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Will Gilbert
Young Winemaker of the year

In 2016 and only in his 20s, Will Gilbert took over the family brand – a task that might have felt daunting for some, but not our Young Winemaker of the Year.

Will Gilbert was destined to be a winemaker – the sixth-generation grape-grower in his family. Not that there was any pressure from his father Simon, just his innate desire to “mess with grapes”. Gilbert has done more than that, taking Gilbert Family Wines in a new direction than was set by his more traditional father.

Under Gilbert’s guidance the portfolio now includes new-vogue pétillant-naturel and piquette plus a swath of rieslings – sparkling, off-dry and late harvest. Gilbert takes a fresh approach to sauvignon blanc by keeping on its yeast lees to gather weight and texture. His excellent Gilbert Sur Lie Sauvignon Blanc is from grapes grown in the Orange region, as is much of the fruit used by the winery. Speaking of Orange, Gilbert isn’t afraid of skin contact and has explored a number of orange or amber styles, along with field blends that may include both white and red grapes. Not that he has abandoned the classics, with his chardonnays and pinot noirs profoundly influenced by his time with Benjamin Leroux in Beaune. This exciting portmanteau of wines has evolved in just five years, as it was only in 2016 that Simon handed the cellar keys to his son.

At 32, he is at the threshold of his vinous journey. Experimentation and evolution will continue.

Gilbert grew up in Mudgee with a winery as his playground. As a 10-year-old, he had to be hauled out of the cellar by his mother, Mandy, to do his homework. Boarding school in Sydney followed but holidays were around vineyards and the winery, with a constant flow of budding winemakers (including Anton Von Klopper, Drew Tuckwell, James Manners and Peter Logan) who inspired the young man.

His career was launched following an opportunity to work as a vintage cellarhand in 2011 at Hidden Bench, near Toronto on the shores of Lake Ontario. A year later, he was back in Canada, this time on the west coast for a stint at Cedar Creek in British Columbia, before returning to Hidden Bench for a longer period as assistant winemaker to Marlize Beyers. It was then that Gilbert’s intrigue in the holistic nature of winemaking was ignited – grapes from the vineyard to winery, wine from tank to barrel and then the bottle. Naturally enough, in between these Northern Hemisphere vintages, Gilbert worked at home back in the NSW region of Mudgee.

2016 was a big year for Gilbert and the evolution of the winery. He was now in charge of the new family brand his father had only recently established for, although Simon had been a successful winemaker for 25 years, it was only in 2010 that he’d put his name on the label.

Gilbert seized the opportunity, tasting, talking and experimenting with his (young) peers and the stalwart wine producers that come and go at the Mudgee winemaking facility. In the background is Simon, who has guided and supported his son, while encouraging him to express himself through a rapidly evolving range of on-trend wines.  

Not that Gilbert has thrown the baby out with the bathwater, for there’s a pair of méthode traditionelle sparklings alongside the pét-nats, along with an impressive hierarchy of chardonnay and pinot noir. You can see the influence of Leroux in these wines; Gilbert spent the 2017 vintage in Burgundy and has taken on board the detail and finesse of Leroux’s winemaking. Ever inquisitive, he has teamed up with his Hunter Valley mate Angus Vinden to blend Hunter shiraz with Orange pinot noir. Labelled as Lignée Rouge, it’s a throwback to the Hunter Dry Red style of the Maurice O’Shea era.

At 32, Gilbert is at the threshold of his vinous journey. The experimentation and evolution will continue while he is willing to push boundaries at the same time ensuring his lo-fi wines are funky but in no way faulty. He is adamant that following the family tradition was his own decision – a decision that has taken him and Gilbert Family Wines in a new and exciting direction.

Oh, and the sixth generation? Yes, Will’s great-great-great-grandfather Joseph Gilbert planted riesling in the Eden Valley on his Pewsey Vale property in 1847. The Gilbert winemaking dynasty was set – not in stone but in vines.  PETER BOURNE

Photography by Parker Blain / Wine Australia