Jen Pfeiffer was born into the wine industry and has gone from strength to strength, establishing her winemaking mark on family-owned and operated Pfeiffer Wines in Rutherglen.
Read her fabulous story and discover why Shiraz remains her personal favourite varietal.
When, why and how did you first enter the wine industry?
I was born in Corowa where my father Chris was the Manager and Winemaker working in the Lindemans Corowa Winery at the time. I must have absorbed wine right from the start!
My parents later bought their own winery, Pfeiffer Wines, in 1984 in Wahgunyah, which is part of the Rutherglen wine region. I was 5 years old. I was my Dad’s shadow in the vineyard and the winery, and I remember clambering over barrels and syphoning samples to help him (and at times, help myself!!! 😉 )
When I finished my university studies, I came home to help out in the family winery at the end of 1999. First it was with my Mum in the cellar door over the busy holiday Christmas period, then some lab work for my Dad, then it was “out the back”, getting my hands dirty in the winery cellar. I was hooked from that moment on!!!
Harvest and vintage began and I was my Dad’s assistant. He gave me the task of making the Shiraz for that vintage. Pretty scary stuff and a huge responsibility. I guess he watched me pretty closely but I remember thinking I had done it on my own. The best thing was winning my first Gold medal with that wine. No wonder Shiraz is my favourite!
Where has your career taken you so far?
Within Pfeiffer Wines, my career has taken me from assisting my Dad making wine to taking over the winery operations and all areas of production, including overseeing vineyard operations on our 2 vineyard sites.
I have been very fortunate to do a vintage in Beaujolais, and two vintages in my beloved Douro Valley in Portugal. In 2014 (one of my vintages in the Douro), I made my very own Port and dry red blend, under my own label, which was a fulfilment of one of my winemaking dreams.
I have also become a Fortified wine educator for students at Adelaide University and WSET students as part of the Diploma program. I am incredibly passionate about fortified wines, and will try to educate anyone who is willing to learn and listen!
I have been privileged to be invited to be a Wine Show Judge at various wine shows throughout Australia. This year I am participating in judging at the Royal Sydney Wine Show, the Rutherglen and Australian Fortified Wine Show, the Hobart Wine Show, the Cowra Wine Show, the Great Shiraz Challenge and the Australian Small Winemakers Show.
You are the Winemaker at Pfeiffer Wines. Can you tell us the story of why, when and how this happened?
Being part of a family winery, the transition from my Dad being the winemaker to me being the winemaker, was quite organic. Over time, I took on more and more responsibility, and my Dad allowed me to do so, always there to help me with any problems and give guidance as required. Still to this day, we work together, tasting and talking about style, improvements we can make, new varieties, etc, etc. I believe that the best winemaking partnerships span the generations.
What is the philosophy behind Pfeiffer Wines?
As a passionate, family owned business, we strive to be the best we can be in all aspects of our business, in our part of the wine industry. We want to grow the best grapes and make the best wine we can; and give the best experience to all our visitors to our winery cellar door. We feel privileged to work in one of Australia’s oldest wine regions. We strive to be an active participant within our local, Australian and International wine industry and desire to contribute at every level. We recognise we are in the people business serving wine. There is nothing more important than providing pleasure – wine is a good conduit for that.
What grape varieties do you make wine from at Pfeiffer Wines? And where are they sourced from?
We have 2 amazing (and very different) vineyard sites within the Rutherglen wine region. Between the 2 vineyards, Sunday Creek and Carlyle, we grow, Chardonnay and Frontignac for white table wines. In reds, we grow, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Merlot, Tempranillo, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sanzey.
For our Fortified wines we grow a variety of Portuguese varieties for tawny and vintage styles, most notably Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cao and Tinta Barocca. We grow Rutherglen Brown Muscat, (also known as Muscat a Petits Grains Rouge) and Muscadelle for Topaque. We grow Palamino and Montbadon for Apera style fortified wines. These are all grown on our Sunday Creek and Carlyle vineyards.
We also manage some local vineyard sites, which gives us Durif, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.
And we have wonderful growers who grow Marsanne, Riesling, Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Gris in the whites, and Merlot, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec in the reds. All our sourced fruit comes from NE Victoria and Central Victoria, from long term growers who we have partnered with for many years.
We produce an amazing array of wines to suit every palate and every food pairing…a dinner party on your palate!!!
What are your personal favourites from those you produce, and why?
As I said in the beginning, Shiraz is a personal favourite in the red varieties. I love its generosity of fruit….and I love the fact it gave me my first gold medal!!! 😀
Riesling is my favourite wine to make and drink, I just love its great acidity, purity of fruit and longevity!
