Seasoned winemaker, travel enthusiast and co-owner of MAAN Wines, Anthony Neilson has a few tricks up his sleeve when it comes to producing wine. The father of two operates his joint business from the picturesque hills at Kuitpo, near Adelaide. Chloe Szentpeteri tells his story as published in the May 2018 issue of the Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
Growing up in Adelaide’s Coromandel Valley, Anthony Neilson described his childhood as both ‘boring and normal’, although his later years are anything but.
Born into a family of teachers, he decided to do something different with his life and became a winemaker.
Straight out of high school, he enrolled into a Bachelor of Agricultural Science degree, specialising in Oenology at Adelaide’s Waite Campus.
Surrounded by the Plant Genome Centre, the AWRI and the CSIRO, he did what many students do in their downtime and developed a taste for drinking. Especially wine.
In his third year of university, Neilson took a gap year, worked a vintage at Hardy’s and made enough money to travel to America, where he worked his first international vintage in the Santa Innes Valley in California’s Central Coast region.
“It was brilliant. It was a tiny little enclave where all the rich people have got these little hobby farms and toy wineries that they’re just throwing money at,” Neilson said.
Working with a friend, they were left to their own devices to make white wine for Fess Parker – an actor who had starred in the Disney Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone TV series in the ‘60s.
And of all the neighbouring properties to work beside, Fess Parker’s winery was located next door to Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.
“We had the time of our lives and it was probably another four vintages where I thought, ‘yep, I’m liking this’ so I stuck with it and started travelling a fair bit,” Neilson said.
Encouraged by this memorable experience in the US, Neilson returned to South Australia and worked several vintages in McLaren Vale, Clare and the Adelaide Hills, before working a vintage in WA’s Margaret River, where he fell in love with the region.
“From there I lined up jobs in France and began to understand the scope of the industry and how there’s so many beautiful places to go and that there’s so much amazing food to be involved with in the winemaking side of things,” Neilson mused.
After experiencing the finer things of Bordeaux life, Neilson had worked at around 18 wineries, gaining vast knowledge and learning many winemaking techniques.
At last he decided the nomad chapter of his life was coming to a close.
Tools of the trade
From one side of the globe to another, Neilson learnt that each winery does things differently, but a universal agreement is that varieties are key.
“Working at these places in both hot and cold climates, you work with a range of varieties and it’s great for expanding your wine cellar and having different things in there,” he said.
A favourite of Neilson’s? Grenache. A variety with versatility which he said can blend lighter Pinot style wines, adapt to a heavier, tannic earthy wine or create a fresh Rosé.
“I can get bored, and I don’t really like Shiraz because everyone here makes it and it’s in every single household. It’s a nice drink, don’t get me wrong but it’s a bit boring.
“But, I just love making wine. And the more different the variety, the higher the challenge which is a bit of fun,” he mused.
On the topic of making wine, Neilson noted the stark contrast between working for larger companies versus smaller players.
“It’s interesting, having worked at all these bigger companies where you’ve got more access to technology and automated processes and you’re thinking on a bigger scale.
“Starting to make my own wine it’s going back a thousand years in time,” he laughed.
“You’re making a ferment the easiest way possible, picking the grapes, crushing them and letting the wild yeasts do their own thing and it’s all digging, hand plunging and getting back very much to basics, which is amongst all techniques you have to learn.”
Building a business
Neilson established MAAN Wines in 2014 with his cousin, Matt Anderson.
Toying with the idea of creating a brand and making good quality wine, the duo one day decided to get the ball rolling.
“Why not!?” Neilson laughed.
And so Matt Anderson and Anthony Neilson formed MAAN Wines, its name derived from their initials, M-A and A-N.
With Neilson on winemaking duties and Anderson crunching the numbers and managing marketing, the pair have since grown their business, albeit after a slow start.
“It’s tough with Matt being based in Victoria and we skipped most of the 2016 vintage as a result,” he said.
“We only made one white wine that year and that was because he moved at the start of February right before vintage and my little daughter came in February as well so it was too hard.
“But we’re slowly starting to make it better, so we’ve got warehousing in Adelaide and so every few months he’ll drive back and load up with a pallet to take back to Melbourne.”
The business began in a winery owned by a friend in Horndale, on the outskirts of Adelaide’s CBD.
Three vintages later, the opportunity arose to work at Geoff Hardy’s picturesque K1 site.
