Island hopping winemakers help lift profile of KI wine

The Stoke Wines owner and winemaker Nick Dugmore, Ashton Hills founder and Wendouree winemaker Stephen George and Charlotte Dalton Wines owner and winemaker Charlotte Hardy.

Have you ever tasted a Kangaroo Island wine? Nick Dugmore of The Stoke Wines is on a mission to make sure you do, with the Guroo Wine Project. Rhys Howlett explains.

Kangaroo Island is Australia’s third largest island, a rugged beauty sitting just off the coast of South Australia. The crossing is narrower than the English Channel – you can see the island from the mainland and, on a calm day, the very brave or very foolish might even think they could swim to it, if they were willing to take on the sharks and the swell.

As a wine region, Kangaroo Island is a world away from the history of the Barossa or the majestic estates of the Hunter Valley and Margaret River. Many of the vineyards were planted by farmers looking to broaden their crop capacity, some of whom have long since lost patience with cropping winegrapes when canola, wheat and livestock can provide a quicker and more reliable return on energy and investment. It’s a young region, being established as a GI in 2000, and a small region, being home to around only 10 wine producers.

Enter Nick Dugmore, who fell in love with the island for its surf, its beauty and its people during an extended road trip in 2008. He and wife Rebecca now run The Stoke Wines on Kangaroo Island and initiated the Guroo Project in 2019 to help raise awareness of the island’s wines.

“I want people to see Kangaroo Island on a label and know it as a wine region and not necessarily for the kangaroos. I want to attract a whole new market to the place but also be quite transparent about what the island can do. That’s why we have to start discovering it in a really honest way and I think that’s what Guroo will help do.”

Dugmore initially entered the wine industry after studying wine marketing and became one of the first champions of Kangaroo Island wine as sales and marketing manager for Kangaroo Island Estate in 2009. Back then, Kangaroo Island wine was a hard sell, with most buyers having no idea about the place let alone the wine. After years of selling other people’s wine, Nick made the move from marketing to making. With a winemaking degree and several overseas vintages under his belt, Dugmore established The Stoke Wines with his accomplished winemaking wife Rebecca in 2017.

Armed with a sample bag full of his own Kangaroo Island wines, Dugmore became increasingly aware that the trade still had a lot to learn about the island as a wine region. His marketing brain switched into overdrive and the Guroo Project took shape.

Charlotte Hardy

What’s in a name?

Dugmore was drawn to the Guroo name after brushing up on Kangaroo Island’s history. “When Matthew Flinders charted the island,” he says, “in all of his journals, he spelled Kangaroo Island with ‘guroo’ and it all made sense for me because we’re delivering a specific variety to a winemaker who is a Guru of that variety.”

The Guroo Project sees established mainland winemakers commit to making a Kangaroo Island wine for three vintages.

When it came to the first Guroo, Shiraz was the obvious choice of variety given its pre-eminence across the Australian wine industry. And Charlotte Hardy was an obvious choice as the winemaker, her exceptional affinity for the variety having been rewarded with big wins for her Charlotte Dalton Wines at the 2017 and 2018 Adelaide Hills Wine Shows, including a Best in Show trophy for her 2017 Love Me Love You Shiraz. Her inaugural 2019 Guroo Shiraz was well-received, including high praise from esteemed wine writer Mike Bennie of The Wine Front, whose evocative 94-point review reads: “it’s such a lovely experience this wine, so original. Feels of a wild place.”

The second Guroo is Stephen George, of Ashton Hills Vineyard and Wendouree fame. Initially hoping to make a Pinot Noir he settled on Cabernet Sauvignon for his first Guroo wine, a variety he knows intimately through many years making Wendouree’s wines in the Clare Valley. The iconic vigneron says his first reason for being involved in the Guroo Project was “because of the bushfires”. After seeing the devastation caused by the fires over the summer of 2019-20, he wanted to do his bit to help the island recover and accelerate the growth of Kangaroo Island’s profile as a wine region.

George’s second reason for getting involved with the Guroo Project was simply to learn.

“I know nothing about Kangaroo Island wine and I want to learn – you’re never too old to learn. I love the island but I know nothing about it viticulturally and not too much about it wine-wise either. So I thought it would be a really good opportunity to get to know something about its potential in terms of different grape varieties.”

And what has he learnt so far?

“Not very much at all! All I’ve really learnt so far is that particular vineyard, and for that particular year [2021], the fruit is absolutely bloody wonderful. I never really assess a wine until it’s in bottle but certainly what’s in barrel is fantastic”.

George brings a unique perspective to the Guroo Project, having seen first-hand the challenges and opportunities presented to an emerging wine region, as an integral figure in the development of the Adelaide Hills wine industry.

“The island’s got really good potential. There’s quite a few microclimates on the island and you’ve just got to match those microclimates with the right varieties. And that can take a really long time.”

Regarding the prospect for his beloved Pinot Noir, George is optimistic, saying, “there’s got to be some good Pinot sites there, must be. It’s just a matter of finding them”.

Nick Dugmore’s enthusiasm for the island and the project continues to grow, having secured the winemaking talents of Sue Bell from Bellwether in Coonawarra as the third Guroo. She will start with a Kangaroo Island Chardonnay in 2022.

“This is all such an adventure”, Dugmore says, “and we’ve got a little crew now joining in that adventure. I want people to be excited about it and passionate about it, to get the message across that people can trust the fact that we’re doing the right things to produce good wine”.

Stephen George’s Wendouree wine shares the table with the first KI Guroo creation


This article was originally featured in the October 2021 issue of the Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
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