THE RED BARON

Steve Pan­nell’s story mir­rors the broader evo­lu­tion of Aus­tralian wine across the past half-cen­tury

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FOOD & WINE - STORY MAX ALLEN

Ifirst met Steve Pan­nell 21 years ago — al­most to the day — at the Tin­tara win­ery in McLaren Vale, south of Ade­laide. It was the 29-year-old’s first vin­tage as red wine­maker for Hardys, one of the coun­try’s old­est and largest wine com­pa­nies. The 1995 har­vest was just draw­ing to a close; on the tast­ing bench in the win­ery were glasses of deep pur­ple, raw, young shi­raz.

Pan­nell was like a kid in a lolly shop that day: you sensed he couldn’t quite be­lieve he’d been put in charge of op­er­a­tions at the cen­tury-old win­ery, that he was al­lowed to play with the grapes from some of the re­gion’s top vine­yards.

He was also full of ideas and opin­ions that, in ret­ro­spect, were ahead of their time.

“I don’t fol­low a recipe,” he told me at Tin­tara. “I don’t make blan­ket ad­di­tions of yeast or acid to the wine. I don’t add any­thing if I don’t have to.”

This un­con­ven­tional ap­proach ob­vi­ously worked be­cause the Eileen Hardy shi­raz he made that vin­tage went on the fol­low­ing year to win the Jimmy Wat­son Tro­phy, Aus­tralia’s best-known wine award, cat­a­pult­ing young Pan­nell into the po­si­tion of celebrity wun­derkind wine­maker — with all the at­ten­tion that en­tails.

“Some­times I feel like a boxer go­ing into a bar,” he told me not long af­ter that big win in 1996. “Ev­ery­body wants to fight you, when all I want to do is get back to mak­ing wine.”

When I caught up with him last week, not long af­ter the 2016 har­vest had drawn to a close, Pan­nell handed me a bot­tle of shi­raz he planned to re­lease later this year. It comes from the same vineyard as the shi­raz I tasted at Tin­tara all those years ago — a vineyard he and his wife, Fiona Lindquist, now own. Full cir­cle.

In many ways, Pan­nell’s story mir­rors the broader evo­lu­tion of Aus­tralian wine dur­ing the past half-cen­tury. He grew up sur­rounded by wine: his par­ents es­tab­lished the Moss Wood vineyard in Mar­garet River in the late 1960s, part of a group of wine-mad doc­tors pi­o­neer­ing grape-grow­ing in the re­gion at the time.

He re­mem­bers spend­ing most of his time at the beach: when important wine peo­ple from the east such as Len Evans and Brian Croser came to visit, 12-yearold Steve would take them crab­bing.

Pan­nell worked for Hardys from the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, an era of ex­port boom and cor­po­rate ex­pan­sion fol­lowed by mas­sive over­sup­ply and the be­gin­nings of a bust. When he left the big com­pany in 2004 and es­tab­lished his own la­bel, SC Pan­nell, it was a “vir­tual” win­ery: like many of his con­tem­po­raries at the time, he bought in grapes and made his wines in other peo­ple’s cel­lars.

In the late 2000s, along with oth­ers in the in­dus­try, he started mak­ing and sell­ing more and more wines made from non-main­stream grape va­ri­eties in non­main­stream styles: old un­der­val­ued work­horse grapes such as grenache; new Mediter­ranean grapes such as neb­bi­olo and tem­pranillo and touriga; blends of aro­matic white grapes, and pale, dry rose.

Im­por­tantly, he be­gan to win tro­phies for th­ese ground­break­ing wines, which en­cour­aged other pro­duc­ers to play with new grapes and styles.

In 2014 he and Lindquist bought the old Tapestry vineyard in McLaren Vale to open their own cel­lar

door, an ac­knowl­edg­ment that if you want to be in the wine game for a long time, you need to have a home, a con­nec­tion to place.

Later that year, when he won the Jimmy Wat­son Tro­phy for a sec­ond time, it was with a spicy, medi­um­bod­ied, $25, ev­ery­day-drink­ing shi­raz from the Ade­laide Hills — a very dif­fer­ent style from the full-bod­ied, oaky, high-priced and “col­lectable” Eileen Hardy shi­raz that won the same tro­phy in 1996.

His next project is to im­port and plant the north­ern Greek red va­ri­ety xi­no­mavro, a grape per­fectly suited to McLaren Vale’s ever-warmer grow­ing sea­sons and ever-ear­lier har­vests.

It sounds like a dream run: the crit­i­cal ac­claim, the suc­cess­ful brand, the bril­liant ca­reer. But just as glossy stories in the wine me­dia about ex­cit­ing new wines and colour­ful char­ac­ters ob­scure the hard re­al­i­ties of the in- dus­try — such as the fact the vast ma­jor­ity of Aus­tralia’s 3000 wine busi­nesses are not prof­itable and are man­ag­ing to stay afloat only thanks to the wine equal­i­sa­tion tax re­bate — there’s a lot of stuff go­ing on be­hind the scenes for Pan­nell, nec­es­sary “day jobs” that bring in the funds for his own brand.

