It can sometimes read like a cliché – a winemaker connected to, and representative of, their local community. But Sue Bell walks the talk in Coonawarra.
'Admiration’ is the word that comes to mind when thinking about Sue Bell, closely followed by ‘authentic’ and ‘determined’. She’s the mastermind of Bellwether Wines, at the Glen Roy shearing shed in Coonawarra.
During her long winemaking career, Bell has fearlessly seized opportunities that have taken her out of her comfort zone. Under the Bellwether and Ant Series labels, she produces regionally expressive, balanced wines using respectful production techniques to showcase the inherent quality of the fruit, and articulate the land and climate from which it comes. With a community-minded ethos, growers can also bring in parcels of their own fruit to be made into wine. It is a small, hardworking team making wine “in a humble way”, says Bell.
Bell has tirelessly built the business from the ground up, working after hours in friends’ cellars, borrowing floorspace, fermenters, hoses and pumps. By 2014, all winemaking was on-site.
She began university at the age of 16, studying engineering. Trips to McLaren Vale, combined with a love of geography and geology, led her to switch to oenology. She took a graduate winemaker position with Southcorp, later joining the Penfolds white wine team. She later moved to Hardys, progressing to chief winemaker of the Stonehaven winery in Padthaway, which took premium fruit from 10 regions.
Bell invests in staff and growers, running wine appreciation courses and employing a cellar hand ‘chef’ each vintage to ensure the team is well nourished. She is appreciative of her large company experience and credits working with “the very high end and the low” for giving her palate a quality scale.
Driving home after taking voluntary redundancy in 2008, she noticed an old shearing shed for sale. She then travelled to Canberra for graduation from a rural leadership program, New Zealand for a wine show, and France, as Dux of the Len Evans Tutorial. The newspaper clipping of the shearing shed went with her.
While in France, she received a call from a potential investor in Stonehaven, Andrew Rennie, offering her a job. She declined, stating that she wanted to renovate an old shearing shed. The conversation serendipitously revealed that their fathers had both been shearers, and, without meeting, they decided to purchase Glen Roy and become business partners.
Bell has tirelessly built the business from the ground up, working after hours in friends’ cellars, borrowing floorspace, fermenters, hoses and pumps. A tourism grant helped renovate the shearing shed, and by 2014 all winemaking was on-site.
Today, you’ll find an historic cellar door and a community kitchen with produce grown on soil enriched with the well-composted sheep poo from under the shed. The property is punctuated by roaming sheep and majestic river red gums. Visitors can camp or glamp in ‘Bell’ tents, complete with cast iron beds and colourful décor.
The wine range includes the superb single-block Bellwether Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon with its vibrant berry fruit, elegant frame and ultra-fine tannin. There is also a complex Tasmanian chardonnay and a spicy shiraz, with a label designed by artist Sally Blake using the colour tones extracted from eucalypt leaves collected from the Wrattonbully vineyard. Within the Ant Series label are a rosato, riesling and a host of alternative varieties. The winemaking involves handpicked fruit, wild-fermented in small 1-tonne vessels. Minimal pumping and gentle pressing are de rigueur. The inclusion of quality solids introduces complexity during white fermentation; hand-plunging and open ferments are employed for reds.
Bell does it all, including putting up tents and making beds – and is a devoted mother. She views life with intuition and optimism; her wise, softly spoken words are punctuated with spontaneous bursts of humour and wit. These engaging elements of her personality, along with honesty and compassion, allow her to form strong, long-term professional relationships built on trust. When she moved into Glen Roy, she borrowed equipment, and growers helped her crush the fruit. The deal to buy her cabernet grapes was done on a handshake.
Bell does not confine her future pursuits to a fixed plan, preferring to see where life takes her. No doubt she will continue to be open to opportunities, forging her own path and personifying the ‘bellwether’ by creating trails for others to follow and making sensational wine along the way.
FACTS AND FIGURES
REGION | Coonawarra, SA
YEARS IN INDUSTRY | 30
ANNUAL CRUSH | 50 tonnes
STAND-OUT WINES | 2015 Bellwether Cabernet Sauvignon and 2017 Bellwether Tamar Valley Chardonnay
Photography courtesy of Bellwether WInes.