LEAVING THE FOLD
JOHN DUVAL HELD THE TOP JOB IN AUSTRALIAN WINEMAKING, THEN WENT OUT ON HIS OWN.
Among the legions of winemakers dotted around the country there are a few who are considered true leaders in their field. These men and women not only protect the legacy of our historic gems but also craft rising stars, overseeing both household names as well as tiny boutique operations. It is this select group who not only have helped to define Australian wine for decades but also continue to drive its future.
Unsurprisingly, those who have filled the role of Penfolds chief winemaker, one of the most coveted positions for an Australian in international wine, have been such stars. Since the creation of Penfolds Grange only four winemakers have held that hallowed title: Grange visionary Max Schubert, Don Ditter, John Duval and Peter Gago, all custodians over a significant part of Australian wine history.
For many the Penfolds job would be the realisation of a lifelong dream, an achievement that could not be bettered and a job for life, as it was for Schubert and Ditter. But for Duval, his long time at Penfolds has become a springboard into the wider world of wine, under his own label and further afield with projects in Australia, Europe, South America and the US.
The Duval family connection with Penfolds started well before John began his winemaking career. In the 1940s the Duval family sheep stud was a supplier of grapes to Penfolds, with the famed Magill Estate planted in part with cuttings from the family farm.
Duval landed a job at Penfolds fresh out of the University of Adelaide in 1974 and by 1986 had risen through the ranks to chief winemaker, a job he held until 2002, when he passed the reins to Gago. It was an exciting time in the winery’s evolution – Grange was increasingly seen as one of the world’s finest wines and this was reflected in the wide array of awards Duval gained during his tenure.
Duval was winemaker of the year at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in 1989 and the 1990 Penfolds Grange was named wine of the year by Wine Spectator in 1995. Duval was also involved in a broadening of Penfolds’ range with the development of the RWT shiraz, Yattarna chardonnay and Special Bin Block 42 Kalimna cabernet. His legacy is well in keeping with the previous chief winemakers at Penfolds. But after 29 years with Penfolds and 16 as chief winemaker, Duval decided to move on, and left the corporate world behind to create a new Barossa family legacy with John Duval wines.
No doubt it was a difficult move to leave behind the safety of Penfolds, with its well drilled viticultural, winemaking, sales and marketing teams. Yet John made the leap and stepped out essentially as a one-man band in an attempt to craft his very own style of new Barossa icons.
While departing Penfolds was very much a leap of faith it also opened up new opportunities both in Australia and abroad across a whole range of wine styles. Duval was no longer wedded to the Penfolds winemaking style – much of which has remained fairly consistent over time – particularly for the icons and much-loved bin wines. He could now fully remove the shackles and make wine in his own special way.
John Duval wines, however, is not a huge step away from what Duval knows best. It is a Barossa Valley specialist, sourcing largely old vine fruit to create traditionally powerful and weighty wine styles with great generosity of fruit. But there are also plenty of significant differences to his wines made under the Penfolds label. Oak is very much more reserved with a lower proportion of new French oak. And the wines are more savoury with less of the lush Barossa blackberry nuances and more of the region’s baked earth and tarry characters.
At a varietal level is where the largest changes have been made. While the backbone of John Duval wines is old vine Barossa shiraz, there is also significant emphasis on the other Rhone Valley varietals – particularly grenache, but also mourvedre, marsanne, roussanne and viognier. Although Duval is known globally as a shiraz specialist, his recent straight grenache and grenache blends have showcased exceptional skill in crafting wines from this underrated grape variety.
While the Plexus shiraz-grenache blend and Annexus grenache are outstanding, all the John Duval wines show significant subtlety combined with underlying power, which has become their signature. They are also great examples of what can be done in the Barossa with the fruits of long experience and a lighter touch.