Vigneron Mark Bourne is owner and founder of Cuttaway Hill Wines and, until recently, president of Southern Highlands Food and Wine Association. Now keeping busy with the NSW Wine Industry Association and the National Wine and Grape Industry Centre at Charles Sturt University, Mark talks to ESH about bugs, the local industry and jobs still to do.
‘My wife Debra and I moved to the Highlands in 1996. We moved from Walgett in northern NSW where Debra was a teacher and I taught at TAFE helping kids who weren’t suited to school to find a job. Debra’s family had a property, Giruvian Park on Old South Road in Mittagong, and we started planting eight acres of chardonnay, cabernet and semillon blanc.
I had always been interested in horticulture, and I’d worked as a tree surgeon for a bit. We arrived before the boom in cool climate viticulture, and were only about the fourth vineyard here. There was only Joadja, Ealing Forest, Howards Lane and us. Our two daughters, who are now aged 22 and 20, both grew up on the vineyard. It was a big life change.
I suppose we were ahead of the curve before the boom in the wine industry in Australia. The industry really took off from the late 1990s to the early 2000s when the big planting boom took place in Australia. It was basically driven by tax offset incentives, and there was a program to plant so many plants in Australia within 20 years. I think they reached the figure in eight years.
When we started there was no cohesion between wine growers here, so in 1998 we formed the Southern Highlands Vignerons Association. That meant we could start planning with a shared vision, but first we had two big jobs to get done. The first was to get the Southern Highlands recognised as a wine region, because no one knew there were even grapes growing here.
In actual fact, there are historic records of vines being first grown out near Mandemar on the site of what was to become Tertini, and Joadja Vineyards celebrates its 32nd birthday this year. So we had our region defined as a high altitude cool climate region. That is basically 500 metres and above in the Wingecarribee Shire, and our region is recognised around the world.
The second big job was to get the region declared as a phylloxera free region. Phylloxerae are nasty little aphid pests that are devastating vineyards around the world. It’s endemic and it’s very expensive because you can’t take grapes out of a phylloxera affected area, or take machinery in. You are basically under quarantine. So it’s a huge restriction on trade.
Once we had the region defined, we were no longer part of the Sydney/Camden region and tested everything here three years in a row. We were the first wine region in Australia to go from phylloxera declared to phylloxera free, and that still holds. So they were two significant and important jobs we ticked off early in the wine industry around here.
There are 18 cellar doors in the Southern Highlands open every weekend. There are still a few vineyards who don’t have cellar doors but the region remains boutique sized and family owned.
People often get confused about the difference between a vineyard and a winery. A vineyard is where the grapes are grown and a winery is where production or sales take place. Local wineries are Southern Highlands Wines, Joadja Estate, Ealing Forest, Centennial, Tertini and Artemis.
Here at Cuttaway Hill we have 15 acres under cultivation and we generally grow pinot noir, semillon blanc, chardonnay, cabernet and merlot. The grape production is one facet of the vineyard, but there’s much more involved of course. It’s the site, the grapes, the climate and the soils that determine the quality of the grapes and the wine, and there’s a huge difference in local wines, from grapes grown at the top of the hill to grapes grown at the bottom, and so on. It’s a combination of how you manage the vines, as well as the soil and climate, so each label has its own microclimate. The French call it ‘terroir’.
I’ve heard talk over the years that winemakers in the region don’t really get on but that’s never been the case. It’s Southern Highlands gossip. We are not in competition but rather in the same boat and we work together well to attract more visitors and wine drinkers to our region. I think it’s safe to say we share that common goal, and we’ve still got work to do.
Last year, for the first time, the Southern Highlands hosted the NSW Wine Awards. It was an important step for us and has helped bring credibility and focus to our region. For the awards, 16 judges tasted 1000 wines from all over NSW. It’s the most subjective system you can get because it’s totally blind. The judges sit there with a blank glass in front of them with a number on it. It’s quite a humbling thing to get your wine judged blankly and objectively in a line up with all the same style wines. It’s a great leveller.
Cuttaway Hill was the first vineyard to plant pinot noir here and we were the first people to make sparkling wine here with traditional methods (the bottle you buy it in is the bottle it’s made) in 17 years ago. Centennial, Artemis, Cherry Tree and Tertini are all making some great sparklings here too now, so it’s got a very strong future around here. It’s a premium product that suits a premium region like ours.
Cuttaway Hills Wines
212 Sallys Hill Road, Exeter
Cellar door Thursday to Monday, 10.30am to 4.30pm