Just as nature intended: Sally’s Paddock wines

Sally's Paddock winemaker Sasha Fair in the production room of the winery at Redbank. Picture: Lachlan Bence.

Sally's Paddock winemaker Sasha Fair in the production room of the winery at Redbank. Picture: Lachlan Bence.

Winemaker Sasha Fair would be the last person to make a fuss about this issue, but she is one of the few female winemakers in what is a strongly male-dominated industry.

In fact, she’s the only one in the Pyrenees.

Her parents Neil and Sally Robb started Sally’s Paddock at Redbank winery in 1973. Her father grew up in the winemaking region of NSW’s Hunter Valley; her grandfather worked for the legendary Maurice O’Shea as viticulturist at Mt Pleasant Winery.

Sasha Fair spoke to The Courier about life making wine.

Thanks for talking to us Sasha. Why are the wines named Sally’s Paddock?

Neil (Robb, her father and founder of Sally’s Paddock) grew up in the Hunter Valley and there were a lot of wines with paddocks on the labels then, and he liked it and named it after his wife.

Hoops from oaken wine barrels. Picture: Lachlan Bence.

Hoops from oaken wine barrels. Picture: Lachlan Bence.

How old is Neil now?

He would say he was 29 again, but he's 71.

He was around when Murray Tyrrell ruled the Hunter Valley. But certainly he's grown up with the tradition. 

Yes my grandfather was the viticulturalist for Mt Pleasant. He worked under Maurice O'Shea. 

So it's in the blood?

It is, yes, fortunately, or unfortunately. It's hard work at vintage time. It's good fun but it's hard work. And in a small microwinery- we wouldn't do much more than 50 tonnes - you really have to do be able everything: vineyard, winemaking, sales, marketing. 

Just for the uninitiated: 50 tonnes translates into roughly how many bottles?

Between 2000 and 3000 cases a year.

So tell me a bit about your background as a winemaker. You've studied viticulture.

I grew up here and we were helping whether we liked it or not, mostly picking. And then, when it came to finishing school, I couldn't think of anything I wanted to do more. And I enrolled at Charles Sturt in Wagga. It's a four-year science degree in oenology. It took me a bit longer because I took a year off in the middle to go travelling and I did a couple ofyears distance education to do vintages in other regions. 

And you travelled overseas to see different wine regions? 

My husband and I just - well we weren't married then - we went just to go travelling and we ended up picking grapes for a winery in the Mosel region in Germany, in a tiny little town called Bernkastel-Kues. Dr Pauly-Bergweiler is the name of it, which is really interesting; they do riesling and botrytis is their specialty. 

Is your husband from a winemaking background or did he just have no choice?

(Laughs) He's a farmer, actually. He owns a broadacre farm up in the middle of NSW. He went to Marcus Oldham College with my brother. 

Ah, that great tradition of younger or older brothers introducing their sisters to potential husbands.

Exactly. Thank you, Huw. 

Let's talk about the wines that you make and how you make them, because you've said you're essentially a microwinery. You only make red wine. You make cabernet sauvignon...

Yes, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec, shiraz and pinot noir.

The great majority of the grapes are grown on your winery?

All estate grown. 

What do you produce most of?

We do have a lot of cab franc planted. I'm not sure why Neil planted so much, but it does really, really well here. We make a really distinctive cabernet franc. 

Looking at the clarity of cabernet franc through light. Picture : Lachlan Bence.

Looking at the clarity of cabernet franc through light. Picture : Lachlan Bence.

And again for people who don't understand, cab franc is the source - what's the word?

Parent.

Parent of cabernet sauvignon.

So they hybridized cabernet sauvignon from cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc. 

In a funny way it's a kind of heritage wine.

It's a pretty old world variety and you don't see much of it around. There's a bit used in blends here and there but not many people do a cabernet franc.

What makes it distinctive from cabernet sauvignon?

You get more of that ripe fruit character in the front palate and I like to describe the tannins as having a bit more ‘broad shoulders’ because they can be - not more astringent, but more encompassing in terms of palate structure. 

Malbec. Again it's not that widely grown in Australia apart for blending with wine.

