There isn’t a winemaker alive who doesn’t know that unless all is right in the vineyard there’s only so much that the winemaker can do. The viticulturists – the people who grow the grapes – are therefore a, if not the, crucial part of the puzzle. This award celebrates the people who grow the wines that we love. Meet our finalists below.
Bart Molony – Vasse Felix, Margaret RiverAs Halliday Tasting Team member Jane Faulkner says, Bart Molony is ‘the one tasting the fruit saying, “Virginia, it’s time to come and check this out”.’ Virginia in this case is Virginia Willcock, famed chief winemaker at Vasse Felix in Margaret River, and maker of scores of fabulous wines. The implication is of course that Molony, who has been integral to the running of Vasse Felix’s vineyards since 2004, is a key part of this picture. We reckon he just might be. He’s planted vineyards, he’s expanded vineyards and he’s massaged established vineyards to the best form of their life. In short, he’s done (and is doing) it all.
Dr Dylan Grigg – Consultant, VariousThere’s a secret weapon in modern Australian wine and his name is Dr Dylan Grigg. Indeed, if you were to make a list of the producers who have excelled over the past decade there would be a quite incredible crossover with Dr Grigg’s client list, and all benefited from Dr Grigg’s knowledge. His specialty is old vines and what makes them so special – he then applies these learnings to younger vines. Our wine industry would be much the lesser without him.
Jacob Stein – Robert Stein Vineyard, MudgeeWhatever Jacob Stein is doing in his region of Mudgee, it’s working. Most of the awards he’s won over the past decade or more have been winemaking awards, but he’s also a trained viticulturist and in that space, in the words of Shanteh Wale, ‘he has elevated the region, kept New South Wales really pushing forward, and with the new blü hen Series [of wines], which is a little bit more experimental, what he’s doing is exciting.’ He grows elite grapes.
Liz Riley – Scarborough Wine Co & Mistletoe Wines, Hunter ValleyLiz Riley is one of the most highly regarded viticulturists in Australia. The proof of her good work is overwhelmingly in the pudding at both Scarborough and Mistletoe in the Hunter Valley, though her influence as a consultant extends throughout the region and across New South Wales generally.
Mark Walpole – Fighting Gully Road, BeechworthMark Walpole is a viticulturist’s viticulturist; he is the real deal. His great love is sangiovese, of which he is arguably the chief Australian authority, but in truth Mark Walpole is an authority on viticulture, full stop. Not that he would ever put such a label on himself. What Walpole mostly is, though, is curious. At the heart of every great viticulturist is a relentless desire to experiment, and every day that is indeed what Mark Walpole does.
Michael Lane – Yangarra Estate Vineyard & Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard, McLaren ValeThere’s something about Michael Lane. He manages both the Yangarra Estate vineyards and the Hickinbotham Clarendon vineyard, and it’s pretty clear that Lane has the McLaren Vale vineyards under his charge absolutely singing.
Rhys Thomas – Swinney, Frankland RiverRhys Thomas has a passion for bush vines and for sustainable agriculture both. He’s only been at Swinney a short time – having taken over from noted viticulturist Lee Haselgrove – but, as Halliday Tasting Team member Mike Bennie says, ‘[the] Swinney [property] is about a custodianship, and I wanted to talk about viticulturists as custodians. For me, Swinney and their wines are some of the best in Western Australia, and so recognition of custodianship over a certain vineyard is important.’ In short, Rhys Thomas brings a wealth of experience and attention to detail to the table as he builds on both a significant foundation, and a significant patch of land.
Stuart Proud – Thousand Candles, Yarra ValleyThere are a lot of winemakers who kick the trunk of the odd vine every now and then and call themselves viticulturists. Stuart Proud is the opposite. A true-blue, bona-fide, long term viticulturist who has slowly and organically moved to the winemaking side of things; he makes the wines from the ground up. He’s still the vineyard guy, we should emphasise, and a great one at that. He’s just managed to complete the loop, so that every step in the growing and making process leads logically on from the last.
*This is an edited extract from the 2024 Halliday Wine Companion, with reviews by James Halliday, Campbell Mattinson, Dave Brookes, Jane Faulkner, Jeni Port, Mike Bennie, Ned Goodwin MW, Philip Rich and Shanteh Wale. Cover art by Ka Mo.
The winner of each category will be announced at the 2024 Halliday Wine Companion Awards on Wednesday August 2, 2023.
The 2024 Halliday Wine Companion is available from August 3. You can pre-order your copy of Australia's most comprehensive wine guide here.
Words by Campbell Mattinson