On a recent visit to the Bird in Hand winery in the Adelaide Hills, I was delighted not only to find an array of excellent yet affordable wines – my personal favourites being the elegantly oaked chardonnays and the sparkling pinot noir – but also very friendly and knowledgeable staff. I was visiting with my winemaking group who had all sorts of questions for the lady behind the counter with the pleasant American accent.
The lady is Leah Adint, and I discovered that she was just finishing her Masters in Oenology at the University of Adelaide, and would soon be moving on from Bird in Hand to work the 2012 vintage in Woodside in the hills, with Taras Ochota and Peter Leske, two renowned South Australian winemakers. Leah will be working on Peter’s La Linea and Vertigo labels, as well as Taras’s Ochota Barrels labels, and a range of contract wines for Nepenthe, Hugh Hamilton, Nova Vita and some other labels. Tigchandler.com readers will be familiar with Taras Ochota as the ‘Meet the Australian flying Swedish-Italian winemaker in the hills!’
Leah kindly agreed to tell me more about her background and how a girl from Alaska ends up as a winemaker in the Adelaide Hills with some of the best winemakers in this country. Leah says people are often amused to find out she is from Alaska, given her chosen career, but as she very rightly says.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re born – there’s plenty of books!” Hear hear!
The path to becoming a winemaker in Adelaide
Leah’s father worked for a wine distributor called K&L in Alaska, and it was a lifestyle that looked attractive: “He seemed to be treated pretty well by the wineries, he was flown all over the world to go to wineries including California and France, I thought that looks amazing!”
When choosing a degree to take, Leah favoured sciences, and when she found that Washington State University had a winemaking degree, that fit the bill, and it was not too far from home.
That degree was quite horticulture based, i.e. more on the vineyard side than on the winery side. After four years she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in viticulture and oenology.
Then she went to California and did her first two vintages there – Sonoma Valley for the first and Napa Valley for the second, both times working in the laboratory. The first was a really small winery – the whole harvest was eight people and everyone was hands-on and friendly. At the other end of the scale, the second was the biggest winery in the Napa Valley, with an annual crush of around 120,000 tonnes, called Sutter Home. There were 20 people in the lab alone doing hundreds of samples a day.
Wanting to expand her knowledge further Leah decided to do a Masters – and was accepted at the University of Adelaide. She spent three months in Margaret River where her partner Steven Hicks was doing a vintage and fell in love with the place immediately. Then in June 2010 she came to Adelaide and started the 1.5 year Masters programme. Her partner started the same programme exactly one year after her, having returned from doing a vintage in Gisborne, New Zealand for a custom crush facility. What an array of experience this young couple already has between them!
Leah’s research focus
Leah’s first degree included courses in chemistry, biology, genetics and organic chemistry, which she found interesting, but all the more so when you see – “ah this is why the vines grow this way, this is why the pH is important in a wine”.
“When I came to Adelaide, the work is so hands on – I’ve made five or six different wines just over the course of the programme, from grapes that we pick. It’s a steeper learning curve when you mess something up with an actual wine. You see why calculations are so important because if you mess up an add – oh I don’t want to drink that any more!”
For the last part of the University of Adelaide Masters programme, there is a choice of taking more courses or doing a research project. Leah chose the latter – “you meet totally different people. Otherwise I’d never have met PhD students or research students, see a different aspect of it.
“Here you have the AWRI (Australian Wine Research Institute) working with the University of Adelaide, and if something comes out of the research, people are going to try it.” Having this array of experience and expertise on the Waite campus there is collaboration and cooperation between key wine research organisations. “Even as a coursework student you get lectures from AWRI people on what their research is, or answer any question you might have an answer to.”
So what did you look at in your Masters research projects?
“My research is on sulphate transport of the yeast cell, so taking any sulphur that’s in your grapes or your juice and seeing how the yeast interacts with it – generally it produces some quite negative characters. So maybe elimination of that transport would eliminate the characters. I have been working on genetically modifying these yeasts and trying to do it in an industry friendly way, i.e. you are not allowed to use any genetically modified organisms in winemaking. If you split the DNA and recombine anything it is frowned upon, but if you do it in a random way so that some random mutation happens, and it happens to be in that spot where you want, well that’s OK.
“So I did it in two different ways – very direct genetic modification versus this random – something may come out. That is actually still being worked on. My project was taken over which is nice to see as it shows you’re onto something substantial.
“It is applicable to the wine industry because almost every ferment gets these negative sulphur smells which you can get rid of through the winemaking process but it’s always through additions of things that you really wouldn’t want to add if you didn’t have to.
“More research is going on and I hope a paper will come out of it – or a yeast.”
On wine research in Australia – “I think the research and technology here is some of the best. Here and California probably have the most direct approaches and are the most inclined to try new technology – like the filtering and fining methods that people are developing.”
The passion of the grape
The question that will get any winemaker talking openly and sharing their passion is – what is your favourite wine – grape, style, the whole deal.
“Cab sauv hands down!” she says. “Everything about it from the grape to the wine it’s so distinctly cabernet. You can pop a grape in your mouth and the tastes and tannins are so distinct you know it’s cabernet. I love that really dark fruit, the big maceration and tannin. And it’s quite regionally adaptive. You go to the Margaret River and it’s completely to the Barossa or Napa Valley where you get the really fine tannins. It’s a fruit difference as well as a tannin difference.
“I definitely like the riper styles more than the Margaret River styles that are quite green.” What about the mintiness that you get in Coonawarra? “That was completely foreign to me coming from the States because if there’s eucalypt in a vineyard there they rip it out completely, precisely because it gives that character. I can appreciate it as maybe a complexing factor but it doesn’t do it for me as a wine character.” I was equally puzzled when I came to Adelaide by this character being sought after so I was nodding in agreement.
“My favourite white grape is gewürztraminer – it’s beautiful. When I worked in the Russian River in Sonoma, I was in the vineyards as well. You taste the grapes as you walk through – the gewürztraminer grapes are delicious, you can just eat a whole bunch. I love that floral, rosewater character, and the spice gives it a kick and you can make it in so many different styles – you can make a super dry style, or a sweet style, a dessert style. You can make it with a bit of colour if you want to, you can make a sparkling – St Hallett does a frizzante style which is delicious, it’s called the Frivola. It’s lightly bubbled and lightly sweet.”
As a gewürztraminer fan myself (see Tigchandler.com articles on this amazing grape), I had to recommend two favourites of mine that you can buy in Adelaide – Hugel from Alsace, France, and Lawson’s Dry Hills from Marlborough, New Zealand. Amazing underappreciated wines that take you to another dimension…
An interesting combination: “You would never find a gewürztraminer and a cabernet sauvignon in the same climate!”