You don't see many straight ones. We've got a few here in the Pyrenees. But the one we've got now, the 2015, is our first one. The vines were planted in 2008, right at the end of the drought, which was great. We've replanted them about three times. right for a plant that went on. But that also does really well here. I've heard a lot of people say that they've never tasted one quite like it because it's quite earthy and it is not a 'big' wine; it's light for us in our terms of style spectrum. It's got a lot of character for a malbec. 

Tell me how pinot noir goes up here.

Depends who you talk to.

I'm talking to you! We think often, 'pinot noir, it's New Zealand it's Tasmania.’ It's not as well recognised in Victoria.

No, well the Yarra Valley and the Mornington Peninsula have a bit of a monopoly on pinot. The pinot we make here is simply a different style. We get much warmer days here, which means we get much riper characters and bigger wines. A bigger style of pinot is what we make. And you get more robust flavours and some people don't like think it because they think it needs to be fine and delicate and strawberry and cherry and all those wishy washy things. 

As a winemaker do you have a preference to make bigger wines? No, 'bigger' wines is unfair. To make more ‘robust’ wines?

My aim is to make wines that reflect the vineyard and the season in which they're grown. We're not irrigated at all. We rely on rainfall only. In a year like this it's really nice, because you've got the perfect storm of lots of rain and really good quality, so you get bigger yields of really high quality wines.

But in a vintage like 2013, where there wasn't any rain and it was really, really hot, you have to work with what you've got. And the wines that we made in 2003 are totally different from the ones we make this year and every year in between. That's really what I strive for, not to influence them too much and let the wines just reflect the season.

It's interesting: obviously if you're a commercial winemaker, you're striving for consistency because you know your market. You're doing exactly the opposite. You're letting the grapes and the year speak for themselves. Speaking of this year's vintage, it looks fabulous. 

It does. This year certainly the cabernet sauvignon and the cabernet franc really stood out as the varieties that we're most happy with. The shiraz tends to really like hot weather to get those riper characters, and we didn't get that this year. The shiraz, while it's still great, is much more on the cool climate spectrum of shiraz than the warmer climate.

Just explain to me. So you're saying the tones will be more subdued?

Not subdued but a bit more savoury. Not so robust. Which is fine. That's the season. We're really happy with the yields and the quality of fruit. You can't make good wine out of poor fruit. The quality of fruit is really important. It's looking excellent with all the rain and the long growing season really develops those characters. 

What's a day like? 

I have two small children so my day starts very early. Usually about 6 o'clock. 

What's involved?

This time of year it's a bit of fun because we're picking and pressing, doing all the fun winemaking things. Getting to taste the fruit off the vine and then see it made into the resulting wine. 

Let's talk a bit about the process of making wine, because everyone has an 'idea' of what happens: obviously ‘it's picked, goes into a bucket, then they press it, put it in bottles and they make wine.’ But it's not that simple. 

So we hand-pick all of our fruit. It comes in within an hour of being picked so it's in a really good condition. It gets de-stemmed and then lightly crushed; the berries are lightly crushed and then pumped into an open fermenter. We fit about two tonnes in the open fermenter. 

It's like a big drum, isn't it?

Just like a big vat, stainless steel. There it undergoes fermentation. The yeast converts all the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, which makes all the skins rise to the top. With the way we do it here, we hand plunge with a wooden paddle twice a day and that's a pretty good workout, you don't need a gym.

We press it off, so we take all the juice away from the skins that we can, and then what's left we put into a very small basket press; we shovel it in out of the tank; shovel it into the basket press and then gently press the skins with the hydraulic ram and we get less and less like out of it.

We have to decide how much, how hard, we press it in order to get the flavors and tannins and structure that we need in the resulting wine. 

And it's all a matter of working. You're watching your sugar levels, your alcohol levels.

Yes your alcohol levels are determined by your sugar levels at picking. When you pick, you're making a decision on the flavours that you're tasting in the berry and what that's going to mean in the wine. And then, the alcohol will be coming from the amount of sugar. 

Tell me a bit about marketing; how you sell the small microwinery. It's economies of scale, isn't it? Do you have to get in people's faces, tell them this is actually a better wine?

I'm getting better at it. Making it is the easy part. There are just so many good wines out there that it's really hard to compete. We like getting people here to the cellar door where we can really explain the whole process to them face-to-face and talk to them about what the wines are in the scheme of things.

We need to market to Melvin with but I just some moments are out this for him for us so. It's certainly hard to get the message across when there's so many people trying to do the same thing.