Nicholson River Winery

Interview with Ken Eckersley

By Franz Scheurer

The Nicholson River Winery is a small pioneering vineyard in East Gippsland,
between Bairnsdale and Lakes Entrance. It is 3½ hours drive East of Melbourne, by the Princes Highway and Great Alpine Road. It was established in 1978 by Ken and Juliet Eckersley and is slowly growing to reach 8 ha. The Winery has outstanding views of the Nicholson River, surrounding hills and the Gippsland Lakes.
Some 50 to 200 cases of ten different wines are made each year. Chardonnay, Riesling and Semillon are barrel fermented and aged in French oak for up to a year and are called "gold" wines from their obvious colour. The reds are Merlot and Pinot Noir with some Shiraz and Cabernet, are made traditionally and aged in oak for 18 months.
 The gravel loam shading to limestone clay soils, together with the mild maritime climate combine to produce remarkable wines of fragrant aromas, intense flavours and lingering finishes. Chardonnay in particular has possibly     the longest ripening period in the world (160-180 days) for a dry style.

Ken produces some of the most unusual Australian wines. He refuses to follow the safe path and in the process makes much more interesting wines. His dry Botrytis Semillon is probably the best Australian white I have ever tasted and for the past 8 years his Chardonnays have been my own personal favourite Australian white wine.

Ken was gracious enough to give me some of his valuable time and answer some questions for the Australian Gourmet Pages.

AGP: First, let me congratulate you on an incredibly individual vineyard that produces fantastic wines. I believe you are originally from Sydney?
KE: Yes, I spent my formative years there, studying Science at Sydney University and then working for ICI at the Botany plant and teaching Science at Sydney Grammar. I wandered around Europe and Israel for four years.

AGP: What made you study Oenology and how and when did you start Nicholson River and is Juliet actively working with you?
KE: Juliet harbours the memories of babies being carted around the vineyard while she pruned and the playgroup being roped in to disbud little vines. Financial survival meant she had to stay nursing until two years ago and looks after the cellar-door sales, our three children and the morale of the winemaker.
My journey through wine has been a long apprenticeship, starting with being ‘down and out in London’ and in an Oliver Twist type situation entertaining orphans by making beer and fruit wines! I came to Melbourne to study Social Work and my winemaking hobby blossomed with the ready availability of wine grapes. We moved to Gippsland where I worked in Corrections and Family Welfare, eventually leaving this work as the vineyard and winemaking demands grew.

AGP: Tell us about your trials and tribulations. Obviously this has not been an easy road to success?
KE: It’s said that you learn from your mistakes, so I’ve learnt a lot! Rediscovered the wheel a few times too.
Our original intention was to make French style wines in a new viticultural
area. We quickly learned three things; being an imitator is not personally satisfying, to allow the area and its vines an opportunity to express themselves and that the flavours we have in Australia are what the French dream about. It’s been a great challenge, both personally and financially.                        AGP: I have heard successful winemakers referred to as being stubborn, obsessed, control freaks and pedantic. Do you think this is an accurate description of some of the attributes necessary to create a great wine?
KE: Not at all. You have described an egoist. There is always a risk if you believe
your publicity machine and the well-meaning words of flatterers. Just look at the restaurant game.
How about the top winemakers, who are genuine people, like Phil Shaw (Rosemount), Vanya Cullen, Stephen and Pru Henschke, Trevor Mast (Langi Ghiran) and many others.
I probably get snaky when I’m trying to focus doing some blending and keep on getting interruptions.

AGP: Your wines are incredibly different to the mainstream. You seem to be able to make your wines far more multi-layered taste sensations. You are not afraid to pursue a direction that is not expected, knowing full well you will create some stiff opposition, especially from the trade and from wine writers and judges. You simply don’t fit into any of the comfortable pigeonholes. Why do you do it and how?
KE: This is difficult to explain. For a start wine writers and judges don’t often buy wine and many are closet Francophiles!
You must be true to yourself.
 It all comes back to my philosophy—seeing wine making as a craft and aim to make as complex and interesting a wine as I can with the materials before me.
I am fortunate that I am in an area with such distinctive grape flavours. If I lived elsewhere I would make different styles of wine.
It is important to listen and take on board what mature, without vested interests palates tell you.              I often take a known style and give it a twist.
I feel vindicated that our Chardonnays have been voted by the Victorian public
on eight occasions as their favourite white wine.
One needs to have a view of wine, the big picture, that is open, in the scientific sense, rather than prejudicial or fashion–driven. For example, the role of oxygen in maturing wines is just being realised in mainstream winemaking but for many years any hint of “oxidation” was the devil manifest.
Learning Science helped me appreciate the importance of fundamentals.

