“I love the red soils on this vineyard,” says a barefoot Dave Mackintosh as he surveys the manicured, undulating Primavera vineyard up in the Hoddles Creek nook of the Yarra Valley. “Lou (Primavera) is doing a bloody good job up here. He’s growing some of the best fruit around at the moment. Looking forward to getting stuck into the 2017 vintage - not much else to do right now but sit and wait… Let’s try some booze.”
For Dave, this is the calm before the storm. In a month or so when the fruit floods in he will be up to his neck in it. Between making the loveable, breezy wines under his Arfion range, the wild and rare Salo wines made in cahoots with Steve Flamsteed, and his contract winemaking side projects, ‘Dave Bro’ has got more thumbs in more winemaking pies than is anatomically possible.
The boy from Hawkes Bay and Manawatu has become a local fixture of the Yarra Valley winemaking scene. Since being ushered there in 2007 under the wing of Flamsteed, his now friend and business partner, Dave has asserted himself as one of the most creative winemakers in the region.
It’s been a long journey for Dave to stand atop that Primavera vineyard awaiting the 2017 vintage rush. From an early age, he was drawn to the land. “As cheesy as it sounds, I actually told my Mum when I was 4 that I wanted to be a farmer and an artist when I grew up. Crazy how close I came, really.”
Without much direction fresh out of school, bumming around in the hospitality industry lead to his first wine ‘lightbulb moment’. “This was where I got my first taste of the intrigue in wine. Two Cabernets tasted, same year, same winemaker, same region but two different vineyards. I was amazed how different they were.” Studying wine at University seemed like the next logical step.
A graduate program at the rising giant Oyster Bay was where he got his first serious gig. He walked into the job in 2002, just as the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc bomb was exploding. “Massive plantings in Marlborough and Hawkes Bay were coming on stream and the growth was huge, from approx 2,000 tonnes in 2002 to about 20,000 tonnes in early 2006 when I left.”
Everything was big at Oyster Bay. Big tanks. Big ferments. Big hours. Big adjustments to the wines. The adjustments a sometimes necessary evil when doing things on that sort of scale. It was a trial by fire where he learnt on the job, and learnt fast.
“It was pretty bloody tough, we were being stretched as a winemaking group and were just pumping out so much Sauvignon. Which, by the way, is horrible to taste into a tank on a hangover.”
Amongst all the important winemaking lessons learnt there about logistics, procedures, and meticulous attention to detail, something else crystallized for him, “I’ve never been great at just toeing the line and being a company man, so I decided to get some more experience.”
That experience came in the form of an opportunity from another All Blacks die hard, PJ Chateris. PJ was the winemaker at the Hunter Valley’s Brokenwood. Dave made the jump across the ditch for a six month vintage with Chateris and crew which opened his eyes to a wider world of wine. He drank Peroni, he made new mates, he garnered a new nickname. And it lead to the introduction with Flamsteed, one that would set a new course for his next decade in wine.
The relationship with Flamsteed may be the most formative of Dave’s career. The lessons learnt during his time as assistant winemaker at Giant Steps have quite obviously shaped his philosophy and the way he approaches making the delectable Arfion range. The focus on premium quality, the commitment to showcasing the fruit of great vineyards across the Yarra - the parallels are clear.
“I work with some amazing, talented growers who farm a range of soils and climates in the Yarra. I aim to exhibit their hard work in my wines too, not just my winemaking ego, so it’s important I provide a path for the grapes that is fairly lo-fi. Minimal inputs, substance over technique.”
This is what Dave’s wines are about. Letting the fruit do the talking, guiding rather than forcing, constantly searching for the simplest way to get young, energetic wines into the bottle for people to enjoy. His Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio are all effortless examples of wines made with a ‘less is more’ mentality.
This philosophy is taken to the enth degree in his ultra small batch Smokestack Lightning wines. They are fascinating takes on Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer made with skin contact from different sites across the Yarra. No additions save a dash of sulphur at bottling. Bright. Bold. Electric. Complex. A world away from the paint-by-numbers wines he cut his teeth on during the Marlborough days.
Since 2008 Mackintosh and Flamsteed have joined forces to make a small amount of wine under the Salo label. Where winemaking is so often a solo pursuit, the Salo collaboration gives them both a chance to bounce ideas, try new things and challenge convention. The 2016 Salo Chardonnay is scintillating. They say it’s their best to date. Lovers of Yarra Chardonnay, it’s almost sold out and it’s a wine not to be missed.
As the 2017 fruit inches closer to pick date, Dave is optimistic. “The vintage is looking good. People love comparisons so I guess it reminds me a bit of a 2012 at this stage. But it will be its own beast and that is exciting in itself. I just can’t wait for the grapes to come and get started.”