Current Issue #488

Piccadilly Vineyards' sparkling start

Not every Adelaide Hills homebuyer wants a chardonnay vineyard with their new purchase, but Alison and Mark Lewis did. And it isn’t sitting idle.

Moving from the UK to South Australia five years ago to accompany husband Mark on the next step in his surgical career, Ali Lewis was whisked away from her job as an investment banker and found herself presented instead with a dream opportunity: to pursue her love of sparkling wine in a very hands-on way.

“Mark came over to work at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, and I came over and had a complete change of career,” Ali says.

The vines of Piccadilly Vineyards, which the family home overlooks, are old by Australian chardonnay standards, having been planted in 1987 when Piccadilly’s climatic resemblance to both Burgundy and Champagne had dawned on a few canny South Australian winemakers. The sub-region is now very much the dress-circle of sparkling wine production in the Hills.

Ali came to winemaking from a standing start, although she had some handy pointers from an earlier degree in biochemistry. Nonetheless, she says, the educational trajectory wasn’t so much a steep curve as a vertical line, “terrifying and delightful in equal parts”.

“The management of the vineyard felt very, very scary, but we’ve had some amazing help. Our neighbours and friends have been brilliant and really held our hands a lot of the way. I think we’re starting to walk a little bit more on our own now, which is great.”

Although the vineyard’s three chardonnay clones also produce a still table wine, Lewis says that a long-standing passion for sparkling wine was her original inspiration. “I spent quite a lot of time in Champagne just for pleasure and it’s always been my absolute drink of choice, but I’m also fascinated by the chemical process of making it and have been for years. It was almost a no-brainer for me that it would be a sparkling, and when it was a chardonnay vineyard that we got it all just fitted together perfectly.”

The property’s original vigneron died just a few weeks ago. “The vineyard lives on a little bit in his name. He planted it and we’re trying to make the grapes taste even better each year, if that’s possible, because they’re pretty fantastic to begin with,” Ali says.

Assistance with the onerous process and extensive facilities demanded by méthode traditionelle comes from Michael Sykes of Lodestone Wines in Charleston, whom Ali describes as “the Merlin of sparkling wine”. Ali says Sykes, who oversees production for several small Hills vignerons, coped well with her anxious phone calls and visits as the wine matured – “I was like an expectant mother,” she says.

Making sparkling wine by the traditional method involves not only patience, says Ali, but strong nerves. “Trying the base wine for the first time was possibly the most terrifying part of the journey so far, because it tastes so different from how you’re expecting the end product to taste. And that’s where Michael was absolutely brilliant, drawing on his library of experience and saying, ‘That’s what it should taste like, so don’t be scared’.”

Taking a top ten spot in the Hot 100 Wines SA with their first vintage of Piccadilly Vineyard’s Piccadilly Circus Blanc de Blancs was a genuine surprise for the Lewises. “We knew what we had produced tasted as we wanted it to, and tasted really good, but to pick up the prize was amazing – really exciting and a real bonus.”

The judges found classic brioche notes, candied mandarin and cumquat on the nose, apple and nashi pear on the palate and buttered toast on the finish. They dubbed the wine “equal parts delicate and full-flavoured with a spine-tingling coastal sea spray acidity”.

Despite suffering a touch of imposter syndrome – “When you start a new job and think ‘Do people know I really don’t know how to do this?’” – Ali Lewis is confident in the quality of her grapes and proud to take a place among the sparkling winemakers of the Hills.

“I think what South Australia can produce is every bit as good if not better than Tasmania, so we just need to blow our trumpets a bit more, don’t we?”


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