Winemaker Gwyn Olsen knows her fiano from her albarino

Full flavour: Winemaker and wine judge Gwyn Olsen with her dog Spencer at Pepper Tree Wines headquarters, Pokolbin. Picture: Simone De Peak
Full flavour: Winemaker and wine judge Gwyn Olsen with her dog Spencer at Pepper Tree Wines headquarters, Pokolbin. Picture: Simone De Peak

There is nothing simple about winemaking. 

At times it seems like there are as many variables as there are bottles of wine on the shelves at a Dan Murphy’s bottle shop.

For Gwyn Olsen, the 34-year-old head winemaker at Pepper Tree Wines, based in Pokolbin, it is the variables that make her occupation exciting.

Pepper Tree, run by vigneron and geologist John Davis, produces more than 40,000 cases of wine a year, 90 per cent of its grapes coming from Pepper Tree vineyards in the Hunter Valley, Orange, Wrattonbully and Coonawarra. It holds a five-star rating from James Halliday’s Wine Companion industry guide.

Olsen, who joined Pepper Tree in 2015 after two years as chief winemaker at Briar Ridge in the Hunter Valley (also owned by the Davis family), makes more than 30 wines a year under the Pepper Tree brand. She still makes the Briar Ridge wines, too, which has its own pre-allocated vineyards (the two brands are managed separately, right from the vineyard).

Although most famous for its consistent cabernet sauvignon, Pepper Tree is keen to stay abreast of changing wine-drinking trends, especially as younger drinkers chase different tastes. For Olsen, it’s a matter of bridging the old and the new.

Among the newest, Pepper Tree has five different blends of rose and a few new varieties on the way, including a 2017 limited release Hunter Valley vermentino.

“It’s more fun to make a wine without an expectation,” Olsen says in a lengthy discussion in the Pepper Tree boardroom, with just her, me and her constant companion, her schnauzer Spencer. “That’s what I love about these alternative varieties … because there is no definition of style of these varieties in Australia. When you make a Hunter Valley semillon it has to fit in a very specific expectation, what everyone believes a Hunter Valley semillon should be, whether that is consumer or industry.

“But take vermentino, you can do anything with that because no one has a preconceived notion of what vermentino, let alone Hunter vermentino, let alone Hunter rose, should taste like.

“The consumer is the judge.

“At the opposite end of the spectrum, we are trying to do finite tweaks to our cabernet, wondering whether or not it will still fit into that type of cabernet that people enjoy or actually find a whole other market for it. Always the gamble.

“The whole name of the game: make wines people enjoy.”

Anecdotally, the Pepper Tree formula is as strong as ever. Olsen mentions the case of semillon changing with the times.

“Even though it doesn’t seem to be talked about, Hunter Valley semillon is selling very, very well. We had to roll straight from (vintage) 2016 on to ’17 because we were out of stock. And that’s been quite common with other wineries in in the Hunter.

“Why? I think from the last five years, people have been making a concerted effort to make them more drinkable younger. And I think now we are reaping the rewards of doing that.

“People now realise they are not the old-school battery-acid-stripping wines they once were – that you have to lie down for 10 years before they are even palatable.

“There’s been a lot more focus on getting fruit fullness on the mid-palate and making these wines very delicious as young wines that can still age exceptionally well.

“Everyone is realising they are good to drink young.”

“There’s been a lot more focus on getting fruit fullness on the mid-palate and making these wines very delicious as young wines that can still age exceptionally well.”

Although born in Cairns, Olsen carries a distinctive Kiwi clip in her voice, the result of attending the University of Otago in New Zealand, where she majored in biochemistry. 

She never considered winemaking as a career until the final year of university, when she realised that she would need a doctorate and plan on spending life in a laboratory if she was going to be biochemist. A professor suggested studying oenology (the study of winemaking) and gave her a reference that got her into Roseworthy University in Adelaide. 

