With a grounding in horticulture and viticulture, Sarah Crowe is the complete package, and it shows in the wines she produces.
It’s almost eight years since winemaker and viticulturist Sarah Crowe arrived at the historic estate of Yarra Yering – effectively custodian of the legacy of the late Dr Bailey Carrodus. It was Carrodus who spearheaded the Yarra Valley as a modern wine region and in the process produced wines that have since become icons in Australia and respected the world over. That’s quite a responsibility.
Crowe grew up in coastal Wollongong, studying horticulture and working at the local garden centre. Winemaking was the furthest thing from her mind. It wasn’t until she travelled to France that she saw her first vineyard. “It was autumn and the colours were beautiful,” she remembers. She made a mental note.
Back in Australia sometime later, one of her sisters reminded her about it. “I hear they’re all really nice at Brokenwood, you should give them a call. Apparently, Iain Riggs answers the phone and everything,” she said. Crowe did just that. It was the vineyard manager at Brokenwood who picked up the phone that day in 2001. It was pruning season, and with her background in horticulture, Crowe was a shoe-in.
She stayed on, working in the vineyard and picking up a degree in viticulture along the way. But she also began gravitating towards the winery, increasingly lending a hand and in time, she also grasped the oenological side. Working under the encouragement and guidance of PJ Charteris, Crowe was appointed assistant winemaker in 2004, and never looked back.
‘I felt like you could see the detail of the winemaking, but you couldn’t see the detail of the vineyard. I wanted to give the vineyard room to breathe.’
By 2013, Crowe was in charge of winemaking up the road at Bimbadgen, when she heard that Yarra Yering was advertising for a winemaker and general manager. She applied for the position and was successful – due in part to her experience with the inclement weather that the two regions have in common.
Once at Yarra Yering, it was a whole new deal. Making wine was only part of the responsibility. As general manager, she also had the winery’s reputation on her hands. She started by appreciating what had gone before. “It was important to understand how the wines had been made historically and how they presented,” she says.
With this in mind, her inaugural vintage in 2014 was absolutely by the book. She closely followed the notations of predecessor Paul Bridgeman, who had worked briefly with Carrodus before his death and carried the mantle at Yarra Yering until Crowe took over.
By her second vintage, she began to think about which parts of the winemaking process might be tinkered with. With her grounding in viticulture, she was the right person to tackle the issue. “I felt like you could see the detail of the winemaking, but you couldn’t see the detail of the vineyard,” she says. “I wanted to give the vineyard room to breathe.”
Fortunately, the winery’s modus operandi was ideal for facilitating change. Historically, Carrodus’ wines were created from small parcels and blends, so Crowe was able to isolate and assess each batch, one at a time. She then invested in cooling facilities to chill the picked grapes, and an upgrade on sorting equipment, so only the best fruit got into the fermenter. The introduction of an airbag press promoted better quality extraction, so oak regimes were dialled back: less new wood over shorter maturation times revealed greater fruit expression. She was also quick to introduce screwcaps, curbing cork taint and bottle variation.
Busy with both the winery and the office, Crowe came to rely heavily on her vineyard manager, Andrew George, with whom she has a “wonderful symbiotic relationship”. The two have spent countless hours talking over and tackling improvements. Key initiatives include re-trellising 45-year-old vines for more control of the canopy, and a compost program to cool the soils and improve the microbiology. “The quality of fruit that comes off this vineyard is the best I have ever worked with,” she says.
Crowe never met Dr Carrodus. In one way she thinks it’s a shame, but in another she feels its benefit. “I don’t have this sense of obligation to continue to do exactly what he used to do,” she tells me.
Sarah Crowe took on a great responsibility in managing Yarra Yering. In return, she and her team have taken something that was already beautifully formed and skilfully recast it in a new, creative light.
FACTS AND FIGURES
REGION | Yarra Valley, Vic
YEARS IN INDUSTRY | 17
ANNUAL CRUSH | 150 tonnes
STAND-OUT WINES | Yarra Yering Underhill Shiraz
Photography courtesy of Yarra Yering.