Like many great ideas, the concept behind the Cheviot Bridge wine company was conceived over a glass or two of fine red.
A group of vineyard owners in the Yea Valley got together about two years ago and developed the idea of keeping a part of their crop aside for a special grape growers wine – a wine that could be promoted as the product of a premium wine growing district. But unlike a lot of other grand plans, this one has taken root and flourished.
Cheviot Bridge is unlike most other wine companies, not least of all because there is no “cellar door” as such. And although not a traditional winery in that sense, the wines it produces showcase the region as a premier wine producing area – one that had been largely overlooked until now.
The four vineyard owners of the Yea Valley, about 100km north east of Melbourne, knew they could produce something special, and their chance came with the creation of this wine company. Cheviot Bridge director Hugh Cuthbertson says that before then, the vineyards were all selling their grapes to different wineries, and usually the huge concerns such as Southcorp. “So we decided that what we really should be doing is putting the grapes from this area into a wine that showcases the region’s vineyards themselves,” he says.
Hugh maintains that the key difference with Cheviot Bridge’s offerings originates in the region. “The Yea Valley is only 15 minutes on from the Yarra Valley, but the soil here is quite different,” he says. “We are a little bit higher, we have a different soil structure. And it’s a drier and cooler region.”
For the wines this makes a difference to the end results. “If you smell a Yarra Valley chardonnay, generally you will get an aroma of pineapple, or white peach character. We get much more of a nectarine character coming through,” he says. “In the reds, generally ours tend to be a little more intense in colour.”
Cheviot Bridge has just released its Pinot Noir, which they are very happy with, although most of their critical acclaim has been for their Chardonnay and Shiraz. “We ferment our Chardonnay with wild yeast. We just use the natural yeast that occurs in the vineyard. And that works very well,” Hugh says. “The same method can be a bit dangerous with red, but the Chardonnay tends to handle it very well. And I think it contributes to a nutty or hazelnut taste. Obviously the naturally occurring yeast will be different in every vineyard.”
The company makes about 30,000 cases a year overall at present. That seems to be enough for now, but the company has the advantage that it controls the vineyards. “If the demand keeps growing, we can feed it,” Hugh says, although he points out that this year’s vintage looks like having a very low yielding crop. “You can blame our terrible summer for that. We have about half the crop that we had last year.”
Hugh actually wears two hats as he is a grower as well, and as such has commitments to existing contracts with the giant wine company Southcorp. All the Yea Valley growers tend to have arrangements like this, he says, usually with each contract specifying certain areas of a vineyard to supply the grapes to satisfy their contractual requirements.
What the Cheviot Bridge growers try to do, of course, is grow the best grapes they can. The income they receive for their crop, however, is pretty much set by the market itself. “It’s a fairly free market as far as prices go,” Hugh says, and he says a lot of wine companies now are dealing with each grower individually – which he contends is actually a positive move. “With McLaren Vale shiraz for instance, you can grow it at two or three tonnes an acre, and that’s absolutely world-class wine, or you can grow it at 10 tonnes an acre and make something you wouldn’t want to put in your mouth.”
So since a judgment on quality is inherent in the prices that growers can make on the free market, there is some imperative upon them to up the ante on fruit standards.
However James Omond, principal of Omond & Co, a commercial law firm specialising in the wine industry, says that the problem is the huge wine companies [ital]are[ital] the market, and what they pay is what growers are stuck with. Vineyard owners have little room to move within the parameters set by these huge conglomerates.
“Traditionally, wine has been a boom/bust industry,” James says. “Three or four years ago, the wine companies were experiencing an undersupply of grapes, so the scramble was on to secure stock into the future. In those days, growers had something of an upper hand.
“The trouble was, a lot of people planted in the expectation of prices continuing to increase at the same unsustainable rate. Now it has all changed, and the average rate of growth of grape prices has flattened off.” He says that Bureau of Statistics figures show that grape prices fell 4.9% for 2000 and 5.8% for 2001.
The Cheviot Bridge concept, however, throws another element into the mix _ but the wine drinking consumer may be the ultimate beneficiary from it.
