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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Urban Winery Sydney – Winemaker Alex Retief Creates A Unique Wine Making And Tasting Experience For Tourists, Locals And Corporate Australia

Our current Australian Prime Minister has been promoting innovation and disruptive technologies as a way for our nation to move forward but there is concurrently a movement towards returning to simple and artisan styled activities which pushes back on that theme in terms of production efficiencies. Perhaps the ultimate form of that disruption is to have Uber deliver your loaf of chia seed encrusted artisanal bread faster than a Domino’s Pizza.

One such new business in the ‘artisan’ space is Urban Winery Sydney which is opening up a whole new space – namely a winery set up in the middle of the city where grapes ferment in tanks and get turned slowly into wine which then matures in oak barrels whilst tourists, corporates and locals get to be a part of the process.

The concept has been developed by Alex Retief, a wine maker from the town of Wagga in southern NSW. His existing label A. Retief will now all be made on-site and sold at the wine bar and cellar door alongside other NSW wines, to showcase all that NSW can produce in our wines. This state snobbery extends to cheese, olives and charcuterie which will also focus on great artisans from Eden to Byron Bay through a tasting bar and lounge.

The winery is nestled into an old industrial warehouse that has been re-purposed to house budding small businesses. You will find in there small manufacturers, knick-knack retailers, screen printers, swimming costume makers, art wholesalers and framers and much much more. The winery is in many ways congruent with these smaller styled ‘artisanal’ businesses but in fact walking in reminds you immediately that the process of turning grapes into wine is an age old one. In the middle of this very rustic and bare basics space there are grapes fermenting in tanks giving off an immediate moist air filled with the scent of fermentation. Large industrial fans blow air across the factory floor and the team continuously turns over the tanks of grapes, some of which are in ¾ tonne fruit picking bins so that those involved in corporate days or taking tours of the winery can actively get involved in turning and plunging the grapes – a process I am told is called ‘keeping the cap moist’.

Alex Retief in his new Urban Winery Sydney concept.
Retief is no newcomer to the wine industry. His career so far has seen him spend nearly two years running a winery in Bordeaux as well as doing two vintage stints in France, one at Cheval Blanc, one of Bordeaux’s most prestigious wineries, as well as one in the Languedoc region. His own label of wines A. Retief is currently stocked in some of Sydney’s best restaurants including Quay, Aria and Guillaume. Now that he’s developed long-standing relationships with the same growers for over eight years, he feels comfortable for this next step.

Alex explains to me his hopes for the education side of this urban winery; ‘our aim is to talk people through the palate of a wine and then allow them to blend a wine to their own taste, you can’t make a good wine from a bad batch of grapes so our job is to source excellent quality grapes’.

Grapes ferment and the winemaker is plungeing - an experience that is also done by groups who work on their own wines at Urban Winery Sydney

To do this Retief goes out to his contract vineyards in southern New South Wales himself, tasting the grapes to see when they are ready to harvest and making sure the grape has achieved that ideal cross over point between the sugar levels and the acid levels of a grape.

Watch your wine mature and then bottle it and take it home. A barrel of French Oak wine will set your back $5000AUD but will generate 25 dozen bottles of wine making an average price of just under $20AUD a bottle. 

‘Every descriptive word people ascribe to a wine is occurring naturally in that grape. It’s not that we add anything like blueberries in at the end. This is a very natural organic process. In some instances we add yeast to some of the fermenting grapes but in many batches they are fermenting with yeast they are picking up naturally from the atmosphere.

I asked Alex why to my mind the Australian wines seem very heavy on taste comparatively to some of the smoother Bordeaux wines that I have had over the years. As he explained it:
“In places like Bordeaux there is less sun. Where grapes ripen under less sun there is a naturally lower sugar level at the balance point when the grapes are ripe. You need to balance this when you harvest. In Australia, by contrast, there is a lot of sun and accordingly the point where the acid and sugar levels cross over, that point of harvest, there is usually a lot more sugar. In France, because of this, wine makers are able to add in sugar but this is in a controlled manner. In Australia the bodies which govern winemaking do not allow you to add sugar but they do allow you to add in acid, whereas the French are not allowed to add acid”.

A place to sit and go over the wine making process prior to creating your own wine. Groups are lead through the process by the winemaker who guides them as they form their own barrels. The author of this blog tasted a chardonnay which was fermenting and it was like a cloudy sweet grape juice. Just superb. 

Even though I have had experience with vineyards and the process of wine making since my early days as an agricultural economist, one thing that Urban Winery Sydney does very well, is allow you to connect the dots between the processes from vineyard gate to bottle and that is something that is a real spot of luck for those that make the journey out to St. Peters.

The complete process starts with de-stemming and crushing the grapes, pressing, fermenting, maturing and bottling and Retief has said that those that actually want to make a barrel of wine in their French Oak barrels starts from $5000.00 AUD. A barrel, which is made from an imported French Oak cooperage from… France… costs around 1200 euros each and lasts up to ten years. The barrels which are stored on site have varying age related properties for imparting oak flavours. The grapes which Retief sources are from a variety of growing areas but predominantly he sources sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir grapes from Tumbarumba, NSW, his cabernet rose is sourced from Gundagai, NSW, and then a variety of red grapes come from ‘The Hilltops’ region of Harden and Boorowa where he sources Mataro, Grenache and merlot, tempranillo and petit verdout.
All of these varieties are available to wine hobbyists, tourists and corporate team building programmes as the winery builds its educational and recreational programmes and tours.

At the end of the wine making process you are able to collect roughly 25 dozen bottles of wine which roughly makes them less than 20 dollars a bottle. Take a short walk over to the screen printers and get a label made and you are fast on track to being able to say at your next dinner party ‘might I serve you some of my wine?’

See more at Urban Winery Sydney's website.

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