Meet Cellr’s weekly crush, Chris Coulter, winemaker and owner of Coulter Wines. Chris combines his passion, attention to detail, innovation, humility and connection with the community to create a vibrant range of highly regarded wines. Whole bunch of Sangiovese? He’s done it. See what the chef turned winemaker has to say about starting Coulter Wines, pushing boundaries and making, frankly, fantastic minimal intervention wines out of South Australia.
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So Chris, talk to us about what led you to becoming a winemaker?
When I was younger my father had a large collection of Australian wine, so even when I was 10 or 12 years old I had an interest in wine. It looked pretty cool, you’d see the adults pulling the cork on all this stuff with these elaborate labels and dad used to give us a glass of red wine every now and then with dinner. So I always have an interest in wine.
Then I became a chef at about 15 years old, and working with food I found wine was so affiliated with food so my interest grew further. After about 22 years in the kitchen I decided I wanted to be a winemaker, I’d been buying a bit of wine and had some mates who drank a bit so I bit the bullet and did a University degree and yeah haven’t looked back since. It was the best decision I ever made I think.
You worked for a large winery for a number of years before creating your own label, Coulter Wines. What inspired you to pursue your own brand?
The desire want to make my own wine. Working for a large company you are pigeon holed into doing what they would like to do rather than what you would like to do, so that’s what inspired me to do it. I can do whatever I want, if I want to go and buy 2 tonne of riesling and ferment it through buckets I can do that – haha I wouldn’t do that – but I have the freedom to do whatever I want.
What drew you to using minimalist intervention winemaking methods, and why is purity in your wines so important?
So that goes back to working for a large company. I don’t want to trash corporate companies, because they are really important to the industry, but I’ve seen the way the wines get treated.
They get heat stabilized, cold stabilised, filtered and re-filtered. If you imagine a beautiful, aromatic, grassy Sauvignon Blanc when it’s a young 6 month old wine VS what that wine looks like 2 years later after all those movements, they just lose their finesse.
So that’s what I love about minimal intervention. For me minimal intervention is not about not looking after the wine, it’s about preserving it. Minimal intervention but maximum attention. I really am careful with what I do, but try to do as little of it as possible. And the focus on purity is being able to differentiate.
Just what I spoke about before, if you had a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Shiraz and as young wines, respectively, one will look like Cabernet Sauvignon and the other will look like Shiraz. However, if you do all those processes over a few years they’ll both look the same. When you have that purity and focus and finesse in each wine you can really dissect those varietal characters in it and it’s just a better experience. When people taste particular varietals as a young wine VS when they are an old leathery, beaten up wine they don’t look or taste as varietal.
Talk to us a bit about where you source your juice, and your approach to bringing out the best in these grapes?
I source my grapes from smaller growers in the Adelaide Hills mostly. I get the fruit whole bunch harvested. I try to get really good fruit, obviously it costs a bit more, but you just get a better end product.
I get the most out of the grapes by really looking after them and not moving them around too much. I get it into the winery, crush it, hand plunge, basket press, put it into a barrel and just leave it. Really drilling down to minimal actions and minimal interactions, but as I said everything I do is with maximum care and attention.
What gets people excited about Coulter Wines?
It’s when you go to a tasting and people sit down and get to experience the wines. Our Sangiovese is quite aromatic, it’s licqurish-y and you can smell black cherries, so when people first smell it they put it to their nose and go “Holy Crap!” You can see their surprise about how aromatice it is. That’s really cool when you see those expressions on peoples faces. Then they want to find out why it smells, tastes or looks that way and so they ask questions.
That’s one part I love, I love going to tastings and talking to people. People just love tasting wine, looking at wine, and talking about wine. I have a group of mates and we sit together with wine and we will argue about why it is the way it is. Everyone’s got their own opinion, so it’s not coming from a place of anger or trying to one up each other, it’s coming from a place of passion. You really want to talk about it and thrash it out and get peoples opinions. It evokes a lot of passion.
Talk to us a bit about the C4 label in your series of wines.
That one was more about me wanting to do something outside the Adelaide Hills. I love the Hills, and it’s my favourite place to make wine, but the C4 was about doing something a little different.
The first one I did was a Barossa Valley Mourvedre- which is the same as a Montaro. The Mourvedre is more of a stylistic difference. Every year since then I make a different variety from a different region to what I’d normally do. The experimentals have been Barossa Valley Mourvedre, South Australian Tempranillo, Eden Valley Syrah and last year I did an Adelaide Grenache.
What channels do you sell wine in, and how do you engage the consumers in these channels?
I sell predominately to wholesale. I have a distributor in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. Previously I sold it all myself, and I do still look after my own clients. I also do a bit of direct to consumer, which I’m trying to increase but it can be pretty hard. They say you can’t sell a secret and that’s true.
Last year I was also lucky enough to get an enquiry from the UK, so that’s been really exciting too.
Of all the wines you have produced under your own label, which do you think is the most reflective of your style, which is the most ambitious and which one put you out of your comfort zone?
The most reflective of my style would be the Chardonnay. It’s really good fruit, so I don’t have to do a lot to it. I bring it straight into the winery, press it, put it into a barrel, ferment it, sulphur it, top it and leave it. It’s really simply made, great fruit, decent oak and that’s it- and it always comes up awesome.
The most ambitious was the first wine I made, the 2015 Sangiovese, and it was 100% whole bunch. It looked really good, but I was really lucky because you don’t associate Sangiovese with a whole bunch ferment… But I just thought, “bugger it”. I had a tonne of Sangiovese, so I foot stomped it and made wine out of it. In the end it went really well.
Out of my comfort zone would be Pinot, as it is always hard to make and always challenges you. It’s really delicate, so you need to really look after it. You have to run the ferment a little bit hot, a little bit of whole bunch. Don’t pick it too early, don’t pick it too late. So it’s always a challenge for sure.
What are you looking forward to about V21? Do you have a particular wine you are excited to make
Rosé, I like making Rosé. It’s a Sangiovese Rosé. Really good fruit and easy to make. But I am making a lot so I’ll need to sell it! My V20 has just about sold out so it’s gone very well.
What is it that inspires you most in winemaking?
It’s a good job, I love drinking wine, and I love talking about wine. It’s the whole package. I think another important part is you meet some great people – everyone has a common goal to make great wine. It’s a good lifestyle and it’s a healthy lifestyle, despite the fact you are making alcohol, which is technically a drug. However, most of the people in wine circles are quite healthy in most aspects, including the way they think about their environment. They aren’t plonk heads, despite how people normally think winemakers are, they are not. Most people are willing to help and share information with you.
I know guys who make wine similar to mine, and I can call them to ask questions and they will share with me all the information they know. It’s a good community, it’s a really cool job.