Melanie Chester

Melanie Chester

Sutton Grange
Melanie Chester has crammed a lot into her short, but distinguished winemaking career. Having worked at big guns d’Arenberg, Wolf Blass, Quinta do Crasto and Seppelt, Chester is now in charge of Bendigo’s Sutton Grange where we expect her knack for winning awards to continue.

Melanie Chester is at her best when she’s talking about the wines with which she’s been involved. She’s articulate, engaging, full of joy, and wildly enthusiastic.

When the panel decided that Chester should receive this award she was working at Seppelt, involved in the decision making with the hugely supportive senior winemaker, Adam Carnaby, and sharing centrestage with him in presenting their wines to the public and the media. She loved it there. “The wines are artisanal and all about the vineyards and the place,” Chester explains. “Inside this huge shell of a winery, there were these tiny stories. The company had been custodian of those wines for 160 years, sharing them with different generations during its massive history, so a wine becomes almost timeless. I remember Ian MacKenzie returning to Seppelt and taking us down to the drives and sharing a bottle of a 1954 red, which had remained there since it was bottled 60 years ago. I felt like I was in a weird vortex.”

Conversations with Melanie Chester reveal an awareness of place. She has had a lifelong association with Kangaroo Island where her parents now live. “It’s an amazing place: wild, with the smell of the sea and abundant seafood. I grew up around wine with generous people who included me in their conversations. I was always fascinated by what they were talking about and how they were talking about wine. I got interested because I was raised among people who loved it,” she reflects.

Chester wasted no time in becoming involved in the wine industry – working vintage at Boar’s Rock in McLaren Vale in her gap year before heading off to the University of Adelaide to gain a bachelor of viticulture and oenology. There were awards along the way, including the David Bradley Prize for “the graduating student whose personal qualities, enthusiasm and aptitude indicate the promise of an outstanding contribution to the wine industry”. She was also awarded the Wolf Blass Prize, which gave her the opportunity to work at the Bilyara winery for the 2012 vintage.

Chester squeezed in work at d’Arenberg in McLaren Vale during the 2009 vintage, doing two 12-hour shifts on the weekend in addition to her full-time university schedule. She also managed to fit in a stint as a cellar hand and in cellar door sales at Charles Melton in the Barossa during her studies.

Despite not speaking the language, the northern summer of 2010 saw her working with unfamiliar varieties as a lab assistant at Quinta do Crasto in Portugal’s Douro Valley. “It was an amazing vintage – a melting pot of learning about wine, about yourself and about the culture. I loved it,” she exclaims. “I remember catching a train from Oporto up the Douro Valley with my head out the window. It was sensational. The place is crazy: the views; the vistas; the river; the terraces. I fell in love with touriga nacional as a variety. It has a brightness and plumpness of fruit, but still with muscle and extract.”

Chester has had extensive show judging experience, starting as a steward and an associate judge over a five-year period. By the end of this year, she will have judged at McLaren Vale and four capital city shows. A high point came in November 2014 when she was the youngest scholar to be selected for the Len Evans Tutorial. “I loved listening to how the tutors and my mates talked about the wine in the glass and the stories we shared,” she says of her experience.

Chester’s three years at Seppelt have given her experience of handling fruit from Great Western, Henty and Heathcote, and of managing over 300 individual batches of wine throughout the year. Along with her winemaking role, she was also actively involved in expanding the company’s social media strategy.

Her new job as chief winemaker at Sutton Grange in Bendigo carries with it the awesome responsibility of following in the footsteps of founding winemaker Gilles Lapalus, who has established the winery’s reputation over the past 15 years he has spent there. “Our single site at Sutton Grange is just coming into its own,” she says. “I’m most excited about getting to know it and all its diversity and intricacies. We have some cool new varieties – fiano, aglianico, sangiovese – that I’ll be delighted to work with.”

Melanie Chester has packed a great deal into her 26 years. The judges who gave her this award suspect that we haven’t heard the last of this impressive young winemaker, not by a long shot.

Peter Forrestal