“I quite like that,” says Jo Irvine thoughtfully, holding her glass to the light to take a better look. “Sweet, spicy and juicy, like a merlot should be – you don’t want to manipulate it too much.”
With a few more notes jotted down – ‘ph okay, need to get sulphur into spec’ – Jo replaces the glass, satisfied with the progress of the ferment.
An innate understanding of how wine behaves, comes as naturally to this winemaker and wine consultant, as the changing seasons of the Barossa.
The proof is in the haul of international trophies awarded to Jo since she and partner Peter launched the Levrier Wines label five years ago.
While Peter calls Jo’s wine intuition “black magic”, she says it’s pretty straightforward.
“You’ve got have a great palate,” Jo says matter-of-factly. “If you can’t taste the wine and know where to make a difference, you won’t make a good winemaker.”
As the daughter of highly decorated winemaker Jim Irvine, Jo has lived and breathed the wine industry since her childhood, living next door to the original Siegersdorf Winery on Barossa Valley Way, Tanunda.
While Jo recalls watching the grapes come in by the truckload and chatting to the growers, by all accounts she had a far more important job.
“At the age of four Jo would follow her father around in the lab after he’d finished doing bench trials, take a sip and decide whether it was yuck or yum,” recounts Peter.
“At times we still do yuck or yum!”
While a career in the industry may have seemed like a foregone conclusion, a young Jo Irvine had other ideas.
“In the 70s when I was ready to leave school, it wasn’t fashionable to be a winemaker,” she says. “The wages were really terrible, the hours were long and it was a male-dominated industry.”
Enter theatre nursing, a dramatic alternative that gave Jo a career that was both stimulating and challenging.
“I fell into operating room nursing,” says Jo, who worked across all the major metropolitan hospitals. “I loved the pressure of intensive care, operating or emergency or retrievals at the RAH – every day was different.”
Jo’s love affair with nursing only came to an end when she realised she was on the verge of burnout.
“One day I woke up and I knew I didn’t want to do nursing anymore. That’s when you know it’s time,” she says.
“Apart from nursing I didn’t know anything else except wine, because of my family history. So I started helping Dad and I thought, ‘I quite like this’.”
One oenology degree later, Jo was working back-to-back vintages in the Barossa and US, including at Yaldara, Charles Cimicky and Mountadam locally, and in Sonoma County and Napa Valley in California.
She says her nursing experience was invaluable, teaching her resilience and an uncompromising work ethic.
“It taught me discipline, how to work with people in all sorts of situations, and the responsibility of things,” says Jo.
“That was really important, because (winemaking) is bloody hard work and you have to have a passion for it.”
Jo’s watershed came when father Jim sold the family winery and label, creating space for Jo to forge her own Irvine story.
Launching Levrier Wines in 2018, Jo catapulted to success on the international stage, winning trophies for 2014, 2015 and 2016 vintages.
Crowned a Baron of Barossa and inducted into the Baron’s Grand Council, Jo is committed to championing the Barossa Region as well as “the forgotten varieties of the Barossa.”
“What we have is a series of wines that I like to make and we like to drink – Zinfandel, Pinot Gris, a Sparkling Meslier, Cabernet Franc and Merlot,” says Jo. “ We like something different.”
Perhaps what sets Jo apart is her philosophy of allowing wines to reach full maturity and complexity in the barrel, using only French oak sourced from premium forests.
“The grape growers who grow for me – Jordan Zerk in the southern Barossa, Ahrens up near Mengler’s, the Hickenbothams over in Tanunda and Centenarian vines grown by Roger Maywald in Nuriootpa – I know the vineyards, I know the fruit so well and I know the oak,” Jo says.
“We wait a minimum of five years before our wines are released – that’s a conscious decision, because we like to sell them when they’re ready to drink.
“I don’t manipulate much at all, because the less you meddle with a wine, the better the wine will be.”
Jo’s crowning glory came in 2018 with Levrier Wines named among James Halliday’s top 10 new wineries in Australia.
The Research Road winery is now also a cellar door, with a very particular point of interest – it’s dog friendly.
In fact Levrier, a French word, honours Jo’s other great love – greyhounds.
Jo’s chance encounter with her first greyhound happened over 20 years ago, when she rescued an injured Chilli from the Sturt Highway.
“I didn’t even know what a greyhound looked like – when I rang the vet I said it was skinny with a long snout and tail,” laughs Jo.
“Gillian (the vet) said if he survived the night he would need a home – and survive he did.”
With her fifth greyhound, Daphne, now by her side, Jo describes the breed as “gentle, loving and loyal” and remains heavily involved with the adoption program, Greyhounds as Pets.
The cellar door even has a dedicated dog park, so Jo can continue to indulge her passion for winemaking.
“Once a winemaker, always a winemaker,” says Jo. “They’ll have to carry me out of here in a French oak box!”