And of course, I am a mad, passionate fortified lover…..I consider it a privilege to make one of the world’s great wine styles, and one of Australia’s most unique wine styles in Rutherglen Muscat and Rutherglen Topaque. I love the craftspersonship behind making the Apera wines aged under flor yeast, and striving to make a great vintage port year on year. It is incredibly special to work with wines that age in barrel for over 20 years – to see them evolve into these amazing, complex wines that really are show-stoppers! I love the history of the wines, the cross-generational winemaking and the artistry that goes into these wines.
Within the business – what’s a typical day like for you?
Like most people in the wine industry, my days are busy!!! I like to start an hour before everyone else to plan and prepare the day. As the various team members arrive, we go through the jobs for the day (or as I sometimes say, aims, hopes and dreams) and discuss everything, then it is a case of getting on with the jobs. It might be collecting barrel samples for testing and tasting to work out a bottling programme, it might be fining or filtering wines in preparation for bottling, it might be transferring wines from tank to barrel, or analysing samples in the lab. In amongst all that, the phone rings, things have to be ordered from suppliers, future bottlings and blends need to be planned, I sometimes chat to customers coming to visit and I need to keep liaising with all the staff about what is happening and when. With such a big range of wines, and an increasingly large fortified solera, there is not really any down-time, but I wouldn’t want it any other way!!!! As a family, we have always felt so lucky to have fantastic staff who embrace our values and goals, and work tirelessly to help us achieve them! Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
How does your overseas experience translate to your day to day work?
I have been fortunate to work in Beaujolais in France, the home of Gamay, which is a unique grape variety for us within our region. I worked at Domaine de Conroy in 2005, where I learnt the art of “pigeage” – the lovely, slow and gentle way of foot treading the grapes. When I returned home, I started implementing it into our winemaking practices at home. At first, we just did pigeage on the Gamay grapes, but now, I use it on as many red varieties of wine that I possibly can. The quantities need to be small so we can’t pigeage on the larger volume wines.
I also have had two opportunities to live and work in Portugal. I love Portugal and I love the Portuguese. I call the Douro Valley my spiritual home. If I didn’t live and work in Rutherglen, I would choose to live and work there. It is stunningly beautiful and the people are genuinely wonderful, down to earth people.
My first vintage in the Douro was the best vintage experience I think I could ever have – I learnt so much from one of my great mentors, David Guimeraens, the technical director of the Taylor Fladgate Partnership. David’s knowledge of the history of the Douro, his passion for the region and its wines, and his dedication to the future of Port wines was completely inspiring. It was there I truly learned how important the past is in the future of fortified wines.
There were also many little tricks I picked up to help improve our fortified production, which I implement each year.
What is your absolute favourite wine and food pairing? And what should we keep in mind when matching food and wine?
I think there is nothing better than a beautiful, aromatic Riesling with a delicious Thai Green curry…the flavours are soooo complimentary and it just works so well!
When getting started in pairing food and wine, I think it’s important to look at the flavours in both the food and wine and use them to either complement each other, eg delicate white wine with delicate seafood dishes.
As you become more experienced, I think we all should dare to be different…try things that are out of the box, eg lamb shanks served with vintage port, or Rutherglen Muscat served with a duck liver pate!!!
As a woman working in the wine industry, have you faced any particular challenges where your gender has ever been an issue?
When I first started in the wine industry there were far fewer females in winemaking capacities than there are today. Working in a family business, I felt completely supported in all my winemaking endeavours and never felt like I came up against any challenges due to my gender. I simply just got on with the job at hand and did the best I could. I have amazing mentors and they have all been men, who have all supported me and encouraged me to be a leader in the industry.
In your experience, do women think about or talk about wine differently than blokes do?
I think perhaps sometimes the language chosen can be different between women and men, and perhaps women are more descriptive generally, but it’s not always the case.
From a technical point of view, when we are judging, I think people speak about wine differently, but that is generally to do with their training (eg. a winemaker will use different terminology to a sommelier).
What’s your number one tip for tasting wine?
Have an opinion – after all, it’s what you like that is important.
If there was one thing you could tell the sisterhood of wine-lovers out there, what would it be?
Love the wine you have tonight and try a different wine to love tomorrow night. Be adventurous and try wines from many different regions, different winemakers, different styles and different grape varieties. After all, variety is the spice of life. Sure, you will always have your favourites but you will enjoy them more, if you have experimented in trying new and different wines too.