Meet the Makers,
John and Evdokia Klepec of Below and Above
The scenic Pemberton vineyard John and Evdokia Klepec purchased in 2012 had been supplying some of Western Australia’s finest wine labels with fruit since the 1990s. But in 2013, changing consumer trends saw them struggling to find a buyer that year for their Pinot Noir and Merlot grapes. So they were struck by a thought: why not try making wine themselves?
“The region is known for Pinot Noir and the vines originally came from our neighbour’s property who produces beautiful wines,” explains Kia (Evdokia). “So we thought it would be a crime to waste the grapes without attempting to make wines under our own label.”
For the winemaking nous they turned to a man who had both the industry chops and intimate experience with their vineyard, renowned winemaker Bruce Dukes. Dukes had been making Chardonnay from these same vines since the vineyard first began.
“Not only is Bruce one of the best contract winemakers around, he knew our property – he had made chardonnay from these grapes in the late 90’s,” says Kia. “He could also see the potential of where we were wanting to go in terms of minimal-intervention winemaking and was excited to make pinot noir as well.”
The venture has proven to be fruitful. All parties share a passion for sustainable viticultural techniques to maintain the purity – and future longevity – of the 34-hectares that are under vine. Another hallmark is the painstakingly meticulous approach employed for grape selection – only 5 per cent of the grapes grown make it into bottles sold under the Below and Above label.
This exacting standard is also applied to the wines that actually end up on shelves – if a particular vintage doesn’t produce exceptional fruit, then they simply don’t release any wine that year. “In 2016, for example, we didn’t produce any reds as we weren’t happy with them,” Kia explains. “We really are wanting to make the best possible wine that our property is capable of.”
By honing their focus on only three varieties – pinot noir, chardonnay and merlot – a rigorous Burgundian-style winemaking ethos can be maintained. This is one where a pure expression of the grape – and the terroir of the area in which it is grown – is the end goal. “In that region, they specialise in making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; it’s a new world phenomenon to make lots of different types of wine from the one vineyard,” Kia says. “And these are the types that grow best in our cool-climate Pemberton region.”
“But while we use the same techniques, we are not trying to be a Burgundy-style of vineyard – we are applying their knowledge within an Australian context. We’re not wanting to copy another region, we want to learn from their experience.”
Photography by Craig Kinder,
courtesy of Below & Above.
Below and Above wines are also processed off-site; by not having to maintain facilities on their vineyard, Kia explains that they are able to invest in the best sustainable agricultural practices and focus on maintaining the quality and replanting cloned grape varieties. They also bottle age their wines prior to sale. The result of all this rigor are small-batch wines that offer an elegant and exquisite drinking experience at point of sale.
“We want our customers to know that when they open a bottle of our wines, it’s going to be of exceptional quality,” says Kia. “We believe that people appreciate this level of attention to detail; it’s something special these days.”
And while the label may be new on the scene, people are already responding to this approach. Below and Above wines have been awarded several coveted ‘People’s Choice’ awards at wine festivals and events such as Pinot Palooza in Perth and Singapore (2018 and 2019) and Urban Wine Walk’s Summer Series.“As our wines are aged in the bottle we don’t enter traditional wine competitions,” says Kia. “But we feel that winning People’s Choice Awards means more, as it shows that people genuinely love our wines. And we make wines to be enjoyed by customers.” As further evidence, both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were ranked with scores above 90 by Ray Jordan’s Wine Guide in 2018.
Their brand name hints at another exciting prospect on the horizon for John and Evdokia – the ‘below’ refers to a crop of rare black truffles currently growing at their truffiere under plantings of French, English oak and English poplar trees. The pair are hoping to commence commercial production and international export of this precious commodity in a couple of years.
“We love truffles! The Southern Forest region produces beautiful truffles; we think it’s a combination of the climate and the karri trees,” says Kia. “And like wines, they taste different from property to property.”
For now however, it’s the pursuit of finely crafted, varietally correct wines that is keeping John and Kia busy. “We are on a journey to produce the best quality wines that consumers love, to build connections with our customers, and to fly the flag for the region that we love so much,” says Kia. “That’s what inspires us to keep going.”