From the Barossa to the Yarra – Visiting the Vines Behind Australia’s Stellar Wine Cellar
Imagine a wine cellar so vast that on last count it held 3.8 million bottles. Sheer scale and impressive quantity aside, what might impress you most is the quality and diversity, with each bottle sourced from prestigious wineries across twelve of the main wine producing regions of the world, and the fact that this stellar wine cellar is that of Dubai-based airline Emirates.
I myself have not witnessed this impressive collection, but I have had the honour of visiting some of these exceptional wineries. Travelling Down Under, Business Class with Emirates (an experience that warranted its own article), I toured through Victoria’s Yarra Valley and the Barrosa of South Australia, sharing with a group of international journalists unique experiences at each one, discovering the stories of each business, many still family run, and shaking the hands that picked the grapes.
On day one of our journey, over breakfast at the scandalously chic QT Hotel in Melbourne, Joost Heymeijer, Senior Vice President of Catering at Emirates explained just how important establishing genuine connections with the producers on the ground is to the airline.
“Relationships are very important to us. It’s a very Middle Eastern thing to do, to take long term view of things, and Australia is really important for us as a destination but also as a supplier of great goods.”
“We are an aspirational airline and we are associated with quality. We have only one opportunity to impress, be that in economy, business or first class, and we can’t afford to work with mediocre suppliers or winemakers.”
Sidestepping brokers and forgoing tenders, unlike other airlines Emirates go straight to the source, building long standing relationships with wine producers from some of the world’s most prestigious vineyards, curating a bespoke wine list of exclusive and rare wines for its customers.
The airline’s unique approach sees them purchase wines en primeur, years before they are released to the market, and then allow these vintages to mature and reach their potential before serving on board – some of their current stock will only be ready for drinking in 2027.
Their investment not alone gives Emirates a wine cellar larger than that of any other airline but more importantly the power to offer high end wines across all classes, from economy to first class. In 2016 this equated to 1.3 million bottles in First and Business class and 11 million single serve bottles at Economy level.
In First Class the wines served can cost “from 300 to 500 Australian Dollars a bottle”, so Joost, a passionate oenophile himself, insists on “ensuring the wine is given every opportunity to be at its best at 40,000 feet.”
“Most airlines don’t allow these wines to speak and I didn’t want that.”
Passengers are offered a choice of six wines and are then presented by cabin crew with their own 250ml bottle to taste, before it is whisked away to decant into a personal decanter for passengers to pour, taste and swirl as they wish.
Beginning our immersive trip we took off from Melbourne and after just an hour long drive we found ourselves on the back roads of the lush Yarra Valley, Victoria’s premier wine region. This patchwork of fields and vineyards is home to 80-plus wineries and Emirates works with some of the most exclusive.
Mount Mary, a family owned, single vineyard estate, is a prime example of that exclusivity. Established in 1971 by John and Marli Middleton, Mount Mary was one of the first vineyards planted in the resurgence of the Yarra Valley as a premium wine producing region.
Mount Mary has a network of distributors in key overseas markets making their wines accessible globally. However, due to the single estate exclusivity and limited production quantities of the wines, Mount Mary has been prioritising annual allocations for Emirates each release since 2013.
“We’re delighted to have partnered with Emirates because it allows us to put the product in front of the right customers in the right way,” explains Sam Middleton, when we met him and his father, a charming duo, at the winery.
“Airlines in particular are a great way of getting in front of people who really appreciate wine and who appreciate what goes into making it, and who will take our message all over the world. There’s no better way of doing that than working with an airline like Emirates.”
That day a team of 25 pickers worked under the baking sun handpicking the grapes that would go into Mount Mary’s wines, their flagship quintet wine among them. These hot and dry conditions are essential to the finished product however, and Sam explains that the water retaining clay soil means they don’t have to irrigate, encouraging the roots to go deeper to find nutrients.
“It’s about finding that tension on the vine, the sweet spot of drought that forces the roots to dig deeper, creating a better intensity of flavour.”
“We control every single part of the process, and that really important to us,” says Sam. “From grape to bottle, every single decision we make is based on quality.”Just 15 minutes down the road from Mount Mary are fellow Emirates suppliers and Colstream neighbours, Levantine Hill Estates.
Similar to their neighbours, Levantine is a single vineyard estate with extremely limited production, though in contrast they have a Cellar Door open to the public for tastings as well as dining at Ezard, a fine dining restaurant run by hatted chef Teage Ezard.
We visited the stunning family homestead overlooking the estate’s clay loam slopes, which at 27 degrees some of the steepest in the valley – similar elevations to the Grand Cru vineyards of Chablis in France that inspire their wine production.
“These are New World wines crafted in the Old World ways,” explains head winemaker and Yarra Valley local Paul Bridgeman.
“We want to reclaim Chardonnay – it should be a joy to drink not a chore.”
