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LIFE EXPERIENCE = MATURE WINE
© Anita Ryan 2004

If the “soul of wine” is the sum of a winemaker’s experiences, then Cliff Royle’s years of international adventuring should have added a depth and character to his Sauvignon Semillon Blanc that would brand it uniquely his. But all I can detect is a herbaceous nose and an assault of fruit on my palate.

Which is exactly the soul of the wine, he tells me. And it’s one that the 35 year old Margaret River winemaker is very proud of, having decided to launch into winemaking as a career only a handful of years ago.

As chief winemaker for Voyager Estate, he is under immense pressure to perform at a level that would normally take someone years to achieve. But Cliff is different to most winemakers. After only five years in the industry, he has something most winemakers only dream of – a prestigious “Winemaker of the Year Award” adorning his mantelpiece. How did a latecomer to the industry end up in this situation?

Investing time and effort in increasing worldliness for one thing, and the courage to return to University as a mature age student for another.

It was Cliff’s stint as a bottle-shop attendant 15 years ago where he first caught the winemaking bug. With mentoring from Voyager Estate’s then winemaker Stuart Pym, Cliff decided winemaking would eventually be his career.

During his subsequent years of cycling the American west coast, hiking the Anapuna and Lang Tan Trails and backpacking in Thailand, he remained focussed on his dream to make great wine and upon his return to Australia enrolled at Charles Sturt University.

Having life-experience and worldliness as part of his credentials, Cliff was promptly employed upon graduation, and though his subsequent rise through the ranks was a dream come true, it wasn’t all easy sailing.

When he was recruited to Voyager Estate to work under Pym in 1996, eventually to take over in 2000, he describes his situation as hard-core. “I had a fair few knockers when I first took over this job, in particular where there were a lot of people who said I didn’t have enough experience, I was too young, I’ll choke, I won’t be able to handle the pressure…”

Raising his glass to toast his knockers, he shrugs. “I did the hard yards, I’ve done the apprenticeship and I deserved the chance. James Halliday consistently rates this in the high nineties.” The quality of the wine speaks volumes in Cliff’s favour, a tangible product of his unwavering belief in himself.

A winemaker’s life certainly does entail hard yards. Revolving around climate and seasons, a winemaker needs to be flexible enough to cope with any demands nature throws his or her way.  Summer means every waking hour is consumed with vintage – harvesting the fruit and preparing it for fermentation, and during harvest a winemaker is lucky to get three hours’ sleep a night.

While some may consider it a drawback to write off four months of their life each year, the offset is that in winter, winemakers get a chance to work vintages in the northern hemisphere.

The thing Cliff loves most about winemaking is that every single day of every single year is different. “I love that nature is in control, and I get to craft a great wine out of what nature gives me in her fruit. Sometimes the fruit is so perfect the wines will make themselves, but other years I have to ride the wines all the way to the bottle.”

I picture him sitting astride a French oak barrel whipping it into action. But what he really means is that he has to work to restore finesse to the wine, tinkering with it to complement and enhance the fruit in order to create something he can be proud to put into bottle.

It seems like a lot of work for a product that the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation (AWBC) says 84 percent of Australians spend less than $10 on, with only one percent of wine drinkers spending $50 or more on a bottle of wine.

But for aficionados like Cliff, the greatest reward is watching consumers enjoying learning about the wine. At a restaurant in South Australia, he recalls seeing a couple laughing over dinner and a bottle of the Voyager Estate 2001 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc.

“For me that’s the best thing about the whole process. I mean, a lot of work goes into getting it into bottle, but the greatest enjoyment is watching people actually drink it. Because that’s what it’s all about.”

His observation supports the AWBC prediction that the Australian lifestyle shift towards wine will continue as consumers choose to accumulate experiences over material possessions. Where once wine was a ‘special occasion’ beverage, it is being redefined as an ‘everyday’ product, with more being spent on wine as quality improves and more flavoursome and sophisticated wine becomes available.

The winemaker’s commitment and passion for his craft is just as infectious and forward thinking as a lot of young and upcoming winemakers. Few subscribe to the traditional wine jargon that puts wine out of reach of the everyday Australian. Rather, wine is a product that, according to Cliff, “should be fun. I’d like to see more fun come back into wine, because it shouldn’t be taken seriously. And the one thing wine does, if you drink too much of it, is create a lot of fun,” he laughs.

Having just returned from a day of judging wine at the Sheraton Wine Awards in Perth, Cliff says his future goals are to get more involved in promoting Australian wine in general, getting involved in wine shows and the next level of education.

There is no looking backwards for Cliff, only forwards – “life doesn’t afford us the opportunity for regrets.” I am disarmed by the infectious smile that spreads across his face as he toasts the four great things in his life – great food, music, love and of course, great wine. “And the best thing is, I’m surrounded by all these things right here in the South West. It doesn’t get much better than this.”

 

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