Charlie Melton isn’t a local Barossa boy. The Melton family name isn’t intrinsically linked to the fabric of the Barossa through generations of blood, sweat and tears working the land. He isn’t farming the same land his great, great grandfather was in the 1800s. He grew up in Sydney. Did a yearning passion for wine lead him to this historic Australian wine region? Nope. Charlie, who was then known by his given name of Graeme, only stopped in the Barossa Valley to get money to fix the broken-down Holden ute he was using for an epic Australian road trip. But fast forward to today and the Barossa is definitely home for Charlie and his family. So much so that if you ask a Barossa local to list the most passionate and proud advocates for their region then it will be a big surprise if you don’t hear Charlie’s name.
In the beginning there were two blokes and a broken flatbed
Travelling in Australia, or around the world for that matter, is seen as something of a rite of passage for young Australians. In this spirit Charlie and a mate jumped in their flatbed truck in 1973 and headed out to explore our great southern land. While the finer details of the journey have been lost in the mists of time, but we do know that the trip came to an abrupt halt when the flatbed broke down in the Barossa Valley. To fix it and continue their trek they needed money, money they didn’t have. They needed to get work and so started looking for jobs. They quickly found two: one for a vineyard worker and one for a cellar hand, but they couldn’t work out which of them wanted to do which job. So they flipped a coin to decide. Call it fate, call it luck, call it intervention from the wine gods, but it was decided by a coin toss that a young Charlie Melton would work as a cellar hand at Saltram. It was there that Charlie met fellow Barossa Valley legend Peter Lehmann. The two got along famously and Charlie quickly became Peter’s protégé and followed him when Peter started his own winery in 1979.
'When I started here in the mid-70s there was a really sensational community feel. There were ups and downs in the industry, like in every industry, but it really was a locally-based industry in those days. The dream of 2 or 3 billion dollars worth of Australian wine exports was just that… a dream.'
From apprentice to master
Charlie learnt a lot from Peter: one of the key things being a respect for the region’s vineyards and grape growers. The 1980s were a tough time in the region with an oversupply of red grape varieties a big issue for growers and winemakers. The local government tried to fix the problem with a Vine Pull Scheme, incentivising growers to grub-up 'unprofitable' and 'unproductive’ vines including many precious 100 year-old Shiraz and Grenache vines. Although a relative newcomer to the region, Charlie couldn’t stand idly by and watch the destruction of the heritage of a region he’d fallen in love with. So in 1984 he purchased his first grapes to make wine under his own label. He wasn’t alone. The Vine Pull Scheme pushed many others in the region to action and led to the birth of now famous Barossa winery names like St Hallett, Rockford, Bethany, Grant Burge, Heritage, Willows Vineyard and Elderton. While Charlie has a lot in common with these Barossa greats, there is one key point of difference: Charlie built his name and reputation on blends of Barossa Grenache, not the more popular and common, Shiraz.
We caught up with Charlie and chatted with him about what makes Barossa Grenache so special and unique, discussing whether he thinks there is a big future for the variety in the region.
The original champion for Australian Grenache
If old vine Barossa Shiraz had few friends in the 1980s, old vine Barossa Grenache was even less popular. If it was made into wine it was made into cheap fortified styles that were high on alcohol but low on complexity. Unlike most in the Barossa Valley, Charlie saw potential in these dry grown old Grenache vines. While others neglected them, Charlie treated them with care and love. He focused on reducing yields in his vineyards, vastly improving the quality of the grapes produced. Taking inspiration from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Charlie took the fruit from these vines and blended it with Shiraz and Mourvedre (Mataro) to create what would become his flagship wine, Nine Popes. Charlie loved the resulting wine but knew that if he labelled the wine as a Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvedre (GSM) blend his chances of selling the wine were next to zero. So he looked to the region that had inspired the wine and translated it into English. And so Châteauneuf-du-Pape became Nine Popes and a legendary Australian wine was born, Only one little problem, of course, Châteauneuf-du-Pape translates to Castle of the New Popes not Castle of the Nine Popes! By the time Charlie released his translation was off it was too late, and just like Charlie Melton in the Barossa, Nine Popes was here to stay.
A legacy for future Barossa generations
While he may have been an outsider when he arrived in the Barossa in 1973, Charlie Melton’s contribution to the community in the past forty years has ensured that he is now well and truly accepted as a local. Recently Charlie and his wife Virginia have expanded their estate's vineyards to include vines in Lyndoch and Eden Valley and the range of wines Charlie is making has grown considerably, complementing the Nine Popes with a diverse range that includes Shiraz, Cabernet, Shiraz/Cabernet and Rosé. From the most humble of beginnings the, Charlie has created a strong and enduring legacy for future generations. And to think that none of this would have happened if that Holden ute hadn’t broken down in the Valley in 1973. Such are the accidents of history...
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