“It may have changed, but a winemaking degree is an absolute waste of time,” says Patrick Sullivan, “if you want to make wine, you’ve got to study viticulture.”
Patrick Sullivan is a young Yarra Valley winegrower, and self-confessed producer groupie, who used to work in an abattoir after finishing high school. He moved to London when he was 19 and got a gig in the wine room at Selfridges, on the Oxford high street. After two years travelling, he returned to Australia to study winemaking at university, but soon realised that this degree wasn’t going to suffice.
“For me, winemaking is simple,” explains Patrick, “you put the grapes into a fermenter, check to see if they smell OK, and if they do, then they’re probably fine… it’s all sensory.”
So, Patrick dropped out of winemaking, and enrolled in a degree in viticulture, majoring in botany. “I just thought (whilst studying winemaking) that for the kind of wine I wanted to make, I’m never going to need any of this stuff that I’m being taught.”
The kind of wine that Patrick makes is minimal intervention, small-batch, artisan juice with fruit taken from various vineyard sites in and around the Yarra, including the Thousand Candles site, home to some sauvignon blanc, pinot, and shiraz.
“It begins and ends with the fruit,” says Patrick.
Owning his own vineyard is the ultimate goal for Patrick, but, for now, he works closely with growers throughout the Yarra Valley.
“I work with growers who I respect and trust,” says Patrick, “and who are working with me towards a common goal, which is to get the fruit to be as good as it possibly can be.”
Patrick’s main goal is to be able to source the fruit to make his wines from either 100% organic, or biodynamic grapes. This stems from his experiences in London, and travels around Europe, where most of the wine he drank was made from this particular fruit.
“I’ve always been inclined towards organics, and I learnt, when I was in Europe, through tasting lots of different wines, which ones I liked and which ones I thought were better,” explains Patrick, “and so these are the kinds of wines I now want to make, and to drink.”
In order to make the kinds of wines he likes to drink, Patrick places the greatest importance on site selection to ensure he’s getting the best fruit he possibly can, even if it means paying more for the privilege.
“The fruit is the most important thing,” says Patrick, “so if you identify the best site and source for the fruit that you’re going to use to make into wine, then you don’t need to worry about adding anything to it back in the winery later.”
Back in the winery, Patrick is strictly hands off, subscribing to the principles of minimal interventionist winemaking, and yet, he does not consider himself to be a natural winemaker.
“I don’t put myself in the category of natural wine,” says Patrick, “I just make wine… natural winemaking is a made up term that I really don’t like. I make wine the way I like to drink it, and I’m no better or different than somebody who adds acid or yeasts to their wine… but I’m not going to do that because I don’t like to. I just do it another way.”
Patrick uses wild ferments to transform his grape juice into wine, and leaves it alone as soon as the fermentation begins. This is not to say, however, that this is simply lazy winemaking, as Patrick explains:
“Every single time you plunge a wine, you can smell the aroma coming off, which means it’s no longer in the wine anymore… it’s gone. So, I want to be able to preserve as much of what’s in those grapes as I can. I want to be able to lock all of those smells in, and the only way to do that is to just not touch it.”
The Patrick Sullivan Breakfast Wine, named after the sauv blanc vineyard that Patrick can see while eating his breakfast in the morning, and that soaks up the bright morning sun, is left to ferment on skins and stems for about a week using carbonic maceration, and then put into old French oak barrels for 12 months.
The resulting wine is mouth filling, soul-gripping goodness. Its colour reminds me of the piece of amber in the opening scene of Jurassic Park – ‘Hay que lindo eres vas hacer a much gente feliz’ – it smells of geranium and sweet Dr Ellie Sattler sweat, and tastes as confusing and complex as watching a gene sequencing presentation while eating a box of butterscotch and caramel popcorn, with a texture that I imagine to be quite similar to licking the faint specks of mine dust off that golden amber rock.
And it hangs around too. If you can pace yourself, and allow a bit of time in between sips, you’ll be rewarded with a soft pinch of everlasting tannin, and swirling apricot and honey savors.
“I want to make wine that you don’t just taste on your palate”, explains Patrick, “I want to make a wine that satisfies in here (pointing to his chest). I’m aiming to make something that nourishes you, and makes you think here, and feel here.” he says, as he points to his head and his heart.
D// – The Wine Idealist