As a leader among Langhorne Creek’s next generation of winemakers, Rebecca Willson believes the region’s underrated whites are ready to share the stage with her already established reds.
Having grown up in Whyalla and wanting to become involved in marketing, Rebecca Willson chose to do the wine marketing course at Roseworthy College. Units in winemaking and sensory evaluation led Willson to becoming hooked on wine. After completing the course, she did a vintage with Tim Adams and Stephen John at Eaglehawk Estate in Clare and “just loved it”. She then travelled overseas for a few years and came back to the family home in Langhorne Creek, where her parents Craig and Mignon Willson had planted vines on their property.
In 1996, Willson got a job in the cellar at Bleasdale and did a vintage at Geyser Peak in Sonoma with Daryl Groom. This broadened her horizons dramatically especially because, although they produced significant volumes, they also did a great deal of small-batch winemaking. She continued at Bleasdale taking responsibility for the contract winemaking of her family’s Bremerton wines. She was fortunate to work under Michael Potts at Bleasdale who shared his encyclopedic knowledge of Langhorne Creek with her.
Another key influence has been former chief winemaker at Hardys and Adelaide Hills stalwart Geoff Weaver, a mentor throughout her winemaking career. As Willson says, “He suggested that although I didn’t need to study to make wine I would benefit from a deeper understanding of what is happening in the winemaking process.” This led to her undertaking part-time studies and receiving a Graduate Degree in Oenology from the University of Adelaide in 2000.
After Craig and Mignon Willson had been given a long-term commitment from their daughters, Bec and Lucy, they continued to grow Bremerton. The Matilda Plains winery was built by the 2002 vintage and the family worked together to establish and develop the brand. With Craig as general manager, Mignon (CEO or chief emotional officer), Willson as winemaker and Lucy responsible for marketing, there was a major brand relaunch in 2004 and a fortuitous boost to their reputation two years later when the Old Adam Shiraz received the same points as Penfolds Grange and Henschke’s Hill of Grace in one of the country’s wine guides.
The timing of the succession of the next generation was handled with aplomb by Craig and Mignon, who have remained in touch with Bremerton by living next door and sitting on the board.
Willson talks about the winery team with great affection – “the winery is a little world of its own” – and credits her close working relationship with Bremerton winemaker Matt Schmidt over the past decade as being hugely influential. She believes that the wines have improved as a result of 15 years of rigorous oak trials. Willson is looking for oak that allows for barrel maturation, while enhancing the subtle fruit character and weight of the wines. Aligned with this have been subtle changes in style which seek flavour/acid/tannin balance rather than just sugar ripeness. She is looking to produce regional reds with more restraint.
Willson believes that Langhorne Creek whites have been underrated because of the warm daytime temperatures, arguing that the region’s cool nights provide natural acidity retention and amazing finesse. Bremerton’s 2016 whites support these views, especially the vermentino (racy, vibrant with crisp, lively acidity) and fiano (powerfully concentrated, lingering dry finish). The Special Release varietals surprise and delight: 2015 Graciano (brambly, fleshy, approachable in spite of its grippy tannins); seamless 2015 Lagrein with lively yet balanced acidity. The cabernets (2014 Coulthard and 2012 Walter’s) have characteristic Langhorne plushness with a touch of restraint. While approachable now, they hint at their cellaring potential. Old Adam Shiraz offers complexity, depth of flavour, silky smoothness and restrained power.
Willson offers an impressive range ofaffordable Langhorne Creek reds that exhibit the regional footprint while revealing her personal stamp. Her work with new varietals adds another dimension and suggests that her best may well be yet to come.