AGP: Nicholson River wines are available through cellar door and mail-order and occasionally one sees a small quantity in a specialist bottle shop. How do you market your wines? Are you trying to get the broader public to drink your wines or is there simply not enough to go around?
KE: I would love to tell you that the phone never stops ringing and we are always sold out. Alas, it is hard work selling wine ‘out there’. While we have concentrated on improving the grapes and wine, it hasn’t followed that people have beat a path to our door, not to the wilderness of East Gippsland anyhow. I feel like the pretty girl who no one asks out because they assume she is already spoken for! We have turned to export and been impressed by the reception overseas. That looks like being our future.

AGP: Let’s now talk a little about some of your specific wines. You make more than one sparkling wine. Can you tell us about them?
KE: I’ve tried to make Australian style sparkling—that have lots of flavour.
There are several experimental ones but the most popular is a Pinot Noir/Shiraz.
Traditional ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ is characterised by the use of tawny port as liquor, but I’ve changed it to bring up the fruit flavours with gamey overtones.

AGP: Tell us about your latest addition, the sweet Botrytis Semillon
KE: Our first ‘sticky’, dried apricot, citrus and marmalade. A true Botrytis wine
that I’m keen to get some feedback on.

AGP: Gippsland is well known for some of Australia’s best Pinot Noir. Some are even offered on a Dutch Auction basis exclusively on the net. You don’t make a Pinot every year. What’s the reason for that and what are you hoping to achieve with your Pinots?
KE: I think Gippsland will become well known at least for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from many wineries. I only put out a small amount (100 cases) of Pinot Noir in top years. I think richness, with many layers.
With Pinot Noir you get into Francophile territory where commonsense goes out the window and silly amounts are paid for French wines or their imitators.
I would rather make a good Pinot Noir wine than a good Burgundy. We limit ourselves and underestimate the variety by giving the Burgundians the monopoly on quality pinots. The imitation French wines are a great source of mirth to French winemakers.
AGP: The Australian Wine Industry has suddenly seen an exponential growth curve and success, both in Australia and overseas. Are you exporting wines and if so, where to and what kind of a reaction do you get to your wines?
KE: There are two sides to the ‘boom’. The large companies are doing brilliantly
but many small wineries are struggling. I think there will be re-alignments
in the next few years. As for ourselves, we hope to increase exports to survive. Robert Parker has given 90+ scores to several of our wines and this has given us an international reputation. Last year we exported 40% of our production to China, Singapore, California and England.

AGP: What is your favourite white and red wine?
KE: I don’t believe in favourites! I enjoy lots of good wines, depends on the context.

AGP: I always maintained that Wine represents 30%, Food 30% and Food/Wine match 40% of a successful meal. A great wine that totally mismatches great food is not a pleasurable experience. Do you think that the sommeliers and chefs in Australia’s restaurants really understand about Food/Wine matches or is this only in its infancy?
KE: Definitely a long way to go! But they are no different to anyone else; ignorance about enjoying wine is commonplace. They are only culpable in so far as they pretend. Sometimes they have knowledge without understanding.
What can we do to bring back the BYO restaurant?
It hasn’t helped that ‘Wine Studies’ has been effectively dropped from the Hospitality Course curriculum throughout Australia. The Wine Industry pays lip service (no pun intended) to Wine Education; it isn’t seen as a priority.
AGP: What do you think is the future for Australian wines in general and yours in particular? What does your crystal ball tell us?
KE: Despite the high taxes, Australian wines are probably the best value wines in the world. That is very true of our quality wines-the $20-$50 bracket. Above that you buy a label. Oddly the cheap Australia wines are similarly priced in New York and London.
Most people are content with the ‘refinery wines’ that dominate the market and the reality is that perhaps only 1% are interested in and willing to pay the extra for
‘individual wines’. The latter will always be much more expensive to make.
It is a sign of our times that ‘Big is Beautiful’ and the small have to scurry to find a niche to survive. Just like the Supermarkets and the corner store.
The irony is that the small wineries carry the romantic image of the wine industry whilst their mega-brethren, more like a BHP or ESSO, do very nicely thank you.
But the cellar door is changing too with winery tourism becoming more eatery focused and the old fashioned places like ours offering just quality individual wines seem destined to fade away.

This concludes the interview with Ken Eckersley of Nicholson River Winery.
For further information:
Nicholson River Winery
P.O. Box 73
Nicholson  VIC 3882
Tel.:    03 5156 8241
Fax:    03 5156 8433

Back to Main Page