IAIN RIGGS Making Great Wine and Having Fun!
Iain Riggs is always amazed when he is acknowledged for his contribution to the wine industry. It’s not that he feels it is undeserved in some way – he just can’t believe he is lucky enough to be recognised for doing something that is his passion, rather than just his profession.
The latest accolade for the Managing Director, Chief Winemaker and part owner of Brokenwood Wines arrived in June with the unveiling of the 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours list, with Iain named a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).
Awarded for his significant service to oenology as a winemaker, to the development of the Australian wine industry, and to the promotion of the Hunter Valley region, Iain said he was honoured by the recognition.
"I’m honoured of course. The wine industry is such a joy to work in, it does seem odd to be recognised for having such a great time but we need to keep giving back."
"Mentoring and giving back to the industry gives me great enjoyment, I’m just glad to be part of it.” Iain has notched up 47 vintages in the wine industry, including 36 with Brokenwood where their mission statement is to “Make Great Wine and Have Fun”.
Clearly this is a motto that could be applied to his entire working life. After growing up on the land in regional South Australia, extended family influences saw Iain become interested in the wine industry as a teenager – a passion which he then pursued throughout high school and beyond.
“I grew up on the land, first on a wheat/sheep property in the midnorth of South Australia, halfway between Clare and Burra, and then in the late ’60s on a sheep property out of Walcha in NSW,” he said.
“We moved back to Adelaide in early 1970 and I worked fruit picking in the Riverland while staying with an uncle and aunty at Kingston on Murray. They both worked in two different wineries, so I got interested then as a 15-year-old.
“I did two years at Urrbrae Agriculture High School and then went to Roseworthy (Agricultural College) in 1972. I graduated at the end of 1975 and by that stage I was working at Bleasdale Vineyards in Langhorne Creek.”
This was followed by a stint at Hazelmere Estate in McLaren Vale during 1981-82, where his interest in varietal blending really took off. During this time he became known as a pioneer of the now famous combination of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon – a tradition he later continued when he moved to the Hunter Valley to take up a role with the promising Brokenwood Wines company.
“I started this blend in McLaren Vale in the 1981 vintage, and I’m not 100 per cent sure why,” Iain said. “Fume style was around mainly from Knappstein and Cullen, but the Hazelmere wines were very fragrant.
“Then I moved to Brokenwood, where the partners had started using Coonawarra fruit with Hunter fruit in 1978.
“There’s nothing new about regional blending as some of Australia’s greatest wines from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s utilised different regions.
“I introduced the Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon blend for Brokenwood in 1990.”
In 1982 Iain moved from South Australia to make his career in Australia’s oldest wine growing region, relocating to the Hunter Valley to join Brokenwood Wines.
Established in 1970 as a weekend venture by a trio of Sydney-based solicitors, Tony Albert, John Beeston and James Halliday, Brokenwood Wines had been predominantly producing Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz varietals until 1982 when they started to include white wines in their range for the first time.
The expansion was quickly followed by a decision to employ a Chief Winemaker/Managing Director, who would be tasked with helping consolidate the company’s growth. Iain successful applied for the role and the rest, as they say is history, with the former South Australian recently overseeing his 36th vintage at the Pokolbin winery.
“After two vintages at Hazelmere Estate in McLaren Vale it was clear that company was in trouble, and James Halliday had convinced the other Brokenwood partners to expand and employ a winemaker,” he said.
“I applied and got the job.”
Since then, Iain has guided the company through a number of changes and challenges, as well as a fertile period of growth that has seen its production rise from 2500 cases a year, to in excess of 100,000.
“There’s been lots of changes, most notably the size of the business,” he said.
“We produced maybe 2500 cases from the 1982 vintage and now we class ourselves as a 100,000 case winery.
“What hasn’t changed is the passion everyone shares for Brokenwood and its wines. It is still a private company and staff has grown from one to over 40.
“I like to think that one major change is that the wines are significantly better and keep on improving year after year.
“Like all growing wineries, it is a deep hole for cash and thankfully the partners kept putting their hands in their pockets through the ’80s and early ’90s.
The main challenge being a Hunter Valley based winery is of course the weather. We have to take the good with the bad but years like 2008 and 2012, where we couldn’t make a drop of dry red, does test your resolve.
Iain was also the driving force behind Brokenwood’s flagship wine, the Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz and its promotion as a unique Single Vineyard Shiraz.
Rated as Exceptional in the Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine, it is still the only Hunter Valley Shiraz to feature. A number of other premium Brokenwood Shiraz are included in the portfolio, such as the Mistress Block Vineyard Shiraz, Verona Vineyard Shiraz, Wade Block 2 Vineyard Shiraz and the Indigo Vineyard Shiraz.
Iain is also a great promoter of Hunter Valley Semillon with the highly acclaimed ILR (Iain Leslie Riggs) Reserve Semillon now Brokenwood’s flagship white wine.
Outside of his roles at Brokenwood, Iain has shared his passion for “improving the breed” of Australian wine by taking on a host of judging and chairman’s roles over the years.
This included being Chairman of the Hunter Valley Wine Show from 2002-2011, having taken over from Len Evans. A year after he left the Wine Show committee honoured him with the naming of the Iain Riggs Wine of Provenance Trophy, which was a new award bestowed in recognition of a wine’s pedigree.
Iain was also the Chairman of Judges at the Sydney Royal Wine Show for six years, is the immediate past Chairman of the Wine Show of Western Australia and is the current chair of the Shanghai International Wine Challenge.
He also holds the role of Chairman of Trustees of the Len Evans Foundation, which conducts the prestigious week-long Len Evans Tutorial .
While the AM is Iain’s latest accolade, his career has been littered with honours, including the Graham Gregory Award for outstanding service to the NSW wine industry (2003), and the Len Evans Award for Leadership at the 2013 Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine Winemaker of the Year Awards.
In July 2016 Iain was named the NSW Legend of the Vine by Wine Communicators of Australia, while later in the year the Australian Women in Wine Awards recognised Iain and Brokenwood Wines as the Workplace Champion of Change for a long history of promoting women within the workplace.
A vocal advocate for Australia’s wine industry over many decades, Iain said he is driven by two main passions.
“There’s two things, our great history and our great future,” he said.
“The wines of 1930's through to say, 1970 are marvellous examples of gifted winemakers especially working under less than ideal conditions.
“Over the last 36 years at Brokenwood, we have seen equally gifted and passionate people come through and go on to make great wine all over the world.
“The Australian wine industry is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the opening up/relaxing of regulations in world wine trade. Asia for now is certainly our biggest opportunity.
“We need to take advantage of the growing interest in fine wine as opposed to beverage wine.” Closer to home, Iain is focused on enjoying the bright future in store at Brokenwood Wines.
“We decided a few years ago that rather than tread water, Brokenwood should embark on ‘the next big thing’. As such a new cellar door and restaurant is being built and will open in December,” he said.
“In a way, it is so un-Brokenwood, as we pride ourselves on being the smallest big winery in Australia, but we will maintain our love affair with small batch parcels of super premium wine and our consumers.
“Our Mission Statement, after all, is ‘Make Great Wine and Have Fun". ■