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Fresh pickings

Updated: 2012-08-20 15:04
By Alexis Hooi (China Daily)

Fresh pickings

Stephanie Dutton is the first in her family to explore wines, and now she wants to share her discoveries with the world. Provided to China Daily

She's by far the youngest winemaker for this top Australian label, and she is ready to break new ground. Alexis Hooi sits down for drinks and conversation with Stephanie Dutton.

Growing up as a Melbourne city girl, Stephanie Dutton remembers how family meals somehow seemed to be missing something.

"I grew up in a family which didn't drink wine with dinner. We sat down at the table and it was just food on the table," she says.

So it might come as a surprise that Dutton is now not only a winemaker at Australia's top wine producer, Penfolds, but also its youngest.

The 27-year-old, who is also the only woman among Penfolds' seven winemakers, initially majored in genetics at university but "didn't enjoy it a lot". Stints in hospitality and restaurants helped her develop a love for fine wine instead, leading her to join Penfolds in 2007.

Her work now involves crafting some of Australia's most iconic wines from the 168-year-old producer, which counts as one of the most recognizable brands from Down Under with the red cursive script spelling out its name.

"I'm a little bit of an exception to the rule, in the sense that in the wine industry, the new winemakers can come from big winemaking families. My family wasn't from a wine industry whatsoever in terms of background," says Dutton, who also has a master's degree in oenology - the science and study of all aspects of wine and winemaking.

"But what I really enjoy about winemaking as a career is that it combines both art and science really quite seamlessly."

The Penfolds ambassador also believes that her brand's products converge nicely with a Chinese wine market that is becoming increasingly savvy and sophisticated with offerings from the old as well as new worlds, even as the Australian label is considered a late - but possibly fresh - entrant to the market compared with other major brands.

"We're all of a sudden sharing the stage with first growths, Bordeaux, the great Champagne houses we're sharing a global stage with some of the most iconic wines around the world. Naturally, as a part of that, the Chinese market is incredibly important," says Dutton, who recently completed a three-and-a-half-week working tour of Asia including about two weeks in major and lower-tier Chinese cities.

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"I've noticed it's an incredibly dynamic and fast-moving market. In terms of the markets I've visited, it's the fastest moving of the lot. So we have to be just as fast moving in terms of what's going on," she says.

"One of our big focuses in trying to work with the Chinese market going forward is getting winemakers here a lot more frequently to help communicate brand stories, to help with master classes, to help get wine into people's mouths."

To that effect, Dutton has been conducting tasting classes in major cities like Beijing to introduce some of Penfolds' best wines and help fill rising demand from Chinese drinkers to understand their reds and whites better.

Fresh pickings

She admits that the idea of "one" Chinese market itself is challenging when faced with the immense opportunities in such cities.

"There's this diversity of the market. In Australia, we fall into the trap of talking about 'the Chinese market'. After my trip here, I can see the differences between southern and northern, eastern and western China. Cuisine itself is so diversified when you move around.

"I started off in Suzhou, and in Suzhou you have very sweet cuisine. Then you move around and you find something more savory. You find some areas more focused on seafood, some on red meat. And as you see changing cuisines when you move around the country, that means you must also see change in wine styles as well."

Dutton says the Cantonese tastes of southern China can be very suited for her wines.

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"There are some lovely sorts of sweet and exotic flavors that come through but still harnessing some savory characteristics which tie in well with the wine. A couple of our wines tend to have that exotic nose in terms of the aroma and that comes through with some of the Cantonese style."

It all boils down to good food, good wine and good company, she says.

"Wine is made for one reason. It is for people to enjoy. It is to make people smile, it's for people to have a good time with.

"One thing I've learned since being in the wine industry is that I've really felt a big reward for bringing wine into my family. Now when we meet as a family, we sit down at the table and a meal is put out, but so too is wine. And that never used to happen."

Contact the writer at alexishooi@chinadaily.com.cn.

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