Brothers Ben and Sam Watkins are the perfect winemaking duo. Sam’s viticultural chops were honed working vintages all over the world (and are well-noted throughout South Australia), and Ben brings valuable business nous from his former life as an accountant.
Sam has worked vintages in the Barossa and Coonawarra, Orange in New South Wales, Napa in California and at Quinta da Roêda in Portugal. “I moved around all over the place, learning all these different ways of making wine,” he tells Broadsheet. He’s now back home, working on his own project and chairing the Langhorne Creek Winemaking Committee, an assemblage of local growers working to build the district’s profile.
Ben recently returned to South Australia too, after spending time in Texas. He decided, “If I’m going to live in Adelaide, I want to do something world-class.”
“It’s been a great asset having him come back to the business,” says Sam.
The brothers’ new venture, Watkins Wine, may be young, but – like the vines growing at their Chandlers Hill winery – its roots go back over two decades. If you drink South Australian wine, you’ve probably tasted the family’s handiwork without knowing it.
The family (namely parents David and Ros Watkins) formerly co-owned Fleurieu Vintners with another famous wine industry name, the Randalls (of Seppeltsfield). The company operated vineyards in Currency Creek, McLaren Vale, the Adelaide Hills and Langhorne Creek, selling wine exclusively in bulk, business-to-business.
The phrase “bulk wine” conjures images of cheap goon being pumped into shiny sacks, but lots of wineries intentionally sell more than they can produce. “It’s a financial decision,” explains Ben. Buying product is much cheaper than growing it, and companies such as Fleurieu operate all over the world to supply that market. Bulk wine often ends up as one component in a blend (to provide specific character), so quality is still tremendously important.
Aside from processing its own fruit into wine, Fleurieu offered this as a service to neighbouring growers including Shingleback, Yangarra and Farmer’s Leap – anyone who didn’t have the equipment or capacity to do it themselves.
In 2019, the business was dissolved. Warren Randall kept Boar’s Rock winery in McLaren Vale, and the Watkins family held onto the Chandlers Hill site that is to become its new cellar door. It was around then that parents David and Ros stepped back as Sam and Ben moved into bigger roles, continuing to make bulk wine under the name Watkins Family Wine.
The opening of its direct-to-consumer arm Watkins Wine will see customers welcomed onto the stunning premises for the first time in a long while. The building itself turned 50 last year and is something of an icon down south. “A lot of people know it as the old Normans Winery,” says Sam.
The winery is one of the largest – by production capacity – in the Adelaide Hills region (the cellar door sits on the boundary between McLaren Vale and the Hills).
The cellar-door experience will focus on demystifying winemaking, but the plan is to eventually broaden the visitor experience to include food trucks, tours of the 3000-square-metre production warehouse and more.
The brothers are looking forward to cracking the tops off their debut range. “When most wine brands start up, they’re usually starting from scratch,” Sam says. “We’ve been making wine for a long time [and] we’ve got all these amazing wines to choose from – too many to put out all at once.”
The pair cherrypicked “the really shit-hot ones” for the first release, says Sam. “All the fruit – except the moscato and sav blanc – come from our own vineyards,” adds Ben.
The headliners are a 2016 shiraz and cabernet, but there’s also a shiraz and a cabernet from 2019, and a rosé and chardonnay from 2020. “The Langhorne Creek region – we think – is criminally underrated,” says Ben. “Because Langhorne Creek has large areas of even soil profile, you can have larger vineyards [so] you can make really fantastic wines at an affordable price,” adds Sam.
The brothers are also producing a mix of interesting and alternative wines – “whatever is looking really good from that year,” says Sam. “[It] could be a variety that isn’t well-known in the Australian market, or things that we’ve made in a bit of a different fashion.”
There’s a wild-grown sauvignon blanc from Currency Creek with “a bit of funk [from] wild ferment and barrel ferment”; a “big, heavy-style merlot” from 2019; an intense but balanced 2019 GSM; a light, aromatic 2020 carbonic maceration grenache made in a Beaujolais style; and a Riverland moscato.
The cellar door will open mid-October, when Watkins Wine bottles will hit online shops and appear on restaurant lists.
The Watkins brothers are joined at Chandlers Hill by long-time friends Dom Ossa and Nick Suggit of Dawn Patrol Coffee Roasters – they’ll be setting up their new roastery in a section of the warehouse and providing coffee service from Friday to Sunday.