A Chat with Chris Carpenter of Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard
Superstar winemaker Chris Carpenter has been working in the vineyards of California for over two decades and is well known for his work in Napa Valley at Mt. Brave, Lokoya, La Jota and Cardinale. But what is less known, is that Chris’s winemaking remit extends beyond Napa Valley. He also makes wine in Southern Australia in the McLaren Vale. Since 2012, he has traveled to the world-renowned wine region several times a year to oversee winemaking at Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard.
For nearly 50 years, Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard has been supplying fruit for some of Australia’s top wines, including Penfold’s Grange. In 2012, Jackson Family Wines purchased the property and appointed Chris as head winemaker. Under the leadership of Chris and vineyard manager, Michael Lane, the winery has continued to elevate the quality of its fruit and is producing world-class wines that stand up to Chris’s Napa Valley offerings in terms of quality but are distinctly Australian and true to their terroir in terms of taste.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Chris and learn more about his experience at Hickinbotham, what drew him to this historic vineyard and his hopes for its future.
Know your winemaker, know your wine
TVP: What drew you to Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard?
Chris: The opportunity to work with a vineyard that has supplied some of the great wines of Australia like Grange, Astralis, Angelus etc and to see what we could do with it. The chance to work in a different terroir with a different sensibility around Bordeaux varieties. Being part of the new wave of attention on Australia as one of the great wine countries in the world and hopefully helping to affect that in positive ways.
TVP: What makes Hickinbotham vineyard so special?
Chris: Its position in the Mclaren Vale. Its is in the northern most point of the Vale close to the village of Clarendon, about a km from the edge of the Adelaide Hills GI, so it has elevation, and with that elevation comes a diurnal effect that benefits Bordeaux varieties as the air moves off of St Vincents Bay, cooling the vineyard during the day and keeping it a bit warmer at night. I see a very similar effect in the mountains of Napa Valley that I work with.
It has just about every angle to the sun, another effect of growing on the hillsides as these hills wind in and around the geography that the vineyard was planted on. This helps create a diversity of ripening sites that allow for ultimately a diversity of wines that make blending an exercise in complexing the wines.
The soils are fairly consistent across the entire vineyard making the management of the water and nutrition fairly consistent. And it has a range of vine age as there are some older vines dating back to 1962 up to some newer plantings we have put in over the last 5 years.
TVP: How would you describe your winemaking style in 5 words or less?
Chris: Vineyard & terroir focused
TVP: What wines can’t you get enough of right now?
Chris: Brunellos and Rieslings from anywhere.
TVP: What do you enjoy most about making wine in the McLaren Vale?
Chris: I enjoy the challenge of a different terroir.
I enjoy being part of a community of winemakers and vineyard managers that are passionate about their GI but in an environment that is different in terms of the business maturity that Napa enjoys. So being there to help the community see the opportunity of visitation but also being in a place that isn’t as visited yet as Napa and being able to feel what Napa must have been like back in the 70s before the boom .
I love having an incredible shoreline a mere 10 minutes from the winery that I can watch the sun go down when my work is over for the day.
TVP: What are the best and most challenging parts of making wine in both Australia and the US?
Chris: The best part of making wine in any part of the world is that vines grow in some of the most beautiful parts of our planet and that the product we make from these areas is something that spawns conviviality, creates joy and memories.
The most challenging part of our field as it is with any agricultural field is dealing with mother nature’s curveballs whether they be seasonal or as is the case with global warming macro-environmental.
TVP: What’s coming on the horizon that you’re most excited about?
Chris: At Hickinbotham a few years back we planted Cab Franc and Malbec. They are both turning out to be outstanding examples of these varieties and how Hickinbotham’s terroir shapes them and I can’t wait to share them as single varieties. In fact, with the 17 vintage we will be releasing our first Cab Franc, a variety that not many people are doing in Australia.
TVP: What are your hopes for the future of Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard?
Chris: In Australia it’s a pretty well known vineyard, I would like that reputation to spread around the world as Hickinbotham wines become more recognizable and as the rest of the world sees that Australia is an incredible wine producing area at the very highest level.
TVP: You’ve had a lot of success over your 20+ year career. What advice would you give aspiring winemakers just embarking on their own journey in the wine industry?
Chris: Always, always, always focus on the quality of the work being done in the vineyard. Create gold there and you can turn it into jewelry, start off with lead and no matter how hard you try its not going to polish into gold.
2016 THE PEAKE
Named ‘The Peake‘ after the founder of Clarendon – Sir Edward John Peake, this blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon and 43% Shiraz is the crown jewel of Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyards and one of the most revered wines in Australia. Full-bodied with layers and layers of complexity this wine keeps on giving. Profound notes of black fruit, cedar, chocolate, herbs and spice. Theres a lot going on here. Pure elegance but with the power to evolve for years to come. A phenomenal wine that beautifully demonstrates how special the Hickinbotham Clarendon vineyards truly are.
Alcohol: 14.5% | TA: 6.2 | pH: 3.46
2016 ELDER HILL
Sourced from a single block of bush vines planted in 1962 at 225m altitude on the estate, the Elder Hill 2016 Grenache is one of my favorite wines from this winery’s current release. Great balance, medium(+) body, it opens with aromas of juicy red fruit followed by floral and spice notes. It has fair amount of tannin on the finish which will soften with time but I’m loving the way this wine is drinking right now.
Alcohol: 14.5% | TA: 6.3 | pH: 3.50
2016 THE REVIVALIST
Incredibly approachable today but with enough concentration and structure to evolve beautifully in the bottle, this 100% Merlot wine is beaming with elegant red fruit aromas intermingled with hints of vanilla, dark chocolate and a touch of earth. Medium(+) body with a long, memorable finish. One of the most enjoyable Merlot’s I’ve had in a long time.
Alcohol: 14.0% | TA: 6.3 | pH: 3.45