Pan­nell con­sults to sev­eral com­pa­nies across Aus­tralia. As well as mak­ing his own wines he also works at Tin­lins, a McLaren Vale bulk pro­ducer, mak­ing huge quan­ti­ties of wine that’s sold to other com­pa­nies.

No won­der that when we sat down for a chat last week he was look­ing a lit­tle vin­tage-weary — and was hang­ing out for a beer: “Any­thing ex­cept bloody red wine,” he said. “I never want to see an­other vat of fer­ment­ing shi­raz.”

He’s jok­ing, of course: we spent most of our con­ver­sa­tion talk­ing about (and drink­ing) red wine.

As one of his for­mer em­ploy­ers, wine­maker Tim Knapp­stein, told me af­ter Pan­nell’s first Wat­son win: “Steve has a real feel­ing for red wine; he lives and breathes red wine.”

Two decades later, the pas­sion is still there; the only thing that has changed — and it’s a pro­found change — is the style of red wine that he lives and breathes.

As well as the se­ri­ous sin­gle vineyard shi­raz I men­tioned ear­lier, Pan­nell also brought a bot­tle of the lat­est vin­tage of his tem­pranillo touriga blend, a sup­ple, slurpy medium-bod­ied red.

“Th­ese two wines em­body where I’m at,” he said. “I of­ten ask my­self: why do I keep do­ing this job? Why am I fas­ci­nated by wine? What holds my in­ter­est? What’s unique about wine? And the an­swer is that it speaks of place, of where it was grown, more clearly than any­thing else we eat or drink.”

If you take that as your start­ing point, he ar­gues, it in­forms ev­ery­thing else you do: you choose grape va­ri­eties that are go­ing to best ex­press a unique flavour of where they were grown; and if any­thing gets in the way of the best ex­pres­sion of place — like the toasty flavours of new, small bar­rels once so beloved of Aus­tralian red wine­mak­ers — then you get rid of it.

Echo­ing his younger self, Pan­nell told me he still avoids fol­low­ing a recipe for his own wines. But while he won’t add any­thing to a wine if it doesn’t need it, he’s wary of go­ing all the way — as many in the cur­rently pop­u­lar nat­u­ral wine scene do — and zeal­ously not adding any­thing at all.

“One thing that up­sets me about the dogma of nat­u­ral wine­mak­ers,” he said, “is the im­pli­ca­tion that what the rest of us are do­ing is not cor­rect, and we’re poi­son­ing ev­ery­one with a lit­tle bit of sul­phur or a lit­tle bit of yeast, and that’s just not true.”

For Pan­nell, wine­mak­ing is about “look­ing around you, ob­serv­ing, and re­spond­ing to what­ever the sea­son and na­ture throw at you. It’s not like bak­ing a cake or mak­ing a model tank.”

One of the most important things grape-tread­ers such as he can do is think of them­selves as grow­ing wine rather than mak­ing it — go­ing back to the fun­da­men­tals and mak­ing sure they’re grow­ing the right grape va­ri­eties in the right places.

“I re­mem­ber when I first started dab­bling around with grapes like tem­pranillo and grenache back in the mid-90s ev­ery­body was like, ‘What is this shit? You’re a com­plete loop,’ ” he says.

“And now look: ev­ery­body wants to drink wine made from th­ese va­ri­eties. Ev­ery­body wants to drink young un­oaked red wines. How quickly it’s all changed: I know it’s been 20 years, but that’s not very much time at all in the life of a vine.” Steve Pan­nell is ap­pear­ing at sev­eral events at Tast­ing Aus­tralia in Ade­laide next week. On Tues­day he joins a group of lead­ing South Aus­tralian wine­mak­ers at Wine Day Out, a pro­gram of TED-style talks and dis­cus­sions in the Town Square, for a panel ses­sion (mod­er­ated by your cor­re­spon­dent) called Be­yond the Fu­ture Mak­ers: wine­day­out.com. He’s also tak­ing part in two ma­jor wine din­ners dur­ing the Tast­ing Aus­tralia fes­ti­val: the Sin­gle Sites Din­ner at the Ade­laide Con­ven­tion Cen­tre on Thurs­day and the Ori­gins Din­ner — at a venue yet to be re­vealed — on Satur­day. More: tastin­gaus­tralia.com.au.

‘I of­ten ask my­self: why do I keep do­ing this job? Why am I fas­ci­nated by wine?’ STEVE PAN­NELL

Pan­nell’s next project is to plant the Greek red va­ri­ety xi­no­mavro

Wine­maker Steve Pan­nell RICHARD LYONS

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