Against the odds, Hunter Valley winemaker Xanthe Hatcher has been nominated as a Finalist for Gourmet Traveller’s Winemaker of the Year
In November 2022, Gourmet Traveller will announce their Winemaker of the Year—a prestigious title for one of the eight nominees. We caught up with Xanthe Hatcher, a finalist for this year’s award, and Chief Winemaker at the Hunter Valley’s Agnew Wines, to discuss the nomination process, her personal journey as a winemaker, and the challenges brought about by recent severe weather events.
It goes without saying that the wild weather events of the past few years have presented widespread challenges for everyone. For Xanthe Hatcher, Chief Winemaker at Agnew Wines in the Hunter Valley, the fires and floods have resulted in vines killed by drought, smoke-tainted grapes, and vineyards so wet that no harvest machinery could access them.
And yet against the odds, the Hunter Valley local has been nominated as a Finalist for Gourmet Traveller’s Winemaker of the Year, 2022.
Growing up in Sydney, Xanthe had no connection to the winemaking industry, but was initially drawn to it because of her passion for science. She studied Winemaking and Viticulture at the University of Western Sydney, managing a wine shop in her local area, before travelling to the Hunter in 2009 to work during vintage.
“I completely fell in love with working in a winery, and the following week I quit my job in Sydney and moved to the Hunter a fortnight later. Once I’d done it I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do.”
Over a Zoom call, we chat about the elements of her career that have fostered in her an enduring love for work within this industry, and in the background I can see the lush, green vineyards she’s speaking about. She says she loves the hands-on aspect of her work, and its versatility; she loves being in the winery, or vineyard or lab but equally, loves being in the city doing tastings and dinners with customers.
“It’s such a fun, interesting, diverse career … You create something out of the grapes that you grow! It’s always different and challenging, as there are so many variables to winemaking. No day is ever the same, no wine is ever the same, and no vintage is ever the same.”
"The process of making wine is slow, and it takes years to develop knowledge and expertise on par with Xanthe’s as, for the most part, you get one crop (and therefore, one attempt) at producing a wine each year.
“It takes a long, long time to get to know your vineyards and to get to know how to get the best out of them every year. You can make a lot of winemaking decisions along the way that dictate the direction of a wine, but the inherent character and quality of a wine is there from the fruit and if you have great fruit all you have to do is nurse it into the bottle.”
It is this deep relationship with, and understanding of, the land, natural resources, and industry, that have afforded Xanthe a place as a finalist, alongside other renowned wine-producers, in the Australia-wide Gourmet Traveller Winemaker of the Year award for 2022.
“It was a complete shock to me, I didn’t know I’d been nominated! I consider the other finalists to be very impressive winemakers in the industry at the moment so it’s really lovely to be nominated alongside them, and if you look back at the list of previous winners, they’re people I consider to be iconic winemakers, so to even be considered in that realm is a huge thrill for me.”
With Agnew Wines, Xanthe’s playground is vast. Comprising Audrey Wilkinson, Cockfighter’s Ghost and Pooles Rock, the award-winning umbrella company boasts vineyards, cellar doors, and wineries situated amongst some of the Hunter Valley’s most breathtaking landscapes, with a wealth of experiences on offer for customers.
At Audrey Wilkinson, you’re invited to select your favourite bottle of wine and enjoy a picnic basket above the stunning valley, credited with being one of the best views in the Hunter Valley. Alternatively, indulge in a Fortified and Fromage experience, tasting a number of cheeses matched to fortified wines, straight from the barrel.
“I love making wine for Agnew Wines. I get to be the one that makes wine from some pretty amazing vineyard sites in the Hunter Valley and as a winemaker, that’s all you can ask for: to have some great vineyards to be able to do what you do.”
Though her skills may be finely honed, and her methods tried and tested, Xanthe, along with the rest of the wine industry, is embracing an exciting period of rapid change. In the wake of the severe weather experienced recently, winemakers are shifting their focus towards sustainability, considering how they can be responsible producers and reduce their environmental footprints.
Agnew Wines is in the process of becoming a sustainably-certified business, introducing composting practices in vineyards, planting cover-crops to retain soil nutrients and moisture, looking at biological sprays as alternatives to chemical sprays for pest management, installing solar panels, and ensuring packaging materials are recycled.
“It’s about making little changes that add up, overall, to a big change. We want to make sure we’re a responsible company, doing the best for our vineyards so that they’re here for the long-term.”
Despite her 15 years of experience in the Hunter Valley, and her demonstrable expertise, Xanthe is as eager as ever to continue her journey.
Modestly, she says, “I feel I have a lot more to learn here, and a lot more to achieve with Agnew Wines. I love the history and the iconic wine styles of the Hunter and I’m very proud to be making wine here.”
Gourmet Traveller is set to announce their Winemaker of the Year 2022 in November. Regardless of the outcome for Xanthe, her passion is palpable; her nomination as a finalist is testament to her dedication to the winemaking industry and in the Hunter Valley, she is already a force to be reckoned with.