Wine | Japanese wine maker's unique impact | John Lewis

FATE: Atsuko Radcliffe, in her Small Forest winery at Denman, is a passionate advocate of Upper Hunter wines.
FATE: Atsuko Radcliffe, in her Small Forest winery at Denman, is a passionate advocate of Upper Hunter wines.

ATSUKO Radcliffe is one of the legion of women adding lustre to the wine scene – having her own Denman-based Small Forest brand and being unique as the only Japanese winemaker in Australia and an international sake judge.

A passionate advocate of Upper Hunter wines, Atsuko in 2009 and 2010 went back to Japan to learn sake making, and since 2012 has been a judge of the sake section of the annual International Wine Challenge in London.

Born in Japan and trained in biochemistry and microbiology, she initially worked in quality control at a big chemical company, then moved into winemaking with a Japanese wine group. 

Atsuko later became a wine and viticulture consultant – leading to stints in France and California and in 1999 to new wine horizons in Australia. Other visits to work in Mildura, Coonawarra, Yarra Valley and Western Australian wineries came in 1996 and 1997.

In 1999 she settled in the Upper Hunter as a winemaker at Rosemount’s Denman winery and in 2002 married Rosemount electrician Andrew Radcliffe. 

Atsuko fondly remembers Rosemount in its glory days under Oatley family ownership and the inspired mentoring of Philip Shaw.

After the Foster’s beer and wine group in 2010 shut the Denman winery and sold off its equipment and surrounding land, curious twists of fate led Atsuko into Small Forest – a name derived from her maiden name of Kobayashi.

Sydney management consultant John Cruikshank had founded Callatoota vineyard and winery at Wybong in 1972 and in 2008 his land was compulsorily acquired for the Xstrata Anvil Hill open cut mine. He then bought the Spur Hill vineyard at Denman to relocate his brand, build a winery and employ Atsuko as winemaker.

Soon, however, mining for a second time cruelled Cruikshank plans, with the Malabar Coal group acquiring the Denman site for a future underground mine.

That’s where Small Forest and Atsuko Radcliffe came in. Malabar Coal wanted to keep the 24 hectares of chardonnay, verdelho and shiraz vines and asked Atsuko in 2013 if she wanted to buy its grapes, lease the winery, cellar door and homestead, and set up a wine brand.

The answer was “Yes” and the first Small Forest wine, a 2014 shiraz, came from Orange grapes because the Hunter fruit was spoiled by bushfire smoke taint. Hunter-sourced vintages have followed in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

The wines are on smallforest.com.au and at the 5052 Jerrys Plains Rd, Denman, cellar door on weekends, when visitors can enjoy sake tastings.