In May this year, the Hunter Valley gathered for it’s annual night of nights; The Hunter Valley Legends & Wine Industry Awards. Alex has collected a few accolades in recent years for his outstanding work in winemaking with Briar Ridge Vineyard but this night solidified his efforts. Alex received the trophy for the Riedel 2022 Hunter Valley Young Achiever of the Year.
This award is presented to an individual within the Hunter Valley Wine Industry, under the age of 35, who has most actively and vibrantly contributed to the growth of the region as well as having made considerable efforts in their career and field in the Hunter Valley wine industry. Specifically, Alex has been recognised as a strong advocate for Hunter Valley wine and tourism during his thirteen years (so far) in the industry.
Currently completing his Master of Wine at the Institute of Masters of Wine, we’re very proud and super lucky to have such a skilful, innovative and driven Winemaker.
Keep your eye out, Alex has some very exciting new wines and products in the pipeline. We’re hoping to share some of these with you very soon.
The Hunter Valley is one of the oldest wine regions in Australia, and as such Briar Ridge Vineyard has inherited a rich winemaking tradition that we try to honour with each vintage. Of our wines, there is one range in particular that expresses this heritage: the Stockhausen wines.
For over thirty years, these wines have embodied the classic, regional character of the Hunter and exemplifies Briar Ridge Vineyard’s signature style. The Stockhausen series was named and crafted tribute to legendary Hunter winemaker, Karl Stockhausen, and honours both his invaluable contribution to the success of Briar Ridge Vineyard but also the success of the Hunter Valley wine industry.
We’re thrilled with how the newest release of 2021 wines has come together. Despite an unusually cool, wet season, a break of classic warm days and cool nights in early January led to exceptional flavour development and natural acidity retention, resulting in a traditionally crisp Hunter Semillon and a lively, flavourful Chardonnay. More moderate weather for the remainder of the growing season yielded a classic elegant Shiraz, with great aromatic lift and cellaring potential.
With the latest release of Stockhausen wines, we also found ourselves reflecting on where we’ve come from and how we’ve grown, as well as celebrating the continued development and calibre of these wines. They hold a place near to our hearts, and we know that Briar Ridge Vineyard wouldn’t be what it is today without the influence of Karl Stockhausen.
Born in Hamburg, Germany, Karl came to Australia in 1955. He was sent to the old Greta Migrant Camp in the Hunter Valley, where he found work as a vineyard and cellar hand at Lindeman’s Ben Ean winery and 'stumbled into winemaking' – and we’re so glad he did!
Under the tutelage of Lindeman’s Ray Kidd, Karl honed his skills as a winemaker and went on to build a successful career in the Hunter, eventually becoming one of the most awarded winemakers in Australia.
It was in 1991 that he joined Briar Ridge Vineyard, initially as a manager-winemaker and then as a consultant to the winemaking team, with whom he has collaborated in crafting the Briar Ridge Stockhausen Signature Hunter Valley Semillon, Chardonnay and Shiraz wines. Thirty years on, Karl's philosophy remains front of mind for our vigneron and winemaker when selecting the best parcels of fruit for these iconic wines.
Karl's impact in the industry was recognised in 2007, when he was named a 'Hunter Valley Living Legend' by his colleagues, an honour bestowed on those who have given many years of outstanding service to the advancement of the Hunter Valley. And there’s no question he’s done that.
With the latest release of Stockhausen wines, we’ve chosen to honour Karl with a new label as a testament to his vital contributions to Briar Ridge Vineyard.
Instead of our traditional logo and cream background, we’ve designed a striking black-and-gold label featuring a portrait of Karl to launch the 2021 wines. The image comes from a series of photographs taken of the Hunter Valley legends taken by Chris Elfes. The photograph was awarded a silver distinction by the AIPP (Australian Institute of Professional Photographers) for the portrait category and was one of the final five images selected for at the Australian Photography Awards Portrait of the Year.
If you ask Alex – and naturally, we did – there's plenty to look forward to when it comes to the future of both Briar Ridge's wines and his own career. It's been a big five years for the local winemaker, but if everything goes to plan, the next five are shaping up to be bigger.
"We're currently fine-tuning and really honing our single-vineyard wines," he says. "Right now, they are considered benchmarks for the region, but I would like them to be benchmarks of their grape varieties in the country, so there's a real pursuit of excellence here."
"We're also continuing to expand our portfolio of alternative and emerging varieties. We’ve been growing fiano and albariño for four or so years now, and those wines are getting better and better. We did our first vintage of barbera in 2020, we have a malbec coming up and we’re also working on cabernet franc and a couple of other miscellaneous Bordeaux grapes that don’t always get the time to shine on their own. Developing and playing around with those over time, seeing what works and what doesn’t, is going to be really fun and interesting.”
Our ever-expanding range of wines certainly keeps Alex's hands full, and though he acknowledges it would probably make his life a bit easier if we limited ourselves, he thinks the willingness to explore is a really important part of Briar Ridge’s story.
“While we have this wonderful heritage and a stunning site that can make some of the best grapes in the Hunter, we also have the capacity to make wine a bit more fun. We make wines that aren’t particularly common, even if we know that they might be challenging for consumers at first. But it means you can come to our cellar door and taste pristine semillon, fruity verdelho, textural fiano and floral albarino all in the one place… you can experience that diversity of range firsthand, and it also means you’re much more likely to find something you love. We also hold lots of cool events – Covid permitting – like blending sessions with members, which get people involved and interacting.”
Outside of the winery, Alex is pushing himself further by enrolling in the Masters of Wine program, which he began midway through 2020. Becoming a Master of Wine is considered the top echelon of what you can do in the wine world, and there are only around 400 that have achieved this globally. It’s no mean feat – the pass rate is only 15%, and it usually takes around five years to complete. Right now, Alex is nervously awaiting results from his first exam, but is so glad he is in the ring giving it a crack.
“The big thing for me has always been the pursuit of knowledge. I love the tactile and the sensory components of winemaking, which is obviously a huge part of it, but I also don’t think that you can make truly great wines without a thorough understanding of where we’ve been. So many of the grape varieties that we make wine from are from places like France and Spain and Italy, and if you don’t have an understanding of what they were doing there to make those great wines, then you’re really clutching at straws trying to make wine in Australia.
It's the opportunity to gain a global understanding of wine and go deep into the diversity of wine expression – how much is out there and how much there is to learn – that really drove Alex to take the plunge.
"The program also really teaches you how to communicate about wine," he says. There’s nothing worse, in my opinion, than going to a wine dinner and having someone talk at you for 45 minutes. You come out feeling like you’ve been in a lecture. Learning to say something in as few words as possible, without being pompous, while actually making people understand what you’re talking about – that’s the intent.”
He says he'd love to visit Europe to do some work on the vineyards when we’re allowed to travel again. And when he can find the time in between vintages here at Briar Ridge, of course.
“Certainly I have an intention to get over there, but whether I will, we’ll see. If I do, the two regions I’d most like to experience would be somewhere in the Rheingau of Germany where they make dry riesling, because stylistically it’s so similar to our semillon, as well as Burgundy because I love chardonnay.”
As for now, well, it's all hands on deck here at Briar Ridge. For Alex, that means guiding the fruit from the vineyard to the bottle while ensuring we retain the charm and sense of place that makes, and will continue to make, Briar Ridge wines so special.
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 Tyrrell’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!