Torbreck owner and winemaker David Powell is an old friend of Singapore – his wines are consistently high-quality and very well known by the island’s connoisseurs. Meeting the man explains why…
Torbreck is one of Australia’s big boutique winerys – big in name but boutique in quality. TLN recently had a chance to speak with David Powell about his winemaking philosophy, where his wines have come from and where they are going.
TLN: What inspires you about your estate and your wines?
DP: We’re based in the Barossa Valley. We have the oldest producing vineyards including France. Some of my wines have fruit that’s 163 years old. The roots go down deep. This gives you depth of character, colour and flavour. I consider a mature vineyard to be 40 years old.
I studied economics in University. I was supposed to follow my father into the family accounting business, which sounds a lot like prearranged marriage to me.
So I ran away to the wine business. I worked in Australia and then worked in California. I spent ten years travelling and working in wineries before I went back to Australia to start my own business.
The Barossa Valley was quite undervalued and underrated at the time and also relatively cheap. We had these old vineyards that happened to be perfect for this style of wine.
TLN: Aside from running away from accounting what made you get into wine?
DP: I wanted to travel. It wasn’t to work in wineries it was more about funding wanderlust. The wine thing got into my blood quickly, but it wasn’t an immediate thing. I spent 3 years working in Scotland working as a lumberjack.
The name Torbreck is the name of the first forest I worked in; that’s where the name comes from - and a lot of the names for my wines. My first wife was Scottish all my kids are Scottish. In Scotland I learned to drink whiskey. I could give a better two hour talk about whiskey than I could about wine. Eventually, I got a job for a very good winery in Barossa, but I wanted to make a wine without anyone telling me what to do and when to do it. So I made it on the side. I really just wanted to prove to myself I could. I made a few batches of wine and a friend of mine ended up buying them. Did I expect Torbreck to become what it is now? I just laugh. That’s ridiculous.
I started really small 17 years ago now; one tonne of grapes. Ten years later I do 1000 tonnes and own 200 acres. Most of the money was thrown back into the business.
When I was first starting out, my US agent rang me up and said, “I managed to get your wines into Robert Parker.” I said, that’s great, but who the f*** is Parker? I found out very quickly. He was very generous with his reviews of my wine.
Since then it’s gone from strength to strength. Bob’s become a friend and someone I respect quite deeply. That’s what I managed to do with Torbreck in 10 years what usually takes 2 generations.
TLN: Robert Parker put you on the map. After he wrote that review, what happened?
DP: I was selling a little bit of wine in Australia, in the UK, and funny enough here in Singapore. Within a year we were selling wine in 30 countries. It got the word out. It was possible for me to put the prices up. Robert Parker had a profound effect on my business. He can make or break you.
TLN: What has made your wine different, beyond the Robert Parker review?
DP: I learned to make wine in Europe. I make Australian wines with a very European sensibility, philosophy. Parker as once described it as I’m like a winemaker who has one foot in the southern hemisphere and one foot in the northern hemisphere.
Even though my wines are still going to be big wines they have a certain richness and a elegance and a finesse to them you more often associate with European wine and less with a new world wine. The Barossa valley’s going to make big wines. But it’s about balance. You get the balance right, it’s fantastic.
And also, not being a scientist. I don’t claim to be a scientist. My wines are literally made in the vineyard. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years saying to these guys – you’re not grape growers you’re wine growers.
TLN: talk about the grapes. What makes you decide to buy from this grower opposed to somebody else?
DP: It can be very much about the grower. I’ve stopped doing business with growers who have a different philosophy from me. Most of them have come to me. More by luck than anything else, I got a couple of very good growers who then brought their neighbours, their friends, and their family along. Most of them have been with us for more than ten years. I don’t think I’ve taken on a new grower for four or five years now. It’s not about the vineyards.
TLN: What do you think makes a good wine and what’s important to you when you’ve got a bunch of grapes you’re going to turn into wine?
DP: You have to do the right thing at the right place. The whole terroir thing is important. The combination of the soil, the climate, the clone, all the different things that come together. That’s why I only work with certain varietals. I also have very traditional beliefs. I believe a wine should represent where it’s grown and not be manipulated. There are two schools of wine making: the school of manipulation which is what most of the modern winemakers teach, and then there is the noninterventionist winemakers which is the very traditional more like European model.
TLN: Now that you’ve “made it” where do you want to go, where do you want to take it?
DP: If you think you’ve made the best wine you’re ever going to make you might as well stop doing it. You always hope you’re going to do better. With wine in particular you only get one shot at it a year.
Sometimes you get bad vintages, like 2011. We couldn’t make great wine with it no matter how hard we tried. You wouldn’t buy wine from a bad terroir, so why would you buy bad wine from a good terroir? That’s just a cop out for buy my wine because it’s my wine.
TLN: So, it’s keep doing what you do best and hope it gets better?
DP: We have a different vintage every year. It doesn’t matter how clever you think you are. Once a vintage is done the slates wiped clean. Steady as she goes. The main thing for me is that fine wines have to age. My early vintages are now 10-15 years old, but when I can show people Torbreck wines that are 20-30 years old I’ll be really comfortable. It’d be nice when I can put twenty vintages or thirty vintages of the wine up. That’s when I’ll feel like I’ve really got there.
Contributed by Ansel Ashby, TLN Blogger – Singapore