Late last year, Nicholas Clark who is one half of the family owned Amietta Winery (the other half being his partner Janet Cokbill) in Geelong, Victoria contacted me to ask if I was interested in travelling to the Geelong Wine Show which he helps to organise. Unfortunately I was unable to go and despite my best efforts I have been unable to find time to make the trip down since.

Instead, Nicholas has sent me four of their current release wines to try and I took the opportunity to interrogate him with the following questions which I will divide into two posts due to their length. I hope that you find the detailed answers of interest as background leading into the wine reviews that I will post later during the week.

Questions about the people:

Cam: I have read that both you and Janet were archaeologists as well holding a varied number of other roles over the years, what led to you making a decision to start growing grapes and producing wine?

Nicholas: Apart from some type of insanity?

Reading biographical notes of newcomers to the Australian wine industry, it seems many of them have been people of reasonable/substantial financial means who have tasted their way through the fine wines of world before having an ‘I could do that’ moment. Phillip Jones (Bass Phillip) and Peter Althaus (Domaine A) spring to mind as particularly successful examples.

Janet and I really started the other way. We were both keen home gardeners with modest day-jobs who enjoyed outdoor activities and wanted to live in the country. Grape growing presented itself as a possible way of generating a farm income, but on a small farm it was never going to work without value-adding. So that’s how we became grape growers and winemakers. We did short courses in both grape growing and wine making and I enrolled at Charles Sturt University doing Viticulture as a distance education student.

Cam: Is there a particular bottle that you could say was the best bottle of wine you’ve experienced?

Nicholas: Janet and I were both unanimous on this one: though neither of us is prepared to choose between the Burgundy and the Sauternes as our ‘I’ve died and gone to heaven’ wine experience. Even more so when we had them both on the same night. At a small ‘bring a bottle night’ one very generous colleague put a bottle of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (a 1993 Echézeaux) on the table and another put a bottle of 1986 Chateau Suduiraut (Sauternes). There were other exceptional wines that night, but those two were unbelievable.

Questions about the wines and winery:

Cam: Is there a story behind the name “Amietta”? It sounds Italian but I couldn’t find a direct translation for it.

Nicholas: It is an Italian girl’s name (like Amy), but it was actually the name of Janet’s family’s ancestral home. It was a big house near St Kilda Road and the Shrine of Remembrance that was build in the 1880s during the height of the ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ building boom (when Melbourne was the richest city in the world courtesy of the 1850s gold rushes). We haven’t been able to discover how it came to be called Amietta, but assume that as most of the building work in Melbourne at that time was by Italian builders, stonemasons etc, that it was built and named by or for an Italian who named it for his daughter or sweetheart or something.

Apart from the family connection to the name, as you noticed, it sounds a little bit European and maybe a little bit Australian – which is how we see our wine. Marrying European and Australian winemaking approaches: preserve the terroir, go a little wild in the ferments, but don’t be bound down by stuffy or senseless tradition. Gary Farr (ex-Bannockburn, now of By Farr) was recently quoted as saying he would only ever bottle wine under cork. Maybe he also uses 18th Century pain relief at the dentist, travels by horse and uses a musket to shoot rabbits.

Cam: All four wines you produce are sealed under screwcap (7 this bottling: Shiraz-Lagrein, Chardonnay and a non-estate Sauvignon Blanc added – Nicholas), which is great. Do you need to do anything differently when you are bottling under screwcap, to when you bottle under cork? Did you, or are you still looking at any of the recent other closure alternatives (Diam, glass stoppers etc), or do you believe that screwcap is still currently the superior closure method?

Nicholas: We give the wines a fair bit of air in the month prior to bottling (a couple of pretty aerative rackings etc) to push the Reduction-Oxidation potential of the wine (remember Redox potential from school chemistry?) out of the heavy reduction zone. With Riesling, we make sure the wine goes smoothly and cleanly through the ferment so it doesn’t have a stink problem to start with. We don’t do a lot of copper fining – which some screw cap winemakers see as necessary – mainly because our wines are pretty stable by the time we bottle. I think if you rush your wines to bottle (particularly reds) they still have a lot of growing up to do and that’s where problems can arise.

Other closures – none of them really get the points for being simple, functional, robust in transport, well accepted in the market and reasonably priced. My next choice would be a Diam cork – but they are nearly as impermeable to air (= good) as a screw cap, so why not just use a screw cap. My last choice (= over my dead body) would be the ridiculous Zork, which is as ugly as it sounds.

With that, we’ll take a break – please look for the second part of this interview covering some questions about the Geelong region, the 2006 vintage and food matching here. Please also let me know if you would like to see more of this kind of content in addition to the wine reviews on this site.

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