciting to open [the book] and have a look, and be happy with the scores. It was also nice because lots of guys making wines in a similar style to us don’t put theirs forward. We don't want to be in the corner with the super-natural guys and we don't want to be traditional either; we want to be accessible to everyone. We’re glad we can slot in there and that people seem to like our wines.”
It’s early days for Koerner, but there’s a lot of promise. “Eventually we’d like to have more of a presence in the Clare Valley with a cellar door,” Damon says. “We’d also like to just consolidate a bit. It’s one thing to be the avour of the month and another to maintain that over time, so that’s our big goal,” he says. “It’s about consistency and quality for us right now, so when you open a bottle of Koerner you know what you’re going to get,” Jono says.