UNSUNG HERO and LIVING LEGEND: James Irvine – is one of the Barons of the Barossa, a charming bloke, who is one of the Australian Wine Industry’s living legends. James, Jim to his friends, has been quietly working away in the wine industry for the last 65 years. At age 17 he walked out of his father’s Eudunda bakery after burning himself and wandered down to the big smoke. Here he secured a job as a laboratory assistant (lab rat) at Glenloth Wines. In early 1953, Jim applied for a job as a laboratory assistant at Hardy’s at Mile End and was successful. During this time he also worked at Hardy’s' sparkling wine cellar in Currie Street, in the middle of Adelaide city. In 1959, Jim was appointed Manager/Winemaker at Hardy’s Wines in the Barossa at the Dorrien winery. In 1963, the winery was making very few ports and sherries, concentrating mainly on red wines – unusual in those days. It was in that year that Jim was instrumental in the creation of Hardy’s Seigersdorf Riesling, which became a great success and the yardstick for Australian Riesling for many years.
In 1966, Jim was appointed Hardy’s State Manager in Victoria. This involved marketing wines rather than making them, which was his preference and passion.
In early 1970, Jim was appointed Managing Director/Winemaker at Krondorf in the Barossa. In the next two and a half years Krondorf won 253 awards under his guiding hand.
In 1973, Krondorf and Saltram were amongst the wineries bought by Dalgety Wine Estate. Jim was sent overseas by the new owners to look at bottling equipment, and returned with ideas which were incorporated into what became Vinpac Bottling at Angaston. This was followed by a stint as National Marketing Manager and National Sales Manager before, as National Public Relations Manager, being made redundant in 1981 by Seagrams, who had bought the Dalgety Wine Estates.
At this point in time Jim started his own wine consultancy, Wine Wise and has been helping and guiding wineries ever since. Jim is always helpful and friendly and with plenty of advice for those who ask.
I first met Jim in 1999 when I became General Manager of Yaldara Wines upon Simeon Wines’ acquisition of the company from its founder Hermann Thumm. Wine Wise were the consultant winemakers, and over the next few months Jim taught me just about everything I know about blending wine to make the “whole greater than the sum of the parts”. He also amazed me with his ability to expectorate wine into the lab sink from metres away!! Over time we became good friends.
As well as running his consultancy business Jim and wife Marjorie established their own vineyard in Eden Valley which went on to become Irvine Wines. Jim’s belief in and efforts with Merlot almost singlehandedly raised the variety from being merely a “blender” to being considered quality straight varietal wine here in Australia.
Jim was voted “Best Merlot Winemaker in the World” in 1992 and again in 1996, beating the best in the world, including the likes of France’s Chateau Petrus.
In 2012, the 2006 Irvine Grand Merlot was named “Best Australian Wine” at the China Wine Awards, where wines are judged specifically for their appeal to the China Market.
The following year, Jim launched the Irvine “Merlot Royale” – quite a cut above his superb Grand Merlot. Merlot Royale is only made in truly exceptional years like 2005 and it is definitely a world-class Merlot.
Another example of Jim’s innovative style is the Irvine Petit Meslier Sparkling wine. There are only a handful of people growing Petit Meslier in the world, including the Champagne House of Krug.
Recently he has been “tinkering” with Cabernet Franc in an effort to produce a wine that is comparable with Chateau Cheval Blanc – the world’s most famous Cabernet Franc wine.
Next year, Jim will turn 83 and shows no sign of slowing down. So hats off to an amazing, yet modest and gentle soul, an unsung hero and living legend of the Australian Wine Industry. Or better still let us toast to his health with a really good bottle of Merlot.
THIS WEEK’S WINE REVIEW:
This is another wine from the Naked Wines crew who through their operations fund independent winemakers – A smashing concept that really works.
HORNER WINES FAMILY RESERVE SHIRAZ VOIGNIER 2014: I found this wine very interesting in that unlike most Shiraz Viognier that I had tasted so far where anything more than 5% Viognier made the wine a bit cumbersome rather than achieving the elegance sought, in this case at 10% the Viognier works really well. Maybe because it is co-fermented or maybe because it is from the Hunter (warmer climate) – either way, it works well.
The wine has great, deep, vibrant colour with a lovely bouquet, in which I can just detect the Viognier aromas – or is that auto suggestion? It has a hint of sweetness on the nose but it is certainly alluring. On the palate it has a big mouthful of flavour with silky, smooth tannins on the finish.
A really good wine which one can sip on its own or pair with a good, hearty, winter meal. Cheers!