“If growers can ensure that they are getting a good deal, or rather that they can see some vertical integration of benefits and a bit of value add, they are more likely to produce quality,” James says.
“Or let me put it this way. A faceless grower, selling to a big wine corporation, will most likely see his fruit, no matter how high the quality, blended away into a homogenous product. But a grower in this (the Cheviot Bridge) situation can have some assurance that his superior fruit will keep its integrity all the way through to the finished product.”
Hugh’s experience concurs with this. He says that the involvement the Yea Valley vineyard owners have with the Cheviot Bridge company has a positive affect. “Like the rest of us, our growers like to see their name in print (on the back label),” Hugh says. “They like the kudos and having some sort of ownership, and they are proud of their involvement.”
And if this means that the wine consumer should be able to look forward to having access to superior wine for a reasonable shelf price, who could argue?
Hugh has a 20 year involvement with the wine industry, especially in the Yea Valley where his family pioneered viticulture in the region. And yet, even though he was already working with wine in the area, what was it that spurred on Hugh and his cohorts to create Cheviot Bridge? “My family have made wine in the Yea area for a number of years, and that label is still going, called Murrindindi. But that’s very small. More like a boutique set up, and it was never going to be any more than that,” he says.
“A lot of the time, ’boutique’ really means more of a lifestyle choice than a business choice. But a lot of us have been in this game for a long time and we wanted to do it properly,” he says.
After the vineyard owners banded together, other investors came on board. “A lot of these people we selected ourselves, sort of like a dream team,” Hugh says, “and part of the deal was they had to invest in it.
“We have on board the former director of operations at Mildara Blass. He was there for 27 years, and took really an overview role, from supplying the raw materials, processing the wine, bottling it, getting it to market. All the operations that are part and parcel of a large winery. Then we have the guy who was in charge of Mildara’s export sales, the one who was in charge of domestic sales and so on.”
The company has been in existence for about two years, but it has only been in the last six months that they have been “really ramping it up” as far as tackling the realities of the market, says Hugh. One direction that Cheviot Bridge is taking is towards the USA. Hugh says he sees the company eventually selling up to 70 per cent of its production to the US. “The American baby boomers have discovered Australian wine, and they like the taste of it,” Hugh says. “We have invested in people over there, and they’re very good at what they do, and through them we have set ourselves up as our own importers in the US.”
The dollar exchange rate has had some influence as well. “Our CB wine, which is our second label, will retail here for $13 to $14, and it will sell off the shelf in America for $US8 to $US9. But really that’s pretty comparable,” Hugh says.
Cheviot Bridge is not ignoring the domestic market of course, and actually has had a great response already to its wines here. “I guess it’s a matter of focus,” Hugh says. “We are not really looking at the UK yet, even though the UK is the biggest market for Australian wine. But as I said it’s a matter of focus. You can only do a certain amount of things, distribution wise.”
The Cheviot wines were released first about 18 months ago, and since then have enjoyed critical acclaim, here and around the world. “They are a style of wine that is exciting,” Hugh says. “They are complex, long flavoured _ they are not your big ‘Dolly Parton’ over-the-top wine. Hopefully they are wines that will age well and drink well … I mean, I think the key indicator is you’ve got to want to have a second glass.”
But does being a relatively new wine on the market concern the Cheviot Bridge team, as far as the market’s perception of them? Not really, says Hugh. “Good wine is always in balance. It doesn’t matter if it’s six months old or 20 years old. You’re looking for a balance of flavour and structure, even right from the start.”
His point is that a good wine must be good right from day one, and that the wine drinking public have rightly come to expect as much. “One mistake I think a lot of people used to make is to think that a big ugly red will somehow magically transform into a beautiful swan of a wine years down the track.” But the Australian market is a changed place, and the appreciation of wine seems to have come of age.
Certainly the Murrindindi wines have proved over the years that they age very well, and the accolades that the Cheviot Bridge offerings have already received bode well for its future. It is also reassuring to know that wine makers like Hugh and his team are showing such great confidence in the knowledge of today’s wine consumer.
This article first appeared in Voctorian Lifestyle Property magazine.