Custom Homes talks with award-winning South Australian wine-maker Jo Irvine, about her most recent international award and combining her two great passions – winemaking and greyhounds to create her acclaimed wine label Levrier.
Firstly, your Levrier 2015 Anubis Barossa Cabernet recently won Best Overall wine at the 2021 London Wine Competition, what does that international recognition mean to you?
I am extremely proud that my Levrier 2015 Anubis Barossa Cabernet received the highest award of ‘Wine of the Year’, as well as an additional three awards at this 2021 London Wine Competition.I have spent years with my small team bringing Levrier to life, from vineyard to final packaging, so I feel genuinely delighted to be recognized with these awards.
To get top results in four categories with my Cabernet, Shiraz and Zinfandel in one show feels amazing. This award has lifted our brand profile almost overnight, from a young brand launched in 2017, to now gaining recognition throughout the world. This is every winemaker’s dream for their brand.
Your father James Irvine was known as a Master Merlot Maker – as a second-generation winemaker how has your father influenced your craft?
My Dad is the son of a baker and so growing up he was heavily influenced by aromas and textures which I think lead him naturally into understanding yeasts and fermentation. As a youngster I would often follow him around the winery. He would often ask me what I thought as he was tasting wine from barrels and the tasting bench. I would offer my expert opinion of ‘Yuck’ or ‘Yum’ which I am sure he took into consideration before his final blends…
Dad always respected genuine relationships from growers to makers, to suppliers, from bottlers to transport, from wholesale to retail and most importantly with the wine lovers who spend their hard-earned cash and want honest wines. As a result, I have always shared this understanding of lifelong friendships and trust. Dad was always in the pursuit of excellence, no matter what form that took, and his unwavering enthusiasm and curiosity lead him to understand everything from the climate and soils of where vines where grown, when to pick or prune, what oak would be required in order to arrive at a certain style, the importance of bottle age prior to release and so on.
You studied nursing and worked as a theatre nurse before turning to winemaking. Was there an aha moment when you realised this was your true passion?
Yes, I was an operating theatre nurse for 18 years but winemaking was in my family so when I had a mid-life crisis at 35 years old, I think that was the ‘Aha’ moment when I decided that if I was going to change my career, I was going to have a shot at winemaking.
When I finished travelling, doing vintages in the USA and earning my degree, I started my consulting winemaking business and also started making wines for my father James. Dad retired and sold his business a few years ago. With this in mind, I was planning the creation of my own wine brand Levrier. It was always my goal to create wines that I like to drink, made from traditional noble varieties in the Barossa, not just Shiraz, so I could help keep our Barossa offerings diverse. From all my years working as a theatre nurse, I brought my ‘attention to detail’ philosophy into my winemaking skill set.
What are the most noticeable differences in the industry from your father’s generation to yours?
My Dad started making wine in 1954 back when fortified wines, sweeter style Rieslings and Cabernet blends dominated. Dad saw innovations such as machine harvesting and cold stabilization, irrigation techniques and more advanced bottling/labelling techniques.
Since those days many new varieties have been planted, while naturally still embracing traditional varieties. Certainly, winemaking ideas and styles have changed across the years, not only as a result of wine makers keenness to try new techniques but also due to changes in winemaking consumption. Not many houses are built with wine cellars these days, so wine styles have become more approachable to drink as younger vintages. I like to age my wines in the bottle and store them for 2 years before release. This makes the wine flavours more integrated with age and allows me to release the wines when I think they are ready for wine lovers to drink.
What is the inspiration behind your brand ‘Levrier’?
From a winemaking point of view, I wanted to work very closely with the local grape growing families that I grew up with. By creating wines such as my Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Zinfandel I have the opportunity to support the growers who have faithfully kept these varieties in the ground, and together we are guaranteeing diversity of wines from our beautiful Barossa Valley region.
My brand inspiration took place over 20 years ago, while I was out assessing vineyards. By chance I came across an injured and abandoned greyhound. I took the greyhound to a local vet and surprisingly he survived the night. I decided to keep him and name him Chilli. He lived for another six years and was my constant companion by the time he passed away. I had totally fallen in love with him and these beautiful, majestic creatures. I now have Georgie and Daphne who ‘work’ at my Barossa Winery office daily, and by work, I mean sleep all day apart from a quick 5 minute run each day. I wanted to incorporate my love of greyhounds into my brand and ‘Levrier’, French word meaning ‘greyhound’, seemed the perfect name. From there I went on to create my overall brand image featuring greyhounds.
My Mosaic Collection features ancient mosaic dogs while my Art Collection features paintings by Elle J Wilson – who also owns a greyhound in the U.K. It was important to me to donate part proceeds from my Levrier sales to ‘Greyhounds as Pets’ (formerly known as the Greyhound Adoption Program of South Australia) so that more greyhounds can find nice forever homes.
Jo with her beloved ‘Chilli’
We’re all huge fans of your sparkling, aside from the gorgeous presentation with gold greyhound – what makes your NV Sparkling Meslier Brut Rose so special?
Certain grape varieties ignite a passion within individual winemakers throughout their career. For me it is Meslier and Zinfandel.
Meslier is one of the rarest traditional sparkling wine varieties in the world. Traditionally grown in France and with only a few acres planted worldwide. Meslier is a white grape and has the unique ability to contain very high, natural grape acids as it nears flavour ripeness. Usually picked at approximately 10 baumé it can have up to 18 gms per litre total acidity and as such can add natural acidity to traditional Champagne blends. This acidity is particularly important in warm vintages when traditional varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir drop their acidity very quickly during ripening. Grape flavour is described as “Granny Smith green apples”.
What’s your go-to ‘never disappoints’ food and wine pairing?
Sparkling Meslier with natural oysters and fish roe. Beautiful! My other ‘go to’ is Zinfandel with twice cooked Asian Duck.
What are your future plans / goals for Levrier?
I am happy to keep creating wines that resonate well with the people who find me through that genuine discovery of their own wine-loving voyage, while supporting the grape growers I have known for years. It is important that I can keep making wines my way without compromise, so I won’t grow my brand simply for growths’ sake. Finding more fans and greyhound lovers means we all share our common interests, enjoying fine wines with great friends and giving more greyhounds forever homes.
I now have ten vegan-friendly Levrier Wines in my collections and just quietly, very shortly I aim to release my first Cabernet Franc Rosé under my own label. I can’t wait. Immediately after my Rosé is launched I plan to finally take a day off to celebrate my win from the London Wine Competition….
Discover Levrier’s range of exceptional wines at www.levrier.com.au