Driving into Healesville, the town around which Australia’s Yarra Valley is centred, I am due for an early morning meeting with Steve Flamsteed, before his day starts to fill up with the duties of Head Winemaker and now part owner of Giant Steps.
As you come into the Yarra Valley you descend from Lilydale to the valley floor and see the Yarra Ranges to the east, which form part of one of the defining geographical features on the east coast of Australia – the Great Dividing Range.
On this particular winter morning the Ranges are misty with early fog and the sun is peaking over the top as it begins its ascent for the day. As the hours pass the temperature in the valley increases significantly to reveal a sunny winter’s day – a nod to the extreme diurnal range the region experiences during the growing season. It is this temperature variation between day and night that is the key to the region’s success at producing some of the best Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet blends in the country.
As I drive across the valley floor heading northeast past vineyards, orchards and pastures full of cattle, the main street of Healesville ends with the Giant Steps winery and it is here we find a spot in the barrel room to catch up.
As the Gourmet Traveller Winemaker of the Year for 2016 and Head Winemaker at Giant Steps winery, there is precious little free time in Steve Flamsteed’s schedule. As luck would have it however, I sit down with him just after he has returned from Hong Kong.
In addition to Hong Kong, there was a brief sojourn at Guangzhou to meet with a new distributor and potential clients for Giants Steps’ first entry into the Chinese market. As we chat about our individual experiences with both countries, the clear differences in successful market entry for each country is apparent. The plan for China is, he tells me, to approach the market “province by province – we will do it very carefully”.
Taking a moment to look back at the journey that has led to this point in his career, it is unsettling to discover that the world may never have had the pleasure of tasting Flamsteed’s wines had his love for cheese won out.
After completing an apprenticeship as a chef, a young Flamsteed headed to France in pursuit of travel, cheese and potentially joining the Moscow Circus (I jest not!). While he did return to Australia in the early 1990s to complete an oenology degree at Roseworthy, it was a cheesemaking scholarship that took him back to France in 1994 for another 18 months.
Nearly four years of cheesemaking and restauranteering would pass after returning to Australia before wine took centre stage. It was the realisation that “you really have to specialise in one thing, but I had to do these other things to work that out”, that led to work with Leeuwin Estate in Margaret River and Yarra Burn in the Yarra Valley before settling at Giant Steps in 2003.
A pivotal moment on the road to winemaking was time spent at Chateau du Bluizard in Beaujolais. It was the concept of working with amazing raw ingredients that captivated Flamsteed; “the whole craft approach of then turning those raw ingredients into wine, was, for me, an evolution of cooking – it was taking something that you knew all about the ingredients and the source, then your craft was to convert it.”
It is that sense of crafting a wine each year that underpins Flamsteed’s approach to winemaking – “I think it’s all about the resource material – every single year this has become more of a defining factor.” After more than a decade with the Applejack, Sexton and Tarraford vineyards in the Yarra Valley, the relationship between raw ingredient and final product is deeply entwined – “the more time I spend in the winery, the more time I spend in the vineyard”.
More than 20 years in the Australian wine industry and experience as a winemaker, show judge, Len Evans scholar and ambassador for Giant Steps wines, Flamsteed can now add part owner of Giant Steps to his list of roles, thanks in part, to the recent acquisition of the Innocent Bystander brand by Brown Brothers.
The separation of Innocent Bystander and Giant Steps will require a more active role in the decisions affecting the Giant Steps brand. Flamsteed tells me it will bring a deeper resonance with shaping the path forward for the winery, “Giant Steps is about the vineyard sites and the personalities associated with that – it’s a much easier story to tell in the market”.
Deeply respected by peers and colleagues alike, Flamsteed is known for generosity of spirit and knowledge, something I have been fortunate to experience personally. Whenever we meet up, inevitably an offer to taste the wines is forthcoming within minutes of meeting and it is here that he is most comfortable, discussing the evolution of the wines, the development of the vineyard sites and the process of bringing to light yet another revelation of personality from each site.
As we sit in the barrel room we taste through the 2015 release, including new additions to the portfolio – the Lusatia Park Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and the Primavera Pinot Noir – which sit alongside the flagship vineyards of Sexton, Tarraford and Applejack. There is quiet enthusiasm each year as the wines are released. It is infectious. In these conversations there is a reserved, yet intense pride around how the wines are coaxed each year from vine to glass.
Of the new offerings, Lusatia Park is “a really lovely vineyard that is nearly 40 years old – there is a really cool mouthfeel to the wine. It is only a light looking wine but that’s deceptive because it has that latent peacock’s tail power”.
Where the Lusatia Park Pinot Noir is produced using whole destemmed berries, the Primavera Pinot Noir is entirely whole bunch. It provides a “tamarillo, or tree fruit character to the wine, which is why it has always stood out. There is a dark wine gum or jelly bean character to it, making it a very savoury wine”.
Finishing up with the Yarra Valley Estate Syrah the conversation turns to the evolution of Australian Shiraz. “There is a place for a wine that is perfumed and medium bodied and that represents the site. The Estate Syrah is invariably made like Pinot, they are an expression of perfume and site rather than a full bodied red.”
Looking ahead, it will be the years of working with vineyards in the Yarra Valley that will shape the next major project for Giant Steps – the planting of a new vineyard. With lessons learned and experience of the land honed, it’s now time to “value add by planting the most amazing vineyard” to Pinot Noir. After all, he says, “We are convinced Pinot has a really big future”.