Meet the Winemaker: Janice McDonald (Burch Family Wines)

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Vintage Cellars
January 9, 2019
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Dedicated to creating delicious wines, the 2018 Gourmet Traveller WINE Winemaker of the Year Janice McDonald embraces teamwork and allowing the grapes their fullest expression.

Howard Park, Marchand & Burch and MadFish are ranges created by the Burch family from prized vineyards in Western Australia. Winemaker Janice McDonald, 2018 Gourmet Traveller WINE Winemaker of the Year, traverses many kilometres across this frontier land, which is enriched by the maritime influence of two oceans: the warm Indian Ocean off the Margaret River and the cooler Southern Ocean off the Great Southern. In the mid-1980s, Janice crossed the Nullarbor because of her love of Margaret River cabernet. She stayed to make wine, but turned her talents to brewing for several years before returning to fine-wine making. From four beautiful Burch Family vineyards: Leston, Allingham, Mt Barrow and Abercrombie, Janice crafts acclaimed riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir, shiraz and cabernet, as well as Jeté, a range of award-winning sparkling.

 

What is your winemaking career highlight?

The past 12 months have been pretty incredible. In September 2017, I headed to London for the International Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships, where our Jeté NV was named Best Australian Sparkling Wine. One year later, in the very same week, I was awarded the Gourmet Traveller WINE Winemaker of the Year. Amazing! It’s a good feeling every day when I walk past our cellar door, where a big banner has been hung that says "Janice McDonald, Winemaker of the Year" to celebrate the award.

 

Can you describe the impact of that award?

I hope it means increased awareness and recognition of the fine-wines we create at Howard Park Wines. One of the primary motivators for any artisan is to know people take pleasure in what you are making. I felt very honoured and proud to be the recipient of the award as Howard Park winemaker. To have your name in lights and your work recognised by your own industry resonates strongly – the list of winners over the past 20 years is impressive, to say the least. To be considered in the same league is an honour.

 

You’re supported by a fantastic team in the winery and the vineyards. How important is collaboration for you as a winemaker?

Collaboration is everything. That well-worn phrase "wine is made in the vineyard" is 100% fact. Our vineyard team works hard to embrace the earth, to cultivate our vineyards using sustainable principles and deliver beautiful, high-quality grapes for each different wine. In the winery, it’s our role to understand and respect the essence of each vineyard and allow the unique qualities of the fruit to shine throughout our winemaking process.

 

What is the effect of having the breadth of WA subregions available to you?

It’s wonderful in terms of diversity and richness, but challenging with the distance and the length of harvesting time. Our vineyards lie off the coast of two oceans: the warmer Indian Ocean at Margaret River and the cooler, wilder Southern Ocean at the Great Southern. Our most northerly Margaret River vineyard is Leston, where we grow primarily cabernet. Forty minutes away, at the cooler southern end of the region, is our chardonnay vineyard, Allingham. Three-and-a-half hours' drive gets us to our Great Southern sites: Mt Barrow, where our focus is chardonnay and pinot noir; and Abercrombie in Mt Barker, planted with Houghton clone cabernet in 1974. It gives us marvellous selection capability to make outstanding wine, but means vintage is intense and protracted. We need to be well prepared and supported by our vineyard and winery teams.

 

You craft quality wines at all price points. How do you maintain this standard?

Practice makes perfect! I thoroughly enjoy what I do and that, combined with lots of time and effort, and my own high standards and determination, sets the pace. The aim is always to make the very best wine irrespective of price, whether it is Abercrombie Cabernet Sauvignon or MadFish Chardonnay.

 

What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the Australian wine industry?

An undoubted strength is the quality and personality of Australia’s fine-wine offerings. This industry is loaded with individuals and organisations committed to the growing, making and marketing of fine Australian wine. A weakness is not being able to realise the true value of our wines relative to their quality. For instance, our top-end vintage sparkling wines, which are meticulously made, are priced at the same level as some lower quality French Champagnes.

 

Which Howard Park wines are you enjoying?

Howard Park Chardonnay 2017 – always such a subtly sophisticated and nuanced wine. And Flint Rock Shiraz 2015 – a lovely, mid-weight cool-climate shiraz from the Great Southern.

 

When you’re not enjoying a Burch Family Wine, what are you drinking?

Australian sparkling, particularly from Tasmania, and white Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

 

Which Australian wine regions excite you?

I am drawn to other regions by certain wine types or styles that pique my interest, for example, the resurgence of grenache in the Barossa and McLaren Vale – both as full-bodied red wines and rosés.

 

Your most sublime food and wine match?

Sitting by a lake on a summer evening early in my winemaking career, drinking a Margaret River chardonnay with freshly barbecued local marron. Unforgettable!