We may be a small team here at Briar Ridge, but we happen to think that we’re a pretty special one, so please allow us to introduce you to a very, very important member – our head winemaker, Alex Beckett.
Alex started in the wine industry in 2009 and joined Briar Ridge in 2016. And though he's a local Hunter boy, his path to becoming a winemaker wasn’t entirely cut and dry. “When I was finishing school, I thought I needed to take the serious approach, so I did my first degree in applied linguistics at Newcastle Uni," says Alex. "I think I got 12 months in, and while it was interesting and I certainly learnt a lot, I realised it was probably a little too dry for me."
At the same time, he had taken a part time job in the cellar door of Tyrell’s Wines through a connection from a friend, and was beginning to be exposed to the world of wine.
“I was talking to people all the time and realising how genuinely interested they were in wine. I thought it was rare to find that in most products, so I kind of fell in love with wine that way. And there’s a big difference between talking about the syntax of language and talking about how cool this wine is,” laughs Alex.
He continued working in various wineries around the Hunter while finishing his degree, dabbling in all aspects including vineyard work, which he found just as interesting as talking to customers. His mind was soon set on a career, though funnily enough for a boy from the Hunter, it wasn’t something he'd really considered previously, perhaps because wine wasn’t a presence at all growing up.
“My parents actually don’t really drink,” Alex explains. “So there was never wine on the table at home. But even so, being born in the Hunter, vineyards and mines are what we know – and at the time, the appeal of getting to work out here in this beautiful part of the world was certainly part of what drew me further towards it. I had no idea where it was going to lead though!”
Alex went on to complete a degree in Viticulture and Wine Science at the University of Adelaide, during which time he was awarded the prestigious Sydney Royal Wine Scholarship, and came to Briar Ridge for his vintage placement in 2016. “I loved being here, and I loved the experience. I fit in with the crew too, so when I was offered a position after finishing uni, I jumped at the chance.”
He wasn’t too tempted to take his talents elsewhere in Australia either. “I love the Hunter," he says, "because in terms of Australian wine regions, we can claim two of the most unique wine styles in the world – Hunter Valley shiraz and semillon. The expression of these is tantamount to the best wines coming out of the country and I was really keen to get involved in that."
It helps that Briar Ridge is a particularly unique site within the Hunter Valley. "Because Mount View is at a higher elevation, you get wine styles that have a freshness and a floral capacity that you don't tend to see so much in the lower flats," says Alex.
There is, he says, a little bit of magic in the air, as well as a real challenge. "Technically, from a viticulture standpoint, we shouldn’t be growing grapes here. We’re a subtropical maritime environment, we get lots of disease pressure, ripeness is hard to achieve some years, and some years it’s too quick – it just shouldn’t be possible. So having specific wine styles that can defy those odds is what's so exciting about the Hunter Valley. When you can get something into the bottle that tastes like the site, and you can see the potential of that to evolve over time, I mean, I just don’t think there’s anything better than that.”
It's been five years since Alex took over winemaking duties at Briar Ridge, and when asked what he is most proud of so far, Alex says that it's a tough one.
“Winning awards and having our wines recognized is always nice, but it’s probably the little things that we do here in the winery to elevate our craft that other people might not even realise. For example, changing from commercial yeast strains in our semillons to using ambient yeast [the yeast that is present on the grapes when they’re grown] so you get just that little bit more complexity and a more intrinsic feel for the vineyard site. I think that’s really cool, and I’m also fairly proud to see the development of style that we’ve had here over the last five years. It’s always interesting tasting wines and being able to go ‘Oh I really like that one,' or 'That one didn’t go so well, but then we changed this and it got better.’ I think that’s probably what I like the most.”
Between work and helping out at the small bar his partner owns, Alex doesn’t have a lot of spare time. He winds down by lifting weights (he swears it’s a big endorphin release) and reading. He’s also currently trying to learn Cantonese, with the help of his partner who is from Malaysia and has Cantonese origin. They eat a lot of Asian food at home, with his favourite of which are dumplings and wontons.
He says, "Yum cha with a good bottle of off-dry riesling is a real game-changer on a Sunday," and since he hasn’t steered us wrong yet, we’re off to put this one on our perfect pairs list!