Michael Hall winesPortrait of a winemaker

Discover the history, secrets and passions. Anna Caidan is in conversation with Michael Hall owner and winemaker of Michael Hall Wines
2019-09-01
Wine story

What could you tell me about the history of Michael Hall wines?

“It’s very much a one man show. So, it started around the time I worked as a jewellery valuer for Sotheby’s, out in Geneva in Switzerland. I come from a family who loves wine, so like many wine consumers, I was pretty excited by it. From Geneva I could travel easily to the Rhône Valley or Burgundy and did so on many a weekend! A lot of people get into a career and try to do their best but it wasn’t what I loved, and there was a moment where I thought I needed to do something that I do love, and wine was right up there! Part of it was that I wanted to get out of the office, I wanted to actually make something because as a jewellery auctioneer, I was acting as an agent. So that was the appeal. I went to Australia on holiday, visited Adelaide and Perth, and a University called Charles Sturt in Wagga Wagga in New South Wales, and when I got home, I put in my applications, and they accepted me! So, I handed in my notice, stayed with Sotheby’s for another 10 months, then got on a plane to Wagga Wagga and started my new life as a student!”

What is the secret to making Michael Hall Wines?

“I think the secret to making any good wine, is finding a piece of land that grows good grapes. There’s a winemaker in Australia called Brian Croser, and he said was “fine wine owes all its qualities to the vineyard” and when I heard that quote, I was studying to be a winemaker, I thought – why am I bothering then?! But his point was that, obviously you have to be a very able winemaker to make wine, but the point at which it become interesting and people have a passion for it, is you have to find a vineyard that creates fruit that has its own particular character, and a character that is nice! Point two, is attention to detail. It’s the little 1% details that makes its way down the production and maturation stages that might not seem important, or seem painful at the time, but stack up to make maybe a 10% difference at the end. And that’s probably the difference between someone paying £10 or £100 pounds for a bottle of wine; it’s the accumulation of those little differences.”

What is your favourite step in the wine making process?

“Probably the two ends of the process. Sampling in the vineyard; at that time, especially in the last 10 days of ripening, you’ll be in the vineyard pretty much daily, and things change quite noticeably in that period and there’s a point at which flavours, as we know them, appear, and prior to that, is just a combination of sugar and acid, so that’s quite exciting to watch that happening. It’s also quite scary, because with a grape like Pinot for example, the moment you can detect the fruit flavours as opposed to just the sugar and acid, it’s a day too late to pick, it’s just gone over the hill at that moment. It’s one of those varieties where those flavours all emerge during fermentation and just intensifies during maturation and before you know it, you’ve got a wine that’s thickened and jammy, when you thought you’d started out with beautiful fruit that looked pristine on the vine, but actually it’s carrying a sleeping power that can be overwhelming and not in balance. And then the end of the process is exciting too. When I make wine, and I pick a vineyard that has two or three different aspects or different clones in it, they’ll be picked separately, part of each one might be destemmed, and part whole bunch fermented, and all these parts will be matured separately, in separate barrels. So at the end of the process, you’ve got quite a large number of different components, and that’s the blend trial you do at the end to work out the wine that’s as close to the best wine you could make, and to do that with other people is really worthwhile and enjoyable!”

What is your best memory since starting your label?

“There is a fair bit of nostalgia in this, in that when I grew up, our family holidays were camping in France, and western Europe generally, so there’s lots of lovely evocative images of the countryside and of vineyards, and I knew that I wanted to learn from producers who made wines that I respected, and styles that I wanted to make. Part of that was trying to find work, particularly with French producers that I respected. So, in the early days of learning my craft, learning from French producers was very much a goal, and to find one to take on someone who wasn’t French was hard to do! My first vintage was with Domaine Leflaive in Burgundy which was was really good fun! I remember turning up and talking to Anne-Claude, and at the end of it she said I could have a job as long as I sorted out my own work permit, but I said, “Well I’m English, it’s the EU, it’s not a problem!”. I met Olivier, who is the Chef de Cave at Domaine de l’Arlot, who always had a tradition of employing Australians. Working there was a great memory! It was a full-on harvest, with a team of around 70 people. Burgundy is great because the pickers tend not to be so much itinerant workers, they tend to be more locals who have done it before. That harvest lasted around three weeks, and then I went on to work in the cellar after that, and it was a really good, solid memory!”

…And your most challenging?

“A friend said to me, “Look Michael, you’re not getting complacent, are you?!” and I thought - you have no idea how difficult this is on a day-to-day basis every day. You make the very best wine you can, and in a way that’s its own challenge, but also very rewarding, but it’s all for nothing unless you can get people to taste it, and that’s remarkably difficult. There are very few independent retailers left, the supermarkets and the chains are concerned either with large volumes, at very low prices, or with iconic names that everybody wants. So, as a new, small emerging wine producer, I don’t fit that bill at all! So, it would depend entirely on either independent retailers, or sommeliers, who are willing to speak to their customers and persuade them to try new wines, and not an established recognisable brand, so that’s probably the biggest challenge.”

What type of food pairs best with your wines?

“The expression “food wine” could be off-putting to some people, because it could be like saying “oh, so your wine doesn’t taste good if it’s not paired with food?” but that’s not the point at all! All my wines unashamedly are food wines, but all that means is that they are fresh enough, they don’t overpower whatever they’re paired with. Chardonnay is pretty powerful, but it works extremely well with anything that’s got a buttery sauce or texture. Classic chardonnay dishes are rich seafoods, in that classic French style, but it also works with sushi and finer fish. I make a Pinot Noir, which for most people is the most versatile wine and you can pair it with so many different foods, and I make four different Shiraz’s. Pinot is lovely with the usual poultry and game; Roussanne works really well with any sort of fungi dish; and the Shiraz’s range from a Barossa style, which is great for steak or grilled protein, or the lighter Shiraz’s which would go with more delicate protein dishes.”

How would you describe the Australian way of life?

“Well you’ve got to go over there and have a look! Coming into winemaking midlife, it was a concern to me that I would start, along with twenty-year-olds and that it would be a struggle, but that was far more likely to happen in Europe. In Australia, people’s friendships groups tend to be much more cross-generational, so it was quite easy for me to slip in at my stage in life, into winemaking. If you’re visiting Australia, don’t think that by visiting Sydney or Melbourne you’re really visiting Australia; like any big city, it doesn’t reflect the culture very faithfully, you do need to get out and explore it!”

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