Knee-deep in grapes from a young age, this Barossa winemaker muses on mentors, food and wine matches, the love of a big barrel and respect for resourceful reds.
Born in Gawler, on the edge of the Barossa Valley, Craig Stansborough grew up in the thick of the wine industry. He started work as a cellarhand in 1983, joining Grant Burge Wines in 1993 as Cellar Manager, before rising to Assistant Winemaker in 1994, then Chief Winemaker. His success at Grant Burge is attributed to natural winemaking talent, leadership, an inquisitive mind and his enduring passion for the vine.
What drew you to the winemaking industry?
I grew up in Gawler and played footy in the Barossa, so I haven’t come far. On my first morning working at Seppeltsfield, I was taken by an old cellarhand to prepare a fortified for bottling. He poured a glass from the spigot [tap release] on an ancient barrel. He looked at the colour and I thought he was checking its clarity. Then he sculled the lot. He poured a second glass and handed it to me. It was the legendary Seppeltsfield DP90 Rare Tawny. I thought, “This is a good job.” That was 30 years ago.
Do you have a mentor?
Naturally, Grant Burge is top of the list. I started working with him in 1993 — just five years after he went out on his own. I was also lucky to have worked with James Godfrey, the custodian of the amazing Seppeltsfield fortifieds, Nigel Dolan at Saltram, and Wendy Stuckey during her time with Wolf Blass. Each shared their experience, wisdom and, importantly, bottles of great Barossa wines.
Are there lessons to be learned for Barossa shiraz from syrah grown in the Rhône?
Shiraz just works in the Barossa. After all, we’ve been growing the variety for more than 150 years. The Barossa Grounds project, which is an initiative spearheaded by local grape growers, has helped us understand that vineyards in the north, the east, the south and the west are all very different. Most of the Grant Burge vineyards are in the “Southern Grounds” — it’s a bit cooler and wetter, with better canopy cover to avoid sunburn.
Our shiraz is comparatively more elegant, plusher, softer and more approachable. I’ve learned a lot from the Rhône producers, especially about fermentation and storage. We’ve moved to larger format oak with more puncheons [barrels] and 2,500-litre upright foudres [large wooden vats] — I have 12 of these now. I’ve also managed to score four demi-muids [600-litre oak barrels typically used in the Rhône Valley] and I like the results.
Grenache is another star variety. What sets your grenache apart from those of the southern Rhône?
My travels in Châteauneuf-du-Pape gave me a new respect for grenache. It can be fickle, prone to disease and, when over-cropped, makes innocuous wines. The Barossa has a wealth of dry-grown, old bush vines that yield intensely flavoured fruit, which needs to be nurtured into bottle without a bold winemaker’s thumbprint. We’re lucky to have such a resource. Those old grenache vines survived only because grenache’s rich flavours and high sugars were useful for fortified production in years gone by, so they weren’t grubbed out. It’s a blessing.
Excluding your own Barossa backyard, which Australian wine region is exciting you?
Over the past decade, I‘ve enjoyed drinking Margaret River chardonnays and cabernets from a number of top producers. There’s an amazing consistency and true regional style evident in them.
With an eye to the future, I think Tasmania is emerging as a very special place. It’s still evolving, but with greater vine age and winemaking experience, we will start to see the chardonnay, pinot noir and sparkling wines from the southern state setting new Australian benchmarks.
What are your thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of the Australian wine industry?
Our people are its key strengths. We collaborate so well, spreading the message of “Australia first”, then our region, before mentioning our own wines. This philosophy is unique in the world of wine. And that collaboration extends to everyday winemaking, too — we share our knowledge openly.
A major weakness is our lack of infrastructure. We’re often short of tank space at vintage time and need to make pragmatic decisions rather than allowing the wines time to fully resolve before they go into oak.
Also, there are only a few great barrel storage facilities in Australia — the Great Western “Drives” and Giaconda’s blasted-out underground cellar. I’d love to have access to a Grand Chai [great barrel hall] like those in the classic châteaux of Bordeaux or the cool caves [underground cellars] of Champagne. With good barrel storage, wines become notably fresher, brighter and more vibrant.
Which of the Grant Burge wines are you enjoying most now?
I’m really appreciating the 2016 Cameron Vale Cabernet Sauvignon — it’s a blend of Eden Valley and Barossa fruit with subtle French-oak influences. It’s already drinking beautifully but it will happily age for many more years to come. I’m also enjoying Grant Burge’s distinctive Icon Wines.
Which non-Grant Burge wines do you cellar?
I’m a bit of a barolo nut and have been collecting them for a few years. For three years, we’ve had a vintage winemaker from Alba in Italy working with us at Grant Burge and I’ve tasted some great barolos and barbarescos — the noble nebbiolos! — with him in Piedmont. I love the phrase, “A great barolo is like being hit in the face by a ballerina”.
What is your most sublime food and wine match?
I recently made a duck ragù and paired it with our Abednego Shiraz Grenache Mourvèdre.
It was perfect. A friend served the Grant Burge 20-year-old tawny with a blue cheese, Saint
Agur. That was a brilliant combination, too — even for those who don’t enjoy fortifieds and don’t like blue cheese!