Charlie O’Brien continues the tradition of wine running along family lines. And he has been exposed to the industry since he was just a boy. Harrison Davies spoke with the young man who is quickly becoming a household name amongst those in the know.
“I am blown away. I thought that something like this would happen maybe in 10 more years’ time.”
At 23, Charlie O’Brien finds himself at the centre of the McLaren Vale wine scene.
At the time of writing, he was still looking for somewhere to put his collection of awards from the recent McLaren Vale Wine Show where his label, Silent Noise Wines, cleaned up the competition.
Winemaking is in O’Brien’s blood, so to speak. He is the son of prolific McLaren Vale winemakers Kevin and Helen O’Brien of Kangarilla Road – spending his early days running amongst the vines and causing havoc.
He said that he felt wine was always his calling.
“I grew up at Kangarilla Road winery and love everything about making wine,” he said.
“Growing up in the industry plays a huge part of my winemaking style as well as who I am.
“The industry in McLaren Vale was so warm and welcoming looking from the outside in as a kid. This was a huge attraction as everyone was sharing of wines as well as ideas.
“The name Silent Noise comes from my excitement as a small child surrounding the noise of tractors, trucks and everything machinery to do with viticulture and winemaking.
“The noise stops when the wine is made and it sits silently in the bottle waiting to explode with a different kind of noise when the wine hits the nose and mouth.”
During and after high school, O’Brien dove headfirst into the industry; cutting his teeth with vintages at several local vineyards and wineries like Gemtree, Yangarra Estate and Pikes.
He also spent time in France, working vintages at Domaine Astruc, part of the Paul Mas Company, as well as a vintage in Bordeaux for Chateau Haut Bailly (Grand Cru Chateau).
Following stints in other vineyards, Charlie would spend off-seasons learning about biodynamic practices off season, working with a vineyard maintenance company that specialise in organic and biodynamic viticulture.
“My two most recent vintages have been with Pikes Wines in Clare Valley, the second one being Chateaux Haut Bailly in Bordeaux, expanding my knowledge of new and old world wines,” he said.
The winery is powered by pure dedication and passion. He makes the wines he wants to make and tends the vines in his father’s vineyard with the help of his friends – whose labour he pays for in pizza and beer.
O’Brien described his style as a mix of influences. Old and new world. Wines that were drinkable but still interesting.
His time in Europe greatly influenced his sustainable winemaking methods and his parents’ preferences for lighter European styles helped him find his unique taste.
“They are seriously drinkable and fruit driven without being too serious,” O’Brien explained.
Silent Noise began with the Reserve Shiraz. The 2015 vintage wine was put together with the help of his father and was made whist he was still in school.
He has since expanded his range to whites, a range of unfiltered ‘Cloudy but Fine’ wines, such as Chardonnay and Fiano, as well as alternative reds like Nero D’Avola and Montepulciano.
However, he saw particular adulation for his 2020 Grenache – which took home several awards at the McLaren Vale Wine Show, including Best Single Vineyard Red Wine, Best Grenache and Best Small Producer of Show.
O’Brien said it was exhilarating to be accepted as a winemaker unto himself by his peers and others that he had grown up around.
“It felt incredible and unreal to go up on stage and accept the awards for my Grenache,” he said.
“I thought that the day that I went up on stage for more than one trophy would be in at least another five to 10 years.
“They are such amazing and talented people to be around and I was and still am overwhelmed.”
Despite finding critical success at a young age, challenges familiar to many young winemakers remain for O’Brien.
In his case the problem reveals itself as the cost of land. At the moment he uses grapes grown both on his parent’s property and by other trusted local growers.
He said the cost of vineyards was a steep hill for him to climb with Silent Noise.
“Being only 23, owning my own vineyard is still a little while away. Hopefully at the start of next year this can happen,” he said.
“The average vineyard price in McLaren Vale at the moment is well over $1 million, so younger people such as myself are looking into other regions such as Langhorne Creek and the Riverland.
“I work with eight growers across South Australia who, in my mind, produce the best quality of fruit for the style of wine that I want to make.”
O’Brien said the 2022 vintage was looking good, but recent bad weather had affected the wine he was looking to produce.
“Vintage 2022 is looking very good for McLaren Vale at the moment for our vineyards with good grape set and medium canopy size as well as good soil moisture.
“Unfortunately, we also source fruit from Ashley Ratcliff from Ricca Terra, whose vineyard in Barmera was hit by a large hail storm losing the majority of his crop.
“I have three wines that I source the grapes from his vineyards so this is a huge blow, but we are happy that everyone is okay and can’t wait to see what vintage 2023 looks like out of there.”
Forging a new path
What is next for O’Brien?
For a 23 year old in an industry where the average age is much higher, anything is possible.
He looks at the vintage ahead with optimism and big plans for the future of his label.
“The wines that other winemakers as well as my parents would bring to parties normally revolved around Burgundy and lighter European wines with the occasional Aussie wine thrown in there,” he said.
“This all affected my style of winemaking and gave me inspiration for some of my wines.
“I am in the process of studying about different and sustainable winemaking practices from Europe that I’m thinking of replicating in Australia…. I don’t want to give too much away just yet.”
So where will he go next? We’ll just have to wait and see.
Photos courtesy of Silent Noise Wines