Meet the Maker,
Di Miller of Bellarmine Wines
When keen German oenophiles Willi and Gudrun Schumacher began to hunt all over the globe in the early 1990s for a prime place to grow grapes and make extraordinary wines, their attention fell on one of the most remote corners of the Earth – Pemberton in the Southern Forests. With its pristine environment, abundant water and ancient laterite soils, “it was the ideal terroir,” says vet-turned-winemaker Di Miller, who has been overseeing the barrels since the founding of the Bellarmine Wines label.
The property today has 20 hectares under vine, incorporating Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, plus the region’s first plantings of Riesling, Shiraz and Petit Verdot. The inaugural vintage was pressed in 2004 and the accolades began flowing soon after: Bellarmine Wines have won many awards over the years, including a much-coveted ranking as one of the Top 100 Wineries of Australia by renowned wine writer and judge James Halliday.
Growing grapes in such a fertile, fecund environment brings its own challenges: winemakers here need to stress the plants in order to ensure exceptional fruit. It’s a matter of ‘quality over quantity’, as Di explains.
Miller employs sustainable winemaking practices to make her clean, elegant wines, such as giving a small flock of sheep the run of the place to fertilise the vines and keep weeds under control. The thickness of the vine canopy is also carefully managed. “The aim is actually to achieve low-vine vigour, so the plants are struggling a bit,” she says, “and that keeps crops low – and the quality high – and allows them to ripen earlier before the weather changes.
By minimising the number of leaves grown by the plant, a dense canopy is avoided that can block airflow and allow disease to flourish. Good wind and sunlight penetration is essential. “Less disease pressure means fewer chemicals are needed,” says Di. “And wines made with less chemicals have better flavor – length and persistence of flavor – and will cellar for longer.” The vineyard also uses a system of 'fertigation', where dissolved nutrients are applied through an irrigation system, allowing the requirements of the plants to be provided at exactly the right time.
The results of this careful, long-term management speak for themselves. The estate has always produced exceptional whites in particular; in 2017, the Riesling Dry – offering a hint of orange blossom and an attractive chalky acidity – scored well over 90 points in Australia’s leading wine listings. The sweet Riesling Select from the previous vintage did even better. But recently the Pinot Noir has been winning acclaim too, with a gold medal at the Timbertowns Wine Show in 2020 – a portent, perhaps, of things to come.
The property doesn’t have a cellar door, so online sales and an exclusive distribution network form the backbone of Bellarmine’s business model.
For Di, winemaking is the perfect marriage of agricultural challenge and creative pursuit. “Every wine is unique; they’re like people,” she says. “They look better on some days than others, but all have their own appeal.”