Fletcher Wines: serendipity and sleepless nights, from Adelaide to Langhe

Aussie emigrant, Dave Fletcher, was born in Adelaide, the gateway to all 18 of South Australia’s wine regions, including McLaren Vale, Clare Valley, and Coonawarra. Though not hands-on, Dave’s father had silently invested in vineyards, and so through the summer holidays, his son earned pocket money pruning. Following a gap year in 1999, Dave left university where he had studied engineering, and before leaving for the UK secured a place at Adelaide University to study winemaking. After a year in England, with little to show but parties and headaches, he returned to complete a four-year degree, later securing a role at O’Leary Walker Wines as a travelling winemaker, tasting and grading fruit. A brief harvest in Burgundy piqued his interest in ‘European winemaking culture’. Following a short European road trip with his now-wife, he returned to Australia, later relocating to the Yarra Valley. Six years later, during which he’d worked at Kazakhstan’s oldest winery, Daves’s wife, Eleanor, booked him onto a Barolo masterclass, a revelatory experience. By 2007 he’d worked a harvest at Ceretto and by 2009 returned for another. In 2012, he and Eleanor moved to Langhe permanently, and before long, he had begun producing wines under his own label, Fletcher Wines. Today, Dave is the principal head of red wine production at Ceretto as well as making seven wines of his own, produced from 12 vineyard sites and made in a renovated local train station, where he and his family live. This article tells Fletcher’s story.

The early days

Dave Fletcher was born and raised in Adelaide, 15,758km from Langhe. Its Mediterranean climate is home to many of Australia’s premium wine-growing regions. Though not hands-on, his father silently invested in local wineries, meanwhile, his sister had worked as a winemaker at Pernod Ricard. During the summer holidays, Dave would earn pocket money pruning, the work was unsubstantial and far from revelatory. Though he had enjoyed these times, he had never considered winemaking a particularly compelling pursuit. Later, as a young adult, he would spend six months studying engineering, an endeavour he found equally lacklustre. Before the millennium struck, Dave obtained a 2-year working VISA and planned to leave for London. Though he had nothing particular planned, he was certain he would not leave in a hurry, having saved money for his ticket working as a banana farmer. Shortly before leaving, he was accepted to study winemaking at Adelaide University upon his return. A year later, much sooner than he had planned, he returned to Australia. Albeit less rewarding than he had imagined, he reflects on this time as personally formative. Upon returning to Aus’, he began and completed the 4-year degree in winemaking he had earlier subscribed to.

Upon graduating, he was torn. Then, as it does today, Burgundy occupied a sacred status among budding winemakers. Recent graduates dreamed of a pilgrimage, hoping to adorn their CV with an internship at one of the region’s coveted estates. By this time Dave had tasted Barolo. Not immediately struck, it would prove to be a slow-burning love affair, unfurling slowly. Not unlike Nebbiolo: taking time to flesh out and find its feet. 2003 would be his first ‘real harvest’, working at Tinlins with his now-ongoing mentor, Warren Randall. By 2004/5, he had taken a job at O’Leary Walker in Clare Valley. At the time, O’Leary Walker was a small startup run by David O’Leary and Nick Walker, having both recently left larger organisations. Fletcher enjoyed this role, working as an assistant winemaker.

European winemaking culture

Between 2003 and 2012, Dave traveled frequently, working various jobs across numerous continents. In 2004, he worked in Santenay at Domaine Chevrot. A short and sweet vintage, a stark variation from Australia’s protracted picking window. Practical experience notwithstanding, in France, he experienced ‘European winemaking. Here, winemaking was about much more than producing grapes. It was a cultural endeavour with a profound sense of community. An attitude that brought Dave much closer to the vine, and the occupation. Later, he would work as a consultant in Kazakstan. A job he had found through a shared connection on Facebook. Similarly to Georgia, Kazakstan is steeped in tradition. Traditional varieties are favoured, skin-contact is the norm, and concrete vats line winery cellars.

In 2006, following a European road trip with Eleanor, Dave returned to Australia, moving to Yarra Valley. Shortly after, Eleanor had paid for him to attend a Barolo masterclass. Here, Nebbiolo revealed itself. Fletcher felt impassioned to learn more. The wines had blown him away, more so than any other before. In 2007 he worked harvest at Ceretto, getting to know the family well. They liked him and maintained a relationship even after he returned to Australia in 2008. While in Australia, he made two Nebbiolo, one in Adelaide Hills, the other in the Pyrenees. In 2009 he returned to Ceretto, working another harvest, and through relationships, established in 2007, began purchasing fruit and making small quantities of his own. Fletcher Wines’ genesis. Between 2009-2011, he had also worked for Treasury Wine Estates, tasting and grading fruit in Australia and California. During this time Dave learned to truly taste wine, practically and emotionally.

Concomitantly, he was happy with his work at Ceretto, making appreciable change. He was no longer obsessed with cleaning, had begun reducing oak influence, and was advocating and implementing biodynamic viticulture. In 2012, he and Eleanor moved to Langhe, soon after, Eleanor would have their first baby. Initially, the pair had planned to ‘test the water’ for two years; however, in 2013 she would have their second child, sealing their future in Langhe. So, by 2015—he had until now had space in Ceretto’s cellar—he began imagining how he could take production under his own wing. In Australia everything needed to be built from scratch, no unused Cascina were lying around to convert. Ignoring vineyard costs, this made establishing a footing in Langhe comparatively cheaper.

