Luke Lambert is undoubtedly one of the hottest names in Australian wine. His thoughtful wines, crafted from exceptional sites in the Yarra Valley, have struck a chord with wine drinkers in Australia and around the world. Perhaps this is no surprise when you learn that Luke knew that he wanted to be a winemaker while still in his teens in Brisbane. He became entranced by the mystique and unique language of wine by listening and learning from his wine loving parents.
Wine alchemy from a master of minimalism
A fascination with the mystery and alchemy of wine has become Luke’s passion; a passion that comes without pretense or fanfare. In the visual arts and music, minimalism is a style that uses pared-down design elements to maximum effect – think Mark Rothko or Philip Glass. In a similar manner Luke doesn’t need or use the winemaking bells and whistles; no new oak barrels, no oak chips, no clever techniques to extract the life out of his grapes. He allows his wines and the land from which they hail to do the talking. And what a beautiful story they are telling together…
‘It’s nothing new, it’s nothing crazy or inventive, it’s just keeping it simple… it’s just about reflecting the sites in the bottle from year to year, season to season. In the winery it’s also keeping it as simple as possible. That means no oak input. The barrels are for storage only, not for flavour. Getting picking dates right, getting the pressing right and nursing the wine to the bottle.’
Luke Lambert – a passion born in Brisbane
Luke’s first wine inspiration wasn’t a famous old Australian winemaker. Names like Maurice O’Shea and Max Schubert weren’t important in shaping Luke’s path to wine. Instead it was while growing up in Brisbane that his parent’s passion for wine first intrigued him. They had no connection to the wine community apart from being keen wine enthusiasts, but when they talked about it, when they visited wineries it all seemed quite magical to the young Luke. Wine was mysterious, an old and ancient drink that had a language all its own. This youthful fascination with the mystery and the alchemy sowed a seed so that Luke knew by the time he was 14 that he wanted to be a winemaker. While his parents were vital to Luke picking up a passion for wine, they’ve also been vital in shaping him as a person and winemaker. From his father, a Civil Engineer, he learnt the value of hard work and to enjoy the rewards that it brings.
His father worked for himself and appreciated the sense of pride that goes with having a business with his name on the door. And with this pride came a sense of responsibility: ‘This is what I do; this is what I stand for.’ No surprise then that Luke uses his own name when labeling his wines. If you have the yin then it’s always great to have the yang to complement it. Luke’s mother provided his yang. A florist, creative and connected with nature every day, from her Luke picked up more than just a love for the smell of roses - though that may explain his passion for Nebbiolo - he picked up a creative streak and a desire to be connected with the land and the bounty it could offer. Combine the skills of the engineer and the skills of a florist into a single occupation and it’s highly likely that you’d come up with a winemaker, as Luke says, ‘Its nuts and bolts and then arranging a bouquet.’
From Europe to Wagga Wagga to the Yarra Valley
With his destiny set, Luke finished high school and headed off to Europe for two years. He based himself in London and Ireland but travelled extensively through France and Italy. This was a period of intense learning and he absorbed wine knowledge like a sponge. And while his parent’s drank a lot of excellent Australian wines, including savoury aged Hunter Valley Shiraz, this was Luke’s first taste of European wines. He fell hard for light to medium bodied wines that spoke of place, picking up a love for Nebbiolos from Piedmont from classic names like Rinaldi and Mascarello. The people he met, the places he visited and the wines he tasted continue to inspire Luke to this day. While in Europe, he enrolled to study oenology at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga in order to get the formal education required to become a winemaker. While studying he was already thinking about where he would want to work once qualified.
Rather than think about the place he wanted to go, Luke thought about the wines that he wanted to make, the wines that he loved to drink and then reverse engineered the location into where he would love to work. He kept coming back to the wines of Mount Mary and Yarra Yering, these wines spoke to Luke of a place he’d love to make wine. Typically barely middle weight, these wines were built around acidity not sweetness, and were as atypical to the broader Australian wine paradigm as Piedmontese Nebbiolos are to most Italian reds. But Luke never wanted to be compared to others; he wanted to do his own thing in a region that inspired him.
‘You can make medium weight wine here that has fine tannin ripe and holds its acidity. It has the gentleness, the perfume, the lift and all those things that I wanted… That’s the most important thing. It’s easy to avoid ‘sunshine in a bottle’ in this region.’
‘This is what I do; this is what I stand for.’
Luke moved to the Yarra Valley and got a day job at Coldstream Hills, but the goal was always to work towards doing his own thing. The first six years for his label were a little insane. He’d be up all night in the freezing cold and rain making his wine in the garage. He could have made the wine at a contract facility or at someone else’s winery but he wanted to do it his own way. Maybe it’s the inspiration from his father, but this independence is something that we can all be very glad about today. And while Luke’s winery digs are a little more comfortable now, he’s still steadfastly doing his own thing.
Through his hard work and dedication Luke now has access to some of the best vineyard sites in Australia, let alone the Yarra Valley. He makes vibrant, pure fruited Syrah and exceptionally complex Chardonnay from the Tibooburra Vineyard. His seasonal expressions of Nebbiolo from the Denton Vineyard have helped sparked a conversation in the region, with people talking about the potential for it to be the region’s next great variety. Luke is not just making wines that are delicious, interesting and thought-provoking, he is making wines that are distinctive, wines that are unique and speak of place. But they are also instantly recognisable as Luke Lambert wines, wines that couldn’t be made by anyone else. And for someone as fiercely independent and as passionate as Luke, that could well be the greatest compliment of all.
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