Stirring the Lees… With Michael Fragos of Chapel Hill Winery
Chapel Hill winemaker, Michael Fragos seemed to be destined to work in wine. He grew up on a vineyard in McLaren Vale planted in the year of his birth and helped make his first wine at the tender age of 6. It was a family ritual to make a barrel of Grenache each year and subsequently there would always be a carafe on the dinner table.
In high school, he elected to do a week’s work experience at the Glenloth Winery where his family supplied grapes. The Glenloth winemaker at the time was pioneering female winemaker Pam Dunsford (in a nice narrative arc, later winemaker at Chapel Hill for 19 vintages) and this was his first “official” experience of winemaking, igniting his interest in all things wine. Since 2004, Michael Fragos has headed up the winemaking team at Chapel Hill. Named ‘2007 Winemaker of the Year’ at the London International Wine & Spirit Competition, Michael has pursued the art of gentle winemaking, with a focus on purity and balance displayed in the single vineyard, single varietal wines produced at Chapel Hill Winery.
Here Michael takes time to reflect on McLaren Vale as a region, climate change and the area’s most underrated varietal.
Who had the biggest impact upon you when learning wine making?
I grew up on a vineyard in McLaren Vale and have fond memories of our annual family ritual of hand making a barrel of Grenache. My father was so proud of these wines and it gave him so much pleasure to see others enjoying his wines. I must admit that this is exactly what I now feel with our wines. Early in my winemaking career I was always inspired by Drew Noon MW as he is so talented and humble. I was always impressed how Drew lets his wines do the talking.
What makes the region of McLaren Vale so special to work in?
McLaren Vale is an amazing place to work and live. The close proximity to the coast and the maritime climate results in low humidity and moderating sea breezes. We also enjoy a wonderful coastal lifestyle and it is often said “happy winemaker equals happy wines”. There is also a very strong sense of community in McLaren Vale as we all feel that we are the fortunate custodians of this amazing region. This respect of the region inspires the sharing of knowledge and friendship. There are so many winemakers who have moved to the region to work, have become besotted with the place and then made it their home.
What is the most under-rated grape varietal in your region?
Without a doubt it is Grenache, but not for long…
The first vines were planted in McLaren Vale in 1838, as McLaren Vale has avoided Phylloxera we are incredibly fortunate to still have an amazing resource of old bush vine Grenache plantings. These defiant old vines grow small grape yields with tiny berries that are crammed full of flavour and rustic tannins. The resultant wines are so evocative and sensual. It is brilliant to see that these wines are starting to achieve the recognition they deserve as these stoic vines are such an integral part of Australia’s winemaking heritage.
Has climate change impacted your vineyards?
What we are noticing in McLaren Vale is that there are more extreme unseasonal weather events. The subsequent focus in the vineyards has been on naturally promoting soil health and subsequently vine health as this builds resilience in the vines, as well encouraging the purest expression of varietal and site characters in the grapes.
If you could pick 3 vintages of any of your wines to drink on a special occasion, which ones would you chose and why?
1998: A breathtakingly good vintage in McLaren Vale but this was also the year where I felt my wine making philosophies really began to take shape and start to show through in the wines. Learn to trust your grapes , yourself and your people.
2005: I was very fortunate to enjoy this outstanding vintage as only my second vintage at Chapel Hill. I still consider the 2005 McLaren Vale Cabernet Sauvignon as one of my favourite wines and it was also the wine that was instrumental in Chapel Hill being awarded International Winemaker of the Year at the 2007 International Wine and Spirit Competition.
2010: Every time we conduct a museum tasting at Chapel Hill, it is inevitable that, regardless of the variety, the wines that shine brightly are from 2010. It was the vintage where the “purity and balance” vision really started to show in the style of our wines.
Where is the most unusual place you have seen your wine?
As part of a window display in an adult shop in Perth. The bottle was empty.