Patrick Sullivan – Livin’ and a-Workin’ on the land
Patrick Sullivan – Livin’ and a-Workin’ on the land

The overalls he wears to trade tastings give it away; Patrick Sullivan is not a city boy. He grew up in country Victoria and a love of the rural lifestyle has stayed with him ever since. His passion for living and working the land runs deep and he has made many sacrifices to build an idyllic lifestyle farming and making wine in West Gippsland. Patrick was aged just ten when the seeds for this life were sown and he watched with fascination the growth and development of the wine community in Heathcote during the ‘Great Australian Wine Boom’ of the 1990s and 2000s. But even though Patrick was inspired by the wine community during a time of excess and ‘bigger is better’, he is focused on making wines slowly, gently, carefully and thoughtfully. His vibrant, energetic, and thrilling wines - such as his extended skin contact Sauvignon Blanc blend called ‘Breakfast Wine’ - are resonating with wine lovers. These are wines that show a new side to Australian wine, a less industrial side.  Hand-crafted wines, minimal intervention wines. Just don’t call them ‘natural’ wines…

Yes, what I do fits the bill of what people say is natural. But really all I want to do is make really good wine…

Patrick Sullivan - been around the world and back again

During his high school days, after his initial thoughts of a life in wine, Patrick flirted with a career as a paediatrician. Thankfully for us this flirtation was brief and came to nothing, but back then Patrick wasn’t settled so at the age of 19 he jetted off to London to see the world and start to define who he was and what he wanted to do. It was in London that the wine seed planted in Heathcote started to really grow and take shape. Here he got a job in the wine department at Selfridge’s which allowed him to taste and explore the world of wine which instilled in him a love for wines made from organic and biodynamically farmed vineyards. For him there was something different about these wines and he wanted to know why that was. It wasn’t long before he decided that the next step on his journey would be to return home and study viticulture. When studying viticulture it’s natural to meet a lot of winemakers. This interaction can inspire those studying oenology to a greater appreciation of grape growing and can inspire those studying viticulture to want to make their own wine. But this wasn’t the case for Patrick. The winemakers that he met didn’t drink the wines he loved so he never had an aspiration to shift from viticulturist to oenologist at that time. But there was one thing he did know: He knew he was going to buy a farm. This wasn’t going to happen straight away - he didn’t have the money or the resources – and he couldn’t even explain why or how it was going to happen, but he always knew it was something that he was going to do. He just needed a little time. Patrick Sullivan filled in this time working on other people’s farms. One of these was the Thousand Candles project at the old Killara Park Estate vineyard in the Yarra Valley with winemaker Bill Downie and viticulturist Stuart Proud. Here he found himself amongst kindred spirits, people who shared his passion for the land.  Unlike the winemakers he studied with, these were people who inspired him. Together they worked to renew the vineyard, using a combination of maximum intervention viticulture and biological farming methods - compost teas and the like. Patrick learnt that viticulture without the short cuts, with the hard work and time to ensure stronger and healthier vines, was what he needed to do to make the wines he wanted to make.

Patrick Sullivan - from working the farm to owning the farm

Patrick learnt a lot of important lessons and made lifelong friends while working in the Yarra Valley. Maybe the most important of these was Bill Downie. Bill has no formal training as a winemaker but is regularly mentioned in the same breath as Australia’s finest vignerons. Bill has lived on a farm in West Gippsland for some time now, a home base from where he can make stunning Pinot Noirs from Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley and Gippsland and continue with projects like Thousand Candles and Save our Souls. Not too long ago a property nearby to Bill’s place came available. A property that had a beautiful native acacia forest and land with a unique terroir that Patrick believed would be perfect for growing grapes. Made up of geology and soils unique to Australia - basalt over sandstone with big chunks of parent rock still present in the volcanic soils – it is overlain with little creeks, streams and an aquifer with exceptionally pure water. This was an opportunity that was too good to resist. Before long Patrick and his wife Megan had moved onto the property and planted their first vines in 2016. The next chapters in the Patrick Sullivan story were ready to be written…

‘Natural’ wines – the minimal intervention elephant in the room

But before we leave Patrick Sullivan and his beautiful property in West Gippsland there is something we need to discuss. ‘Natural’ wine. Has there been a more divisive term in the modern history of wine? It’s used to compliment wines; it’s used to deride wines. It’s a term that has never been clearly defined and remains for some as mystical as ‘terroir’. For some it’s a term that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’, the small and boutique from the large and corporate. But whatever you think, the term is a misnomer. Know someone bottling spontaneously fermented grape juice from uncultivated vines in a forest? If so, then you can start the ‘natural’ wine movement, until then less said the better. Patrick has been labelled by some as a member of the ‘natural’ wine movement and, to be frank, it’s a label that he doesn’t like. Labelling what he does as ‘natural’ wine undersells the importance of a move to less conventional farming and industrial winemaking methods. The label also undersells the hard work, the passion and the care that goes into Patrick Sullivan’s wines. Is it natural to bunch and leaf thin? Who knows and who cares. Throw the labels in the bin and focus on the delicious wine in the glass. Now that sounds like a natural approach to wine.

Minimal intervention is in the eye of the beholder. What I try and do is be as honest as I can to the vineyard… So that’s maximum intervention in the vineyard. Pruning, leaf thinning, being out in the vineyard all the time… What I’m trying to do is be as reflective of the site as possible at that time and at that place…

Patrick Sullivan’s dreams really do come true

For Patrick it’s not some deep spiritual philosophy that drives him to make wines in the way that he does. There are no mystical forces at play here. For him it’s much simpler than that. He just prefers the taste of wines that, ‘haven’t been messed around with.’ And if that’s the sort of wines he likes to drink then that’s the wines he is going to make. After several years of making delicious wines from grapes grown on other people’s farms he now has the chance to do something that is truly his. Planting vines, raising a family, living and working the land. A childhood dream come true. Something for us all to believe in.

 

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