Working alongside Hardy’s son, Sebastian, for his Living Roots label, Neilson works three days a week whilst juggling routines with his family and working for MAAN Wines most nights.
“I’ve been finishing work, going home to pick up the kids, and then coming back after hours and crushing in the nigh… But the end is nigh, we’re almost at the end of vintage and when everything is pressed we can have a breather,” Neilson said.
And the season has been favourable for his wine this year, with quality fruit sourced from several different vineyards.
Starting out with grapes from Andre Bondar, whose Bondar brand was awarded best new winery by Halliday last year, Neilson has now got growers on the go from vineyards in McLaren Vale.
He has recently sourced local Fiano, Mouvedre, Shiraz and Grenache.
All amounts and varieties are sourced on a casual basis, depending on harvest predictions and due to the small volume that MAAN Wines produces.
“We get a bit of everything from different growers to make sure we don’t have all our eggs in one basket,” Neilson added.
MAAN Wines distribute domestically across Australia, having worked with a direct to consumer business model and a freight system which has worked well to deliver to a small market.
But now the business is shifting, and new distributors are being organised to get bottles into restaurants and onto bottle shop shelves.
“We felt it reached a saturation point where existing buyers already knew about us, or had what they needed,” Neilson said.
Two cousins who like to keep it simple, fresh and fun, Neilson and Anderson share an aim to keep their business moving forward.
“We’re taking it a step at a time but it’s nice to have the vision down the track of having our own vineyard and property,” Neilson said.
“I don’t want to sell huge amounts as I like getting in and getting dirty and having that complete control to make our own wine – it’d be nice to get to a point where I can do it full time and have everything there.
“I love the idea of having the winery on a home property with a cellar door, where the kids will go to bed and then I can go out to the winery and have the freedom of being able to work whenever I feel like it.”
And although he admitted it could be a long way off, Neilson said a slow and steady approach has been a smart move.
“I’ve seen heaps of people that have jumped in too quickly and with all the overheads have become bankrupt within a couple years so you either have to do it slowly, or win the lottery!”
In the meantime, the winemaker enjoys the freedom of choice when it comes to buying grapes, trying new varieties and sticking to the business’ ‘MAANtra’ to ‘Make seriously good wines, that don’t take themselves too seriously!’
Neilson is all too ready to jump in amongst the ferments and get the job done, while monitoring the wine daily and ensuring quality control.
The end goal? To make clean, fruit driven wines.
“We’ve got a reserve Shiraz which is chock full of oak – a big South Australian style Shiraz.
“All our other wines we try and let the fruit shine, so we use old oak and make them as easy drinking as possible.”
Neilson makes wine he’s more than happy to drink, chuckling as he added that Anderson takes car loads back to Victoria, which are stored in his second bedroom, now practically a cellar.
Moments in time
The most memorable wine Neilson said had ever drunk was a 1982 Château Garreau from the winery he worked at in Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux.
Limestone caves underground housed cellared wine, dating back to the ‘60s and on his last night of work, Neilson was offered his vintage of choice from Merlot Cabernet Franc.
“1982 was a good year for wine, and that one tasted amazing.
“It looked so youthful and so bright and it would’ve been 29 at the time. Stunning.”
Not the only memory worth recounting, Neilson admitted his time in France was indulgent to say the least, with a package deal of food and housing while he worked the vintage.
The matriarch was a particularly good cook, with lavish dishes of duck, mussels, steak and various cheeses on a daily basis.
Needless to say, Neilson returned to Australia after his eating bonanza and at the age of 27 was the unsuspecting victim of gout – a saga which caused him to be the brunt of wedding speech humilities a few years later, and the subject of choral chanting of ‘gout, gout, gout’.
An embarrassing moment in his timeline, but certainly remembered with humour and a laugh.
While his life has changed quite a bit since his past adventures, Neilson looks to the future, with his two kids, Leo and Edie, growing quickly.
“Leo has just started school and Edie is just becoming a god damn nightmare,” he laughed.
“She’s a feisty little one and she makes me laugh but phewf!”
Juggling a family, a part time job and a business on the side is a lot of work, but if anyone can do it, Anthony Neilson is your guy.
Keep an eye out for fresh blends from MAAN Wines, and if you would like to learn more about Anthony Neilson and Matt Anderson, visit www.maaanwines.com.
This article was originally published in the Australian and New Zealand Grapegrower & Winemaker May 2018 edition.