Gapsted Estate’s grand plans for success
"I wanted us to back ourselves more with the quality of wine we could produce. The wines were always good, but I thought we could take them to another level … to become absolute benchmark cool-climate expressions, particularly with the Mediterranean varieties."
There’s an undeniable buzz of excitement in the team at Gapsted Estate.
And why not? Shooting for the stars tends to have that effect.
For years the picturesque Alpine Valley winery has churned out impressive, food-friendly wines – with a heavy slant towards Mediterranean varieties – that have offered incredible bang for buck.
With just one wine in their hefty range hitting the $40-mark, it has been a recipe that has served them well.
How well? Consider this: annually Gapsted produces between 200,000 and 250,000 cases, depending on the vintage. That’s big.
And before Covid struck – and the ensuing freeze with China – Gapsted was exporting to the US, Canada, Germany, Norway, Russia, United Arab Emirates, India, Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and China.
Throw in a highly popular restaurant and cellar door in their picture-postcard grounds just outside Myrtleford and, by any reckoning, this family-run operation was flying. A business model others could only envy.
But CEO Andrew Santarossa, who joined the company in late 2021, wanted more – and makes no apologies for it.
With 25 years in the industry including successful winemaking stints at Giant Steps, Cloudy Bay, Cape Mentelle, Domaine Chandon and Mitchelton, he was quick to see Gapsted’s untapped potential.
“Commercially Gapsted had been very successful, but I wanted us to drill down more on our wines and our Alpine country location,” he explained.
“I wanted us to back ourselves more with the quality of wine we could produce. The wines were always good, but I thought we could take them to another level … to become absolute benchmark cool-climate expressions, particularly with the Mediterranean varieties.”
To do that meant change … not easy to manage when the current business model was so overwhelmingly successful.
But Santarossa clearly hasn’t just mastered the art of winemaking, he’s also pretty handy with the art of persuasion too.
So today, Gapsted Wines have become Gapsted Estate, the first of a number of significant changes you’ll notice over the coming months, that will include their wine range, pricing, labelling and vineyards.
“We want to take people on a journey of discovery about just how good benchmark level Mediterranean varieties can be in Alpine country,” he said. “Wines like tempranillo, fiano, pinot grigio, saperavi, primitivo, prosecco and so on.
“We have these amazing microclimates up here and wonderful growing conditions, so I’m incredibly positive about this.
“I envisage that rather than $40 for our most expensive wine, we’ll be pricing them at about $100 and we’ll work back from there.”
The thing about banging a three-figure price on your wine is that there’s nowhere to hide – it has to be good, consistently. And that requires top quality fruit.
“It does, so the first thing we’ll be doing is investing in vineyards,” Santarossa said. “Right now we grow about 15 per cent of the fruit we use – we have eight hectares under vine here on the property and another 12 hectares outside – and I want to increase that to about 50 per cent of our own fruit.
“So, we’ll be looking to purchase another two blocks that we’ll plant from scratch with these Mediterranean varieties. At the same time, we have established ongoing relationships with a number of local growers and we’ll be relying on them too.”
Santarossa knows his goal won’t be cheap, and that he can’t afford any slip-ups in its execution.
“It’s really important that we get the right sites and the right plantings,” he said. “But I’m convinced it’s the way forward.
“And winemaking is a slow game. You plant a new vineyard, it’s going to take a few of years before you’re getting the quality of fruit you need, so we’re mindful of that too.”
While the buck stops with Santarossa, he insists it will be a collaborative effort with his two fellow winemakers, Greg Bennett and Toni Pla Bou.
“Not only that but we will be bringing in a graduate winemaker too … we want to nurture the next generation of winemaker.”
Is he concerned that by raising the price of the top wine from $40 to $100, he may be pricing some of Gapsted’s long-standing buyers out of the market?
“I don’t see that as a problem, because we’ll still have $22 wines for them to enjoy,” he said. “We’re not dropping the standard on the quality of that wine. It’s just that there will be levels of wine above. But at all prices we want to offer quality and value.”
Outside of the winemaking side of things, the changes will positively affect the Gapsted restaurant and cellar door as well.
Chef Leon Dammenhayn has extensive experience in Europe, particularly Switzerland, Germany and The Netherlands, and is thrilled at the amazing local produce he has at his disposal.
“He knows that as good as the food is – and it’s very good by the way – it has to complement the wine … that’s really important in our plans,” Santarossa says. “But he’s right on board with that.”
For those not familiar with the alternative varieties, Santarossa offers a couple in snapshot:
Saperavi: A Gapsted icon wine. The Georgian teinturier variety produces wine-like essence. It is thick and concentrated on the palate, tasting like a fruit reduction of blackcurrants.
Primitivo: Also known as Zinfandel. The Italian variety has quickly become one of our most awarded reds – a powerful wine that shows generosity, richness and refinement.
Grand Manseng: A white wine that is grown primarily in south-west France. It produces intensely flavoured and rich wines with high natural acidity and is prized for its ability to age.
So, in summary, how does Santarossa see Gapsted’s immediate future?
“We have the Great Alpine Road out the front, the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail runs past here, a popular restaurant and cellar door in an amazing wine growing area that happens to be really picturesque. Why wouldn’t you be optimistic?” Exciting times, all right.