Gourmet Traveller


Opening his heart and mind to French influences has inspired this young Barossa winemaker to craft a suite of distinct, superlative wines.


Gourmet Traveller Wine
June/July 2009

Winemaker of the Year 2009 finalists:
Peter Schell - Spinifex

Success often comes from unexpected directions. When Peter Schell began his science degree at the University of Waikato, old Barossa grape vines were far from his mind. Thoughts of wine were more on making The Great New Zealand Pinot Noir.

It was at university that Schell met his wife, Magali Gely, who was studying psychology. Gely was born in Canada of French parents who Schell describes as “globe-trotting travellers”. Until recently they were winemakers also, the latest of several generations, from Lunel in the south of France, so wine flowed in Gely’s veins, too.

The pair arrived in Australia in 1992 to study winemaking and wine marketing at Roseworthy Agricultural College, now the University of Adelaide. Schell describes these as very formative years which influenced many of his ideas, both in business and in his directions with wine. A stint at the Mountadam winery, when a student, started his great love of Eden Valley wines, which he admires for their elegance.

A move to Turkey Flat and later to St Hallett led him to appreciate the qualities of old Barossa vines and their outstanding potential. Then, the chance to buy a parcel of old-vine mataro (mourvèdre) in 2001 started his career as a wine producer and Spinifex was born. Mataro has since become an important grape for the company.

Schell describes his and Gely’s initial approach to sales as “remarkably ignorant”. They started solely with exporting but then gradually built their business in Australia, happy to grow slowly. “We’ve always taken a cautious approach,” he says. “In your years as a student you learn to match your dollars out to your dollars in.” It was not long before bottle shops became quick to pick up Spinifex.

The Spinifex winery is “just a big shed” which, for the last three years, he has shared with Jason Schwartz a fellow winemaker in the Artisans of Barossa group. That shed may be unromantic, but it hides an important part of Spinifex’s success.

Fermenters are expensive, so most wineries plan to put as many as five batches of grapes through their fermenters each vintage, although this reduces the time each wine spends on skins. Schell and Gely became impressed, on their many winemaking stints in the Languedoc, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Provence, with the French view on fermentation space. “You have one tank for each batch of grapes and that’s it,” he explains, which has led Spinifex to install generous fermentation space. This allows him to use a maceration time of up to three weeks, plus a week or more of extended maceration afterwards to find the right tannin balance. Many of the tanks are small, which enables him to ferment one-tonne parcels separately, instead of pooling them.

With so many new small producers popping up with offerings of Barossa reds, what makes Spinifex different? Schell thinks for a moment then replies, “Our wine style is a bit of a moving target. It’s constantly evolving. When we first started, I looked at those Barossa wines from the late ’90s and they had sloppy structure. We’re very keen on good structure – on tannin density, with fruit complexity on top.” Those long maceration times certainly help. “In the last two or three years we’ve looked for fruit purity, less alcohol and more finesse, but without losing that structure,” he says. “We’ve evolved a leaner style, but still within that rich Barossa type. We like getting fruit from the higher vineyards, particularly Eden Valley, and I really like the lighter, sandy soils, which give us finesse.”

In an age when many wines are stereotyped, Spinifex’s are a breath of fresh air, including Indigene, a shiraz mataro blend; Taureau, a blend of tempranillo and graciano with more familiar French grapes; and Lola, which combines non-aromatic varieties such as semillon, marsanne with some exotics. The wine Schell is most happy with is Esprit, a blend of southern French grapes, inspired by his time winemaking in the region.

Schell comes across as thoughtful, even reticent, and not a self-assured promoter in that brash Australian winemaker way. He is, after all, a Kiwi! Instead, he lets his wines speak for themselves, which they do with a confident rather than loud voice.

Success may indeed be unexpected, but in Peter Schell’s case thoroughly deserved.


This article appeared in the June/July 2009 issue of
Gourmet Traveller WINE.


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