Meet the Maker – Craig Isbel from Torbreck

Written by
Vintage Cellars
February 16, 2017
Share Share to Instagram

Torbreck’s senior winemaker tells us more about the people who influence his craft and the beauty of the Barossa.

Describe yourself as winemaker.

Craig: I am a practical, hands-on winemaker that focuses on selecting great vineyard sites to craft wines rather than elaborate winemaking techniques. My emphasis is on taste and flavour more than scientific analysis and I am always conscious of the fact that what I am making needs to be enjoyed as a drink.

Do you have a certain philosophy or style to your craft?

Craig: Our style is based around phenolic and flavour ripeness and building structure and texture into our wines by utilising the varied soils of the Barossa Valley. Our winemaking is simple and focuses on expressing the characteristics of each individual batch of fruit with purity, energy and integrity.

How did you get started? Both personally, or the business you’re involved in.

Craig: I grew up in a small town in country Victoria with absolutely no wine interest and then moved to Adelaide to study Sports Science at University. I lived with Dan Standish in my last year of Uni and then travelled around Australia in a van with some mates for almost two years. We slept on the side of the road and worked when we had to in jobs ranging from mining to the circus. We arrived in Margaret River with no money and started working with Virginia Willcock at Evans and Tate. From there I did vintages in the Yarra Valley and Beaujolais and heard that Dan was working at Torbreck. I rang him up looking for work and took over from him in 2006 as the Senior Winemaker.

What is the inspiration behind what you make?

Craig: We are focused on making wine that can be considered amongst the finest in the world and the inspiration behind this is intrinsically linked to the old vines and varied soils of the Barossa Valley. The Barossa is a remarkable place with a long and prestigious winemaking history and we truly believe that some of the world’s greatest wines are locked in the soil here.

Who has influenced the drinks you make?

Craig: Virginia Willcock and Mike Gadd were the first genuine influences on my life in wine. They were very passionate about food and drink and introduced me to a completely different philosophy on drinking and eating. Dan Standish was the guy that really helped set me up in the Barossa, and I lived with him for a while before I moved into a garden shed in Lyndoch. Kym Teusner also worked for Torbreck at the time and I worked very closely with him in the first few years and Fraser McKinley showed me the passion that wine can create in people. Of course Dave Powell has probably had the most influence over my winemaking philosophies, and I am still focused on his ideas when I make the wines of Torbreck.

Can you describe your process for us? Is there anything unique or unusual about it?

Craig: Our process is simple and uncomplicated. We destem, open ferment with a short maceration, basket press and age in stainless steel or French oak. One unique feature is that we don’t top our barrels and only rack the wine once off lees.

In your opinion, what do you think makes a good wine?

Craig: For me it is about purity of fruit and a balanced texture with subtle layers of intrigue. I think there are too many wines that focus on drinkability and sacrifice charm and curiosity. A good drink is one that makes you think every sip and leaves you surprised by how quickly your glass empties.

How do you feel your role impacts the final product?

Craig: The key to my role is finding a balance between letting the vineyards express themselves and not producing faulty, dirty wines. I take certain risks to produce the wines at Torbreck because I want to make a remarkable and fascinating wine far more than a safe and monotonous commercial product. However, the vineyard and season will always have a far greater influence on the end product than I will ever have.

How does your personality show through in what you produce?

Craig: I would much rather see the personalities of the individual vineyard sites in our wines than I would my own personality. My responsibility isn’t to create wines that are homage to me it is to create wine that has its own personality.

What are the most enjoyable parts of what you do?

Craig: I enjoy the physical side of winemaking; digging and plunging ferments, strolling through vineyards and dragging hoses around the winery. Some of the most memorable days of my life have involved 24 hours of work and a drink with mates afterwards.

What are the most difficult parts of what you do?

Craig: Timing is everything during harvest and getting the picking dates as close to perfect as possible can certainly be challenging, but the most difficult parts of what I do are the aspects of day to day business that are unrelated to wine.

Where do you see yourself and your industry headed in the next few years?

Craig: I think the Barossa is in a great place at the moment and there are many small producers making fantastic wines throughout the Valley. The focus is on producing exceptional quality wine and this is of course the way that we should be promoting our region. I think we will see more cellar doors open and winemakers connecting more directly with their customers.