Fine wine

Weekend Glitz | 23 Apr 2021

For Helen McCarthy, the chief winemaker at St Hallett, the leap into winemaking was not due to an immense interest or a family background in wine.

It all started as a solution to combine her love of the arts and sciences.

Growing up, McCarthy enjoyed painting and music. Her parents moved to south Australia when she was nine - a defining moment for her, she said, as she would not have ended up in the wine industry if not for growing up in one of the Great Wine Capitals of the world.

She recalled: "I always wanted to be in science, but one of the other things that I really loved was art. And to do pure science, I had to give up art in school. I had to give up creative things to focus purely on maths and science so that I could go to university."

So when it came to putting in her preferences, she initially made biotechnology her first choice. It was her then-boyfriend who piqued her interest in studying winemaking and arranged a phone chat with his marketing lecturer for her.

"He spent two hours talking to me about the wine industry, about the art side of it and about the ability to travel and work overseas. He was very good at marketing because he sold me on the wine industry."

So she changed her preference at the last minute to an oenology degree at the University of Adelaide and took the leap barely knowing anything about wine and whether she would be suitable for the degree.

"It's one of those sliding-door moments. I could have gone down biotechnology, would have been bored and probably wouldn't still be in it."

Her studies included microbiology, botany, soil science and viticulture. She also did sensory science, learning how to scientifically describe what she was tasting and trained her palate.

She then realized that winemaking required something innate that cannot be learned. "I didn't understand that you could do this degree and still not be a good winemaker. If your palate isn't good enough, you'll never be a great winemaker," she said.

"Some people are just not built for it. So I was very lucky that when I went in I didn't know that I was going to be good at it. It could have been a complete failure, but it ended up that I was actually pretty good."

Through the years as a winemaker, McCarthy traveled and worked in different wine regions in Australia, winning a number of awards such as Gourmet Traveller Wine Kemeny's Medal for Young Winemaker of the Year in 2008.

"I made a conscious decision when I started winemaking that I was going to learn to be a winemaker in Australia before I traveled overseas," she said.

Ultimately, it was the one closest to home that was closest to her heart.

"The Barossa is really special as it has a big diversity. It is made up of two valleys: Eden and Barossa," she explained.

"Eden Valley is quite cool, so you can make riesling and chardonnay. Barossa Valley is warmer and we have got the oldest vines in the world. You can grow different styles of wines, so we are not all making the same thing. That's why I was drawn to it."

She admitted that the proximity to her family was a factor- the Barossas are only an hour's drive from her family home.

The decorated winemaker believes that a good bottle should be balanced and must match the activity that it is going along with.

But she believes that everybody has a different opinion - and even hers would vary in different situations.

Her favorite wine to drink includes rieslings, influenced by her father, and French champagnes. Her favorite wine to make is cabernet sauvignon.

However, at St Hallett, the focus in reds is Shiraz.

"The reason we do that is because the Barossa is best known for Shiraz. I have made all of the different wines in my career and here I am focused on this bit and it really challenges me, so I am enjoying it."

Among her St Hallett creations, McCarthy enjoys the Higher Earth Syrah from Eden Valley the most.

"I have been drinking lots of them lately and I get it at staff price!" she joked.

A workday at St Hallett for McCarthy can be as long as 12 hours, and during harvest season, it can be at least six days a week.

Mornings usually include inspecting the vineyard and tasting grapes before the day gets too hot and afternoons consist of two ferment tastings and wine blending, as well as operational and finance tasks.

Ever humble, McCarthy believes that the secret of her success is that she was given the opportunity.

"I have been able to have wines under my own name from quite early in my career," she said. "And that gave the opportunity for people to see what I can do."

Nonetheless, she believes that a passion for winemaking and wine is imperative to being a successful winemaker.

St Hallett has recently made available its new releases to Hong Kong, including its iconic Old Block Shiraz 2016 and Blackwell Shiraz 2018 - and McCarthy's personal favorite, the Higher Earth Syrah 2018.

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