Stephen Chambers of Chambers Rosewood, Rutherglen, Victoria
Signature Wines/Prices: Muscat and Muscadelle. There are a range of these wines from a young-style (Rutherglen) all the way up to old wines with extended barrel maturation (Rare). The prices of these wines range from $20 to $300. Both those wines are fortified wine styles. However, we also make a range of table wines (not exported to the USA) of which we are gaining a reputation for, particularly a wine by the name of Anton Ruch, which is a Shiraz and Mondeuse blend and is sold at cellar door for $20.
Where were you born? Corowa (New South Wales), approximately 12km from Rutherglen.
Where do you live now? Rutherglen.
How did you get into the wine business? From a young age I remember coming down and helping out in the winery. Be it pressing buttons to turn pumps on-and-off, to selling wines to customers on a Saturday morning. From there I also conducted micro-fermentations of reds and white (whites worked out better, I tended to make vinegar out of the red grapes). So, realistically, by the time I finished my secondary schooling, it was pretty obvious what career path I would take.
What is most and least rewarding about being a winemaker? The most rewarding part of being a winemaker is the ability to view a product that you have had a hand in making. Whether it is a white table wine or a Muscat, the chance to sit back and try your wines after all the hard work of vintage is wonderful. The least rewarding aspect of winemaking is the constant washing; it is akin to cooking–everyone sits around and enjoys the end product but no one sees the amount of mess and the amount of cleaning required in order to achieve it.
What are the benefits and challenges of making wine in your region? One of the benefits of working in the Rutherglen region is the quality of fruit and the range of varieties that we have growing in the region. On a climatic note, the autumns are generally dry with warm days and cool nights, allowing fruit to achieve ripeness from the vine being active rather than from desiccation of the fruit. This is especially important for the Muscadelle grape which is a late ripening variety. This is also a challenge: managing all the varieties and getting them to optimal ripeness.
Have Australians’ wine preferences changed in the last 10 years? Yes, currently in whites, Sauvignon Blanc is king, whilst there seems to be no clear leader in the reds. Producers have toned down the use of new oak, and in some cases, the size of barrel and altered their MLF regime. This is in response to the maturing of the Australian wine palate which now wants well-balanced wines which are multi-layered, not just fruit-driven styles with lashings of oak.
Have you been to the U.S.? Do you think Australia gets an unfair reputation in the U.S. for producing unbalanced, fruit bombs? Yes, I have visited the U.S. on a few of occasions. That may have been a fair assessment 6 to 8 years ago, but now I think the majority are being judged by the minority on this question. Yes, there still are fruit bombs out there and in some cases they were the wines that helped open up the U.S. market. The advantage that Australia had was to produce fruit-driven wines which were consistent from year-to-year and appealed to the palate. These wines initially appealed to the U.S. palate, and therefore there was a great proliferation of these styles into the market. Another aspect of this style was the chasing of points from influential wine critics.
There was, however, always some concern that these wines may not last the journey and from all reports this is indeed the case. As we are all aware, tastes change as the palate matures and there is a desire to try something different. There were always better balanced wines being produced which did not solely rely on forward fruit expression and lashings of oak (in some cases residual sugar). Some of these wines were available in the U.S. market but many were domestic only, something that seems to happen in every market.
Which wine or grape is the least understood or respected? Hmm, tough question. Everyone will have their own variety that they will champion. Me, I would probably not be limited to one variety, but rather a multiple of minor varieties which if they are lost to us, may actually have greater impact than initially thought. An example is Gouais (or Heunsich Wiess). Gouais gets this name from the French and was seen as a peasant grape and the term ‘Gou’ being a term of derision. This variety has had a major influence on winemaking. Due to the Romans moving it around, it has had a hand in creating some of the main stream varieties such as Chardonnay, Riesling and Chenin Blanc. There are bound to be other varieties similar to Gouais in terms influence, but are seen as a great variety in other aspects.
What excites you most about Australian wine right now? The quality of wine being produced. Whilst there have been some exits from the wine industry in both vineyard removal and bankruptcies, those who remain are making very good wine even with the financial pressures and the challenges of the last 2 growing seasons.
What do you drink when relaxing at home? I drink a wide range of wines when at home relaxing–too many different ones. But my wife is partial to Pinot Noir, so we tend to drink a fair bit of that.
What types of food do you like to eat? Nothing specific. Our range of foods has been curtailed somewhat by the tastes of our daughter Zara.
What music do you listen to? Mainly alternative, when I do listen to music. I am finding at the moment that I am not making the time to do so.
Which non-Australian wines do you like? Are there any wines you can’t stand to drink? I don’t have any specific non-Australian wines I like (nor really any specific Aussie wines for that matter). I have found that by being willing to try new varieties or wines, you can always learn something. Not a great fan of non-vitis vinifera wines though.
If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? Late last year we had a family holiday in the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. If I was going to be anywhere else, it would be travelling through this area. We barely scratched the surface of what we could do last time we were there.
Is there a winery dog? Yes, there are 2 winery dogs. One is mine (Rory) and she is a 3-year Blue and Tan Kelpie. She has been great company during the vintage this year keeping an eye on me during pump overs and telling me when someone is coming!