Almost every time Wine Australia interviews winemakers, they invariably say how great wine is made in the vineyard. Rachel Steer is one of those people that do just that. She has been plying her trade at Chapel Hill winery in McLaren Vale since 2007, helping to grow their reputation for exceptional wines that showcase the quality and diversity of this classic Australian wine region. Traditionally, and especially at larger wineries, viticulturists were kept at arm’s length from the winemaking process; their job was to ensure the vineyards were in top shape but they rarely became involved once the grapes were harvested. That though has changed. Rachel, for example, is a core member of the winemaking team at Chapel Hill, giving insights and helping to make vital decisions in the vineyard and in the winery. She does this with the help of the latest technology, allowing her to monitor essential vineyard data on her smartphone at any given time.
Balanced vines are going to make balanced wines and that’s always been my focus. That philosophy flows through into the winery. I’m part of the winemaking team and we have a really close relationship with our growers and the winemakers.
Rachel Steer - from pruning vines to managing vineyards
While Rachel grew up in a wine region, the nearby Adelaide Hills, her family didn’t have any connection to the wine community. But growing up during the ‘Great Australian Wine Export Boom’ meant that it was impossible for her to escape the buzz of excitement and activity of the times in the region. Vineyards were being planted at a furious pace across Australia and the Adelaide Hills were no exception. It was in her years at high school that Rachel first started to get a passion for vines. During school holidays Rachel would work locally picking fruit and pruning vines. The hours were long and the pay wasn’t great, but it was this work in the vineyard that inspired Rachel to study viticulture as soon as she finished school. And it was during her studies that her future in the McLaren Vale started to come together.
Two Australian wine legends lend a hand
After she’d finished her degree in viticulture, Rachel Steer decided to complete her honours studies. Two legendary Australian wine names assisted her with this project, which in a twist of fate was undertaken in one of Chapel Hill’s vineyards. Jim Hardie, former CEO of the Cooperative Research Centre for Viticulture, helped Rachel connect with Chapel Hill winemaker Pam Dunsford. Dunsford may not be a household name, but Pam is an important trailblazer for the Australian wine community. Pam was the first Australian woman accepted into the University of Adelaide’s winemaking course at Roseworthy, the first Australian woman to be appointed as Chief Winemaker at a large wine company, the first Australian female winemaker to become a wine show judge and the first woman to be employed during the vintage by Champagne house, Krug. An exceptional list of achievements that still inspire many to this day and Rachel relished the chance to work with Pam at Chapel Hill, an association that continues to this day.
Full spectrum – from the big end of town to the little
After completing her studies in viticulture Rachel Steer started her first job, working for Orlando (now Pernod Ricard Winemakers – home to Jacob’s Creek) in Langhorne Creek. It was here that she got to experience how things are done in the grown-up world of wine. The vineyards are still given lots of love and attention but the role of the viticulturist is focused purely on the vines. The aim is to produce the best quality grapes in significant volumes, delivering these to the winery and then heading back to the vineyards to ready the vines for next year’s harvest. But Rachel had got a taste for greater involvement at Chapel Hill and wanted to be more involved in the full spectrum of the winemaking process. Another McLaren Vale winery, the innovative and highly regarded Coriole, was advertising for a viticulturist and Rachel jumped at the chance to head back to the Vale.
McLaren Vale – a collaborative community
The place that Rachel Steer has made home, McLaren Vale, is a region known around the world for producing delicious wines. Names that built the regions reputation like Hardy’s, d’Arenberg, Chapel Hill and Wirra Wirra have been joined in more recent times by winemakers challenging the status quo. Wineries like Jauma, Brash Higgins, SC Pannell and Samuel’s Gorge have been drawn to the lifestyle, climate and soils of the region. From the outside it would be easy to see tension between the old and the new, the classic and the innovative. But McLaren Vale has been able to rise above and become known as a beacon for wine region as collaborative community.
McLaren Vale is a really collaborative place to work. Everyone’s really open to sharing their time to sharing their time and their knowledge. It’s just fantastic. I don’t feel like it’s a competitive environment, it’s more ‘let’s work together and make this happen’.
For Rachel this is vitally important for her in continuous quest to hone her vineyard management skills. Often an issue that she is experiencing in one of her vineyards is part of a regional phenomenon. If she is seeing it then it is almost guaranteed that others in the region are also seeing it too. And while she is regarded as one of the best of the best viticulturists in Australia, Rachel doesn’t have the solution to every problem. Gathering information and ideas as a group benefits all and helps pioneers within the McLaren community to not only create the great wines they have all become so famous for, but to keep pushing the quality boundaries to even greater heights.
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