Coincidentally, in passing, a local winemaker had told the pair—perhaps in jest—that Barbaresco’s unused train station was on the market. Constructed in 1917 and unused for 20 years, the building was structurally sound but in need of extensive renovation. The pair viewed the building only once, immediately falling in love with its cellar, boasting impressive arched chambers. Work was made difficult by the century-old train stations’ protected status, the same standard afforded to Rome’s Colosseum. After bringing winemaking in-house in 2017, the pair finally moved in to ‘La Stazione’ last year.

The wines

In 2018, during my first visit to Langhe, I tasted Fletcher’s C15 Chardonnay twice in two days. Once blind and once basking in the mid-afternoon sun outside Koki wine bar. The first experience in some respects was a revelation. What I thought only possible in Burgundy, could be done elsewhere. Dave had been motivated by necessity, though palatable, he had not been overwhelmed by Italian white wine. The fruit for Fletcher’s Chardonnay came originally from above Montforte in Rodino. Having arranged to purchase a certain quantity of fruit, Dave had bought barrels; however, as harvest drew closer, it transpired he would not be offered enough fruit. Following frantic phone calls, he had been pointed in the direction La Spinona who were selling Chardonnay from Cars.

fletcher-wines

This 26.6ha northwest to northeast-facing cru occupies a large part of the slopes facing Secondine and Paje, over its crest lies Asili and Faset. The vineyard ranges in altitude from 160 to 270m and is characterised by cool exposure, not best suited to Nebbiolo. Cold air is blown through the valley, cooling the vines on even the hottest days. The Tanaro further cools the sit, lying behind a small ridge of trees lining the Val de Salici. A little above Dave’s vines, Gaja tends their Chardonnay, producing fruit for their Gaja & Rey bottling, among others. To this day, Fletcher maintains a purchase option in Cars, remaining actively involved in vineyard management, vinifying only fruit from this parcel for his wildly successful and utterly moreish Chardonnay.

Elevage notwithstanding, all of Dave’s Nebbiolo (Barolo ‘Alta Pete’, Barbaresco ‘Reeta Pete’, and Barbaresco Starderi) are made similarly. In a nutshell, his philosophy is to add as little as possible, preferring to tease out each site’s (Roncaglie and Starderi for the most part) idiosyncrasies, as well as those characteristics particular to Nebbiolo. For those so inclined, the wines could be coined ‘traditional‘. Tempting though it may be to envisage the wine simply making itself, this ‘hands-off’ approach remains a carefully choreographed dance requiring an abundance of skill and precision.

Fruit is 100% destemmed and berries kept as whole as his destemmer allows. A pied de cuve kickstarts fermentation, at Ceretto, he submerges the starter in a water bath maintained at 24 degrees, though admits he favours a classic home-brew beer vessel. Fermentation—in open-top stainless steel and plastic pot fermenters—are lightly extracted—usually every other day—with a gentle pigéage by hand and are pressed only when completely dry. To date, Dave’s longest-running ferment tested his nerves for almost two months, though four weeks is ‘normal’. This ‘infusion’ style fermentation is somewhat atypical, with almost no forced movements made throughout the vinification process. Practicality often presents constraints. After buying 25hl Garbellotto barrels in 2016, he didn’t have enough wine to fill them. Today, the wines are aged in 10-year old French barrique. Interestingly, with use, vessels become clogged, thus there is a negative relationship between age and oxidation. The wines are racked to barrel without fining or filtering. Maintaining freshness can be a challenge when working with used barrels, Dave uses the barrels once or twice then swaps them out, any longer and the barrels begin to impart old wood flavours.

Despite his ‘traditional’ take on Nebbiolo, the ‘other’ wines produced at Fletcher Wines are notably more experimental. His Barbera is made with more than a third whole cluster and with very little extraction during a semi-carbonic fermentation. The ‘X-Blend’ is a ‘Super Tuscan style’ made in Langhe, a blend of 1/3 Nebbiolo, 1/3 Cabernet Sauvignon, and 1/3 Merlot. Each variety is fermented separately in small open fermenters using natural yeast. Once fermentation is complete, the wine is pressed and racked for malic fermentation in barrique, of which 30% is new French oak. Once used, these new oak barrels lend themselves to his Nebbiolo.

Dave Fletcher is a worldly fellow, well-travelled, sedulous, and daring. His rebellious nature led him many thousands of miles from home, establishing himself as a well-respected winemaker at a nearly century-old Piedmontese winery. Inspired by the late Rex Lipman, he willfully traversed a diverse range of careers, from divemaster to highrise glazer. In wine, Fletcher found a pursuit that rarely repeats, a dynamic and ever-evolving endeavour negating the need to. Today, in a converted train station he dares to be different, an Australian emigrant crafting his own interpretation of classic Langhe varieties. Eschewing dogma, Dave is level-headed and practical, making wines not fitting well into any particular category. Farming organically and observing biodynamic practice, he aspires to vinify the best quality fruit possible. Part of a small but growing population of ‘outsiders’ reimagining Piedmontese frontiers, Fletcher Wines deserve your attention.

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