Meet the Maker,
Stuart Hutchinson of Truffle Hill Wines
A visit to Truffle Hill Wines’ cellar door is an experience for all the senses. Firstly the views: it sits along curving Seven Day Road, home to some of Manjimup’s oldest and most fertile growing land. The landscape rises and falls, curving around blossoming fruit orchards, stands of karri trees and pasture fields. The surrounding vineyard and oak-tree-lined truffiére are painted by the colour of the seasons: lushly green in winter, blazing golden in autumn. With its inviting, rustic-chic cellar door and adjacent restaurant overlooking a pretty dam, there are few more scenic places to sample two of the Southern Forests most famous products: rich, peaty Black Winter Truffles and elegant, artisanal wines.
For Stuart Hutchinson, finding himself running a wine business in such scenic environs was simply down to “the luck of the draw”. He had moved to Manjimup with his growing family in 2012, seeking a higher quality of life and more space. During his career working in hospitality and venue management in Perth, he’d developed a love of fine wines and good food, and was familiar with the pioneering work that Truffle Hill had done to establish the Southern Forests as a producer of some of the highest quality truffles in the world.
“So I thought I’d just pop in and see if could do some work in the vineyard or cellar door,” Stuart explains. “But it was very serendipitous: I walked in and the CEO of the company happened to be there. He said, ‘I’ve been looking for a wine person for the last twelve months – you’re my guy.’ So that set me off on a different career path.”
With the truffle side of the business going great guns (the company grows around 60% of Australian production of Black Winter Truffles), Stuart found himself in charge of all aspects of the wine business. In 2016, the company’s board of directors approached him about making it official.
“They asked me if I’d like to purchase the wine part of the business, but remain under the umbrella of the Truffle & Wine Company,” Stuart explains. “So in late 2016, I put in an offer.” With the attached fine-dining Truffle Restaurant now operating under a similar setup, the three businesses enjoy a cosy symbiosis – guests can visit to experience the farm, wine and truffle-themed fine dining without realising they’re being hosted by three different entities. “It’s worked out beautifully for all parties,” says Stuart.
After taking over, Stuart set about making some changes, including switching to a direct-to-customer model. “I got rid of the distributors and began managing the wholesale accounts myself,” he says. These days, like many local operators in the Southern Forests, cellar-door sales are the bedrock of his business. “Selling direct allows us to give customers the best deals possible and having met most of them personally, they really do get to know me and my story,” says Stuart. “And from the growing and making of our wine, to our other family business of truffle hunting for Truffle Hill it’s a pretty cool story to tell.”
Stuart’s winemaker and consultant is celebrated local viticulturist, Mark Aitken, of Woodgate Wines. Together with Melissa and Clint Robertson of Chateau June-Jerome, the trio make up an unofficial cooperative. “We all go out as a team and pick the grapes for each other, and help each other through vintage,” Stuart says. “It’s great peace of mind knowing your friends and comrades are always willing to lend a hand – and the banter in the vineyard is pretty entertaining too!”
The white wines produced include a delicate, citrusy Riesling, an aromatic, oak-influenced Sauvignon Blanc Semillon and a barrel-fermented Chardonnay. The reds range from smooth, full-bodied Merlot based blends to a berry-rich Shiraz and an award-winning Reserve Red blend. “We’ve also got a traditional-method sparkling and a Pinot Noir in the works – and we’re famous for our dessert-style wine made from Riesling on the estate,” says Stuart.
And while the businesses under the Truffle Hill umbrella may be independent entities these days, the wines are all still crafted with symbiosis in mind. “Our unique selling point is that our wines are specifically designed to be served alongside truffle; they’re lower alcohol and finessed to be much more food friendly,” explains Stuart. “When I hear people comment that they don’t like Shiraz because it’s too heavy, well I say, try mine. It’s beautiful and lush.”
The development of Truffle Hill Wines’ elegant stable of wines is helped along by a unique set of climatic factors. “The massive thing is the diurnal temperatures,” explains Stuart. “During the ripening season we’ve got warm days but cool nights that let the grape relax but maintain its freshness and acidity.”
“To nerd out a bit, when grapes go through their ripening period, if they’re getting too much sun during the day the flavour of the grape gets baked out. In warmer regions, where that’s followed by a warm night, it’s like having an overripe strawberry – it’s mushy and quite unpleasant. Here, the temperatures drops right down at night so the grape gets a chance to recover, so it’s retaining all that flavour. We also don’t irrigate any of our vines either; by farming to produce very small crop yields, we intensify the flavours and with a 100% handpicked, best-practice policy, only the best fruit makes it into our wines.”
For a small business owner intent on creating the most refined, bespoke product he can, Stuart is grateful that he landed in the Southern Forests. “It’s not about producing a cheap product in bulk here, there’s a real focus on creating high-end, boutique wines. We’re all putting our skills into actually looking after the grapes.
And as the man standing behind the cellar-door bar, he hears first-hand the response tourists have to the region.
“They just love that it’s quiet, green and untouched. And the freshness of the produce; there are still little market stalls on the side of the road at all the farms where you leave your money in a box and choose your fresh fruit and veg. That really spins people out – especially our international visiting chefs – fresh-picked that day and no food miles!
“A lot of people are popping out this way because they’re sick of the crowds and having to line up for service in other regions,” he adds. “And when they get here, they’re blown away by the wines and the beauty of the Southern Forests. We’ve got wineries and breweries here too, plus the southern hemisphere’s only truffle restaurant. There’s a lot happening.”
“I love it to pieces. I’m so fortunate of all the places that I could have picked, I came here.”
Additional photography courtesy of Truffle Hill.