In front of me sits The Laird, an unassuming bottle of 2006 Shiraz in rustic green glass with what looks like a home-made label. You would never guess that it retails for at least A$700 a bottle, making it one of Australia’s priciest 21st-century wines.
On the other side of the table sits founder of Torbreck Wines and the creator of The Laird, David Powell, who is equally unassuming, yet just as extraordinary. Powell, a great bear of a man with roots in Adelaide, chain smokes and good naturedly swears his way through the interview, merrily berating and praising his peers in equal measure. His candour — which twice has seen him write off a year’s harvest of The Laird because it “did not come up to scratch” — has earned him high respect in his industry.
“I’m a less-is-more sort of person. I believe it is what is in the bottle that counts,” he explains, when I point out The Laird’s modest appearance.
While equivalent French wines would sell for much more (2005 Chateau Lafite Rothschild easily costs double that what you would pay for The Laird), Australia’s fine-wine industry is still in its youth. So what exactly is in the bottle that entices people to pay A$700 a pop?
“People who know wine taste it and they say ‘oh my god’,” he says. The Laird vines, a small five-acre Shiraz crop in Australia’s Barossa region, are dry-grown, irrigated only by natural rainwater. The result is small, sweet fruit. The vines face south east on brown loam soil over red clay and limestone — ideal for minerality. The wine spends three years in Dominique Laurent oak barrels (“the best money can buy”) before resting two years in the bottle.
But that doesn’t explain it entirely, says Powell. “We don’t understand what makes The Laird vineyard so special, we have other vineyards that on paper should be as good, but they’re not. I call it the ‘X Factor.’”
“It’s an absolute joy to drink,” says US wine critic Robert Parker, who gave it the top score of 100. “With aromas of hung meat, Peking duck, dried roses and lavender over warm black cherries... the tight-knit, full-bodied palate is very fine with... lingering earth and spice notes.”
But in today’s austerity-driven times when you can buy a bottle of decent wine for a fraction of the price, is it worth it? Powell shrugs: “Is a Ferrari worth it? If you want to buy a Ferrari, you go and buy one.”
The optimum time for drinking The Laird will be in 15 to 20 years, says Powell, although it will still be delicious in 40 years’ time. Just in case I am unclear on this point, he gives me an analogy. “Drinking wine is like making love to women. I like making love to women who are 45, but would I want to make love to one half the age? Absolutely.”
Critics debate whether The Laird really matches the hype, but Powell is convinced as to its investment potential. He believes prices for The Laird will be as high as A$2,000 in five years’ time. And with the increasing demand stemming from Asia, he may just achieve this. Hong Kong is his second-biggest market after Sydney and Powell says he has had a good reception in China. Torbreck produces 50–70,000 cases of wine per year, of which approximately half is sold in Australia and a third in Asia.
At the age of 50 and with some of the world’s top wine-making accolades, Powell might appear to be at the pinnacle of his career. But this he refutes.
“If a chef thinks he has cooked his best dish, he should get out of the kitchen. Likewise, any winemaker who thinks he has made his best wine should stop doing it,” he says.
Powell clearly has a passion for winemaking that goes beyond profit. He spent 25 years learning his trade, travelling between famous and not-so-famous wine regions, at one point even working as a lumberjack in a Scottish forest, which he named Torbreck after.
So, what’s next for the 17-year-old winery? “Torbreck has a long way to go. Bit by bit I’ll be buying more vineyards. You never know, there might be another Laird out there.”
Powell is in no hurry to retire, although he has been paving the way for his eldest son Callum to take over the business. But unlike his father, who pushed him into doing an accounting degree (which he hated), Powell let his son come to him. Eighteen-year-old Callum has asked to learn his father’s trade, but Powell refuses to let him enter the business until he has experienced at least a decade autonomously.
“I want Callum to make his own mistakes, cut his teeth and be his own man for a while. My favourite time at Torbreck was at the beginning when I was on the bones of my arse. That’s when you know you are doing something you truly love.”