No less ambition is expressed in regards to their Pinot Noir, “we are trying to plant the flag in the middle ground – it can be both. A synergy of power and elegance.”
Our experiences in the Yarra left us thirsty for more, a thirst that was met and then some on the next leg of our trip, South Australia. With over over 200 cellar doors across the region, South Australia is mecca for wine lovers and indeed anyone with even the slightest interest in a good drop wine.
One of the best known areas is the Barossa, which incorporates both Barossa Valley and Eden Valley. While compact – it’s just 25km long − it manages to produce 21% of Australia’s wine, among them complex Shiraz, GSM blends, and elegant Riesling. What’s more, proximity from the region’s capital, Adelaide, makes a day-trip an absolute must if you’re in the region.
With Mayfair Hotel as our base, Adelaide’s newest five star boutique hotel, we first travelled just 8km from the city to the home of the biggest name in Australian wine, Penfolds, again an experience that necessitated a dedicated feature of it’s own.
While The Cellar Door at Penfold’s original estate, Magill, offers wine tastings and tours daily, as well as exploring every corner and cellar at the historic home of Penfolds, Magill Estate we took part in a private Grange tasting with chief winemaker Peter Gago, tasting of some of Penfolds most sought-after wines, and visited Penfolds Kalimna Vineyard in the Barossa Valley too, home to the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the world.
Emirates enjoys a longstanding relationship with the iconic winery, which set down its roots in 1844, and in the last 5 years alone Emirates has served close to 20 different Penfold’s varieties onboard across all classes, including the likes of Grange, RWT, Saint Henri and Kilimna Estate.
“Choosing the wines is a two way street,” explains Joost, on how the airline and wineries like Penfolds work together to choose what wines will be served at 40,000 feet.
“While they have to have the volume to be able to fulfill orders, at the end of the day the choice comes down to merit.”
“Winemakers come to Dubai with their selection which is put to a panel of fine wine specialists, who based on that tasting can choose to buy the wines if already bottled, or reserve en premier. Either way, the wines are then can then be stored away for up to 15 years or more.”
Open to the public for tastings, the winery even offers a ‘Wine by Cycle‘ service, whereby guests arrive at Cellar Door in the morning to collect their bike, and set off for a day of exploring the landscape, enjoy tastings at various wineries, before returning to Kilikanoon for a private tasting of their Asset Collection.
While we didn’t have time to roam the surrounds that day, we did get the opportunity to meet chief winemaker Kevin Mitchell who explained how their “philosophy of business suits high standards expected by Emirates.”
“We are committed to ensuring the quality is delivered to the table, be that a fold out one or one made from teak.”
Three of their wines are served aboard Emirates flights across all tiers: the Malga Shiraz 2015, the “complex and consistent” Covenant Shiraz 2013, and the Oracle Shiraz 2013, their “chocolately, dark fruit, french oak driven” “leading light” – the most successful in Kilkannon’s portfolio.
We had tasted countless wines during our trip so far, so our next stop at the historic Seppeltsfield Wines was something different, and very special. The only winery in the world to release a 100-year-old single vintage wine each year the 100-year-old Para ‘Tawny’ – as it’s known Down Under – Seppeltsfield is one of the region’s top tourist attractions, and indeed was named Australia’s Best Tourism Winery earlier this year.
We each got the opportunity to taste vintage tawny from the year of our births, following in the footsteps of Charles and Camilla, and Marco Pierre White, just some of the famous names that have frequented their cellars.
Nearing the end of our day, and indeed our trip, senior winemaker at Torbreck Wines, Craig Isbel, greets us with a glass of wine in his hand and a big, welcoming smile on his face – it was late on a Friday afternoon after all.
Located in Marananga, an area that is home to some of the oldest vineyards in the world, mostly of Shiraz, Grenache and Mataro, planted on some of the most diverse soils in the world, Craig says Torbreck has become internationally renowned for it’s “powerful but restrained wines – just like how they do in the Rhone, the same grapes but a different terroir.”
He explains that the winery caught the attention of the wine world in the 1990’s when it began producing high quality fine wine and charging chateaux prices at a time when Australia was solely promoting its wines as “sunshine in a bottle.”
“What Torbreck has done for Australian fine wine shouldn’t be understated.”
Breaking the mould of “heavily made, fun wines for good value”, Torbreck was one of the leaders in convincing the world that Barossa and Australia could produce fine wine – “putting the sensory aspect of winemaking before spreadsheets.”
Partnering with Emirates for over 15 years the likes of Torbreck’s 2006 The Factor and RunRig are served in Business and First Class and in lounges across the Emirates network.
If you love travel and love wine then a visit to the wine regions of Australia is probably already on your bucket list, but if a trip Down Under doesn’t seem likely in the near distant future lovers of both vices – necessities to some – can rest assured their needs will be satisfied aboard their next flight with Emirates.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.