“I was one of the only people in the course that had never set foot in a winery before,” she says. She found herself reading Making Good Wine, a classic text on winemaking by Bryce Rankine, on the airplane trip from New Zealand to Adelaide.

Her first job out of Roseworthy (graduating in 2005) was at Villa Maria winery in New Zealand, earning $36,000 a year with no superannuation, working 12-hour days for five months a year, half of it on the night shift from 7pm to 7am.

“You learn a lot in that time,” she says.

Olsen rose quickly in the industry, working at McWilliams in the Hunter Valley and then accepting the chief winemaker’s position at Briar Ridge in 2013 before being hired at Pepper Tree.

She also rose quickly in wine judging circles.

“I think one of the biggest advantages I had there was that I grew up in tropics,” Olsen says. “My knowledge and vocabulary of fruits and aromas and all that sort of stuff has really helped. Growing up in tropics you know a wider fruit set and brighter flavours, and being able to articulate them when you are talking about wine is helpful.”

She was dux at the Australian Wine Research Institute advanced wine assessment course in 2012 and a Len Evans Tutorial Scholar in 2015. A string of other honours has followed, including enrolment in the 2017 Future Leaders program run by the wine industry on an invitation-only basis.

Although not born into the wine industry as so many are, Olsen made some smart choices early in her career that set her in the right direction. One of those was getting involved in tastings.

“I started tasting early,” she says of her first experience at Villa Maria winery. 

“Using the opportunity to listen and learn and hone your own skills. If you are tasting on your own and not discussing them, you get a blinkered view.

“That is an advantage at Villa Maria and McWilliams – you have a team of winemakers. That has been one of the greatest assets of where I got to where I am now, spending that time.”

Olsen is a judge at six wine shows in Australia, including national wine shows in Melbourne and Adelaide.

The job at Pepper Tree was a natural fit for Olsen. At Briar Ridge she had a taste of taking more “ownership” of the product, including finding experts to help with labelling and planning the direction of the business.

Now, at Pepper Tree, she feels she is part of John Davis’ plans to steer the business ahead for the next generation of his family to succeed.

Talking wine: Gwyn Olsen in the Pepper Tree winery at Pokolbin with her schnauser Spencer, her constant companion. Picture: Simone De Peak

Talking wine: Gwyn Olsen in the Pepper Tree winery at Pokolbin with her schnauser Spencer, her constant companion. Picture: Simone De Peak

“To be perfectly honest, I am quite happy here,” Olsen says of Pepper Tree. “I have full freedom of winemaking licence and what wines I think are good. Whether I’ve designed the label or not doesn’t really matter.”

The challenge is to maintain the well-respected range of wines and capture a younger market with new wines. 

“I think diversifying and fortifying into future is exciting,” she says.

Pepper Tree has invested in new varieties in the Hunter, including plantings of fiano and albarino. In Wrattonbully they have planted fiano, barbera, nero and tempranillo, among others.

The company is examining a rejig of cabernet sauvignon, which is a major seller in its line-up.

“We are spending time thinking about how we make cabernet cool for Australian wine industry,” Olsen says. “Everything seems to be so instantly trendy in the wine industry at the moment that a lot of these really prominent wine styles that built the Australian industry back in the ’70s are out of fashion.”

The challenge is “showcasing the quality and expressiveness and longevity of those wines in a way that doesn’t make everyone think of their parents”, Olsen offers. “We actually need to harness these great wines into wines that 20-, 30-  and 40-year-olds want to drink.

“It would be about 70 per cent marketing and 30 per cent production, making sure they are fresh and fruit driven and really drinkable as young wines, enjoyable as young wines. As opposed to being those really high tannin, dry cabernets that people don’t want to drink. That’s what I’m trying to do, make wine cool again.”

When it comes to wine, the conversation will never end. On a personal level, Olsen loves chardonnay.

“I drink a shameful amount of chardonnay," she admits, as the conversation turns to the resurgence of that variety and the three styles made by Pepper Tree.