Innovative Winemaking - A Platform For Positive Change
Matt Burton of Gundog Estate was recently named as a finalist in the 2021 Gourmet Traveller WINE Magazine Australian Winemaker of the Year Award.
With cellar doors in the Hunter Valley and Gundaroo near Canberra, this young innovative wine producer specialises in premium Semillon, Riesling and Shiraz, which are consistently rated amongst the top 5% in the country in the James Halliday Wine Companion. At the heart of his business, Matt Burton is passionate about social, environmental and economic sustainability, believing that the future is in our own hands and that it’s his privilege to affect positive change in the community.
Burton knew from around the middle of high school that he wanted to be a winemaker. His home life was always a creative space filled with creative people. His dad, Geoff Burton, is a highly successful cinematographer and director who has worked on over 50 Australian films, including Sunday Too Far Away, The Sum of Us, Dead Calm, Storm Boy and many others. His mother is an anthropologist, academic and documentary filmmaker who is highly regarded for her work on the position of women and gender equity. As Matt grew up, the family travelled extensively and together they developed a passion for innovative food and wine. His dad also considers himself a Francophile. In year 10, the young Matt Burton did work experience at his dad’s friend’s winery, Wandin Valley Estate and the die was cast.
Matt studied at Charles Sturt University, travelled and worked in winemaking in France and the United States, worked at Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley on his return but was keen to come back to the Hunter Valley. He felt drawn to the area with its concentration of vineyards and its close proximity to Sydney, where family and friends were. As a young man, he appreciated that the Hunter Valley had so much to offer – concerts, restaurants and outdoor pursuits. He found himself in the right place at the right time and began working as Assistant Winemaker at Wandin Valley Estate in 2003. By 2005 he had taken over as Winemaker and General Manager, which he considered a tremendous opportunity to learn about the business of winemaking. He prefers smaller scale wineries because the Winemaker is involved in every aspect of the business. He began experimenting with his own label before he left Wandin Valley Estate, and it wasn’t until 2011, when Wandin Valley Estate was sold, that he made the leap to Gundog Estate.
Matt’s parents purchased a vineyard in Gundaroo just outside of Canberra in a new and rapidly growing wine region, which he initially advised against. He had taken the lease on the old schoolhouse at Pokolbin in the Hunter Valley to set up his cellar door. The contrasts between these two regions appealed to Matt. Canberra is a cold climate, relatively new and the key varietals are Riesling and Shiraz. Hunter Valley is a hot climate steeped in history and with varietals Semillon and Shiraz.
Concentrating on the varietals that the area best produces is what French winemakers do, and following this simple approach has led to a strong brand and premium award-winning wines that have been critically acclaimed in Australia and abroad.
Matt admits that the first years of Gundog Estate were simply about survival and the development of the brand experience. “With two cellar doors and a wine club, we wanted to take it further and develop an immersive brand experience. We felt that the key to success was to offer more than just the varietals,” said Matt.
“We’ve developed our own gin, Gundog Dry Gin, as well as a gourmet pantry with cheeses, coffee, olive oil, curry pastes, spice rubs, hand-made chocolates filled with Gundog Estate Shiraz and Muscat, even beer – Hunting Ale. At the time we developed these offerings, it was unusual, but these days, it’s become quite commonplace. At Gundog Estate, though, we collaborate with only the highest quality providers.”
Another sign of success and recognition of being a serious, quality-focused brand is the fact that Gundog Estate wines are served on business class flights with Qantas. “Pre-covid, Qantas was our single biggest wholesale customer, but once the pandemic hit, all those orders dried up. It’s just starting to pick up again now. It’s providing great exposure to a significant target market for us,” said Matt.
About five years ago, Matt came to the realisation that he was incredibly lucky. He felt a great sense of privilege that his business was thriving despite the challenges that the industry as a whole has had to face. Climate change has had a direct impact on grape growing, compounding the challenges for growers with no stability in the seasons.
It’s also driving drought, floods and bush fires. Frustrated at the policy level, Matt wrote to every member of parliament he could to try to influence policymaking to create better conditions for growers. He also put his money where his mouth was, creating a business model based on social, environmental and economic sustainability.
“Winemaking has not only allowed me to indulge my passion and creativity, it has also provided a platform to affect positive change in our community via our social and environmental sustainability efforts, which are equally important to me,” said Matt.
Gundog Estate operates as carbon neutral, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by using renewable energy sources, using energy-efficient winery equipment and developing energy reduction strategies in the cellar doors. The winery offsets the emissions it can’t avoid by purchasing carbon credits in renewable energy projects in developing countries. In the vineyard, they are moving towards biological and organic farming practices and supporting their growers to do the same.
Gundog Estate has also developed a partnership with an organisation called Fifteen Trees. For every new member that joins the wine club, they purchase a tree, and each Christmas, ten trees are planted for each staff member. Customers can also reduce their carbon footprint by purchasing trees with their wine orders and are actively encouraged to do so. Matt sees his responsibilities in the area of carbon neutrality as an exciting, necessary and satisfying commitment.
“People may see it as a financial sacrifice, but the reality is very different. The fact is that it makes the business stronger – it’s a balancing act, and it’s really worked for us. Plus, I have the added satisfaction of knowing that I’m doing my best for the world that my kids will inherit.”
The sustainable practices of the business don’t just stop at the environment. Since 2018, Gundog Estate has supported Path 2 Change – a Newcastle based organisation that works to break the cycle of youth homelessness by assisting young people into employment.
Initially the support began with fundraising but then a work experience program for the Path 2 Change clients was implemented, enabling them to develop skills and confidence. When Covid-19 disrupted these activities, Gundog Estate launched The Lived Experience, a Hunter Valley Shiraz featuring a hand-drawn label artwork sketched by a Path 2 Change staff member who has experienced homelessness. 100% of the profits from the sale of The Lived Experience are donated to Path 2 Change. Just over 1000 bottles were produced and are available for $35 per bottle or $210 per six-pack.
“The past two years have been tough for us and most others in the region. However, through our work with Path 2 Change, we know that disadvantaged and homeless youth are doing it tougher. We share in Path 2 Change’s philosophy; the best way to break the cycle of youth homelessness is through education and employment, and we are proud to be involved in their wonderful work,” said Matt.
The economic sustainability of Gundog Estate is based on favouring fair and enduring outcomes over short term profitability. The long-term vision is top of mind, and business growth is based purely on demand without compromising quality, brand experience or organisational culture.
Matt is very proud of the team of people he has around him. He employs 16 people with an over-representation of women and people of all ages. He values diversity and appreciates that he is able to be himself every single day, that the team share common goals and has a willingness to contribute in a passionate way. He is quietly hopeful that one or both of his daughters, Scarlett 12, and Maddison 9, may one day develop an interest in the business so that he can leave them his legacy.
Winemaker of the Year Award panellist and “The Wine Man”, Peter Bourne says of Matt, ”Burton is a man of integrity and compassion and has shared his fiscal achievements by supporting Path 2 Change, a charity that creates programs for those experiencing or at risk of homelessness. He acknowledges our changing climate by partnering with Fifteen Trees to assist with the regeneration of the environment. Burton is still a young man, but one with a steady eye on the future. Watch this space.”