Sixty kilometres north of Melbourne, among the rolling hills and valleys of the Macedon Ranges, the Cope-Williams Winery has carved its own unique niche in the Australian wine scene. While consistent high-quality sparkling wines are the Cope-Williams forte, the winery has grown steadily over the years to become a haven and a refuge from the frenetic busy metropolis to its south.
What began just a little over 20 years ago as a boutique vineyard and winery has grown into a residential country club complex, complete with a village green for social cricket matches with adjacent pavilion, one of only three royal tennis courts in Victoria, a Welsh Mountain pony stud, luxurious accommodation, exquisite dining facilities and a very successful conference centre. And all this co-existing on 40 hectares where multi-trophy winning sparkling wines, as well as impressive still table wines, are nevertheless the core business.
But the future did not look so rosy when Judy and Gordon Cope-Williams planted their first vines on the northern slopes of the Macedon Ranges near Romsey in 1977. One of the keenly felt disadvantages they were labouring under in those days was that they were setting up a vineyard in a largely unknown wine region. They were starting from scratch, Gordon says, without any real history about the area in regard to growing wine grapes. “We didn’t know how vines would grow up here,” he says. “And in fact, they didn’t. It was just too cold.”
At an elevation of 2500 feet above sea level, they used to look enviously at the property in the valley below them. Although still 2000 feet up, the land down in the valley was a lot more sheltered, so when it came up for sale in 1982, naturally the Cope-Williams snapped it up. They put vines in straight away, “to back up the ’77 planting”, and later on sold the first property.
“Our first vintages, the 1982-83 sparklings, were made from the fruit from the old vineyard. In other words, it took us five years to get a crop,” says Gordon, “whereas down here we had a crop after only three years _ just because of the weather conditions.”
Gordon says that to ripen pinot noir and chardonnay for sparkling wines, you really need to have at least 105 days of warmth. “And that’s just about what we get,” he says. In other words, the Cope-Williams vines are right at the limit for growing quality fruit for wine.
But in a fortuitous turnaround, the climatic limitations have in fact fostered the Cope-Williams winery’s strong point _ quality sparkling wines. “Our big scoring point up here is that the fruit ripens very very slowly,” says Gordon. “And the slower the fruit ripens, the slower the sugar builds up, and the slower the acid drops off. You see if it gets to the right level of sugar too quickly, the acid has dissipated and you have to add some back to rebalance the wine.
“In other words, our bubbles don’t taste of acid,” he says. “Which is nice, because we don’t have to add relatively unstable acid artificially.”
The process of making sparkling wine in the traditional way, the methode champagnoise, is quite a process in itself. The winemaker must have access to good quality green fruit with a high natural acid, and this is then fermented out “bone dry”. “At this point it’s very very dry, and very high in acid, and relatively low in alcohol too.” says Gordon. “And it’s pretty unapproachable stuff, it really is.”
The winemaker then adds sugar and yeast, to get a second ferment going, and once the yeast begins to feed on the sugar it is bottled and sealed with a crown seal. “That keeps the carbon dioxide, one of the by products of the ferment, sealed in the bottle, and that’s what creates the bubbles,” Gordon says. “This is the full methode champagnoise, the full bottle-fermented treatment.”
Once the yeast has eaten up all the sugar and converted it into alcohol and CO2, the yeast dies, and it just lies along the side of the bottle. “It looks a bit like the bottom of a pond. And that gunk, the dead yeast cells, creates a slow process, a chemical reaction, between yeast cells and the clear wine,” says Gordon. “Which is what produces that yeasty flavour that good sparkling wine has.”
A full three years later, the yeast is taken out of the bottle, which involves another process particular to the methode champagnoise. Over this time the bottles have been “riddled” or gently turned and inverted until they are almost vertical, with the neck down. The yeast “gunk” settles into the neck, on the top of the inside of the crown seal.
Then the neck of the bottle is frozen, just to create a plug of ice to trap the yeast. “Then you can tilt the bottle up, take off the crown seal, and the pressure inside the bottle pushes up the plug of ice, with the yeast trapped in it,” says Gordon. “Very clever. Before the days of refrigeration, the French used to disgorge by more or less swinging the bottle, and taking off the crown seal as the bottle went through from vertical to horizontal, but they had to be very skilful, and you lose more wine that way.”
Then it is “liqueured”, or has a small amount of sugar added to the wine and shaken in, and then corked. Another six months sitting on the cork the sparkling wine is ready. “It’s an enormous process,” says Gordon.
The Cope-Williams Winery makes between 2000 and 3000 cases a year. And yet, even though it is a full three and a half years from start to finish, the winery has been able to put enough aside in reserves to meet most contingencies. “If someone came in and said they wanted 3000 cases, then we’d be able to fill that order,” says Gordon. “It would eat into our reserves, but we could do it.” The winery has examples of every sparkling wine it has ever made, going right back to 1982.
A lot of these are kept for research purposes, however one of the features of the Cope-Williams sparklings is that they also use a lot of reserve wine. “This is wine that we’ve kept in reserve from previous years, and the whole reason is so that we can maintain the house style,” Gordon says. “I mean if you taste a bottle that was made 10 years ago, it will still have all the characteristics as one that was made only two years ago. And that’s why the champagnoise themselves [people from the Champagne area in France] tend not to drink vintage. They drink non-vintage. It’s more complex, and more interesting, and it maintains the house style.”
The reputation of Cope-Williams Winery as a specialist sparkling winemaker has also extended to the wider wine industry. As well as making sparkling wine under their own labels, Cope-Williams conducts a lot of work making sparklings for other vineyards. “We’ve got over 60 contracts to make sparklings for clients,” says Gordon. “How that works is that other vineyards send us their fruit, or their juice, and we take it from there, and ship it back to them when we’re done. So we’ve actually set up to be a specialist sparkling wine facility. And it has really worked well for us.”
And the growth of this core work has been more through a process of osmosis rather than actively seeking these outside contracts. It all came about “by word of mouth, really”, says Gordon. “It’s a small industry. There may be a dozen or so wineries on the Peninsula for instance, that are so small that obviously they wouldn’t have set up with having a sparkling wine facility in mind. Anyone who is going to want to have a 100 or so cases a year, just to sell at their cellar door, is going to ask so-and-so, the next door neighbour, because we all talk to each other, ‘who makes your bubbles?’ … ‘oh we send it up to Cope-Williams’ … and that’s the way it grew and grew.”
Nowadays it is as much the contract sparkling work that is the core of the Cope-Williams business, which, as both Judy and Gordon say, has “really been a major positive” for the winery.
This article first appeared in Victorian Lifestyle Property magazine