Winemaker Dennis Hart of Dog Trap Vineyard talks with Brent Lello, Yass Valley Times wine columnist
What’s your grape growing/winemaking philosophy?
In a nutshell: Great wine is made in the vineyard rather than the winery. As the saying goes: Any idiot can make shit wine from great grapes, but not even a genius can make great wine from shit grapes. That is not to say, of course, that winemaking skill is unimportant. It obviously is vital too. But no matter what level of skill one might possess, one cannot go beyond what the grapes are capable of providing.
How long have you been making wines a) overall and b) in the Yass Valley region?
Wines have been released under our own label since 2008, but most of those wines were made under contract until 2014 when winemaking was taken over by me (Dr Dennis Hart). However, some wines were made by us before that (e.g.our 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2013 “Entente” Cabernet Shiraz).
How did you get into the business/lifestyle of making wine?
I have been a wine enthusiast (especially of dry reds) for all of my adult life. My mid-life crisis in 1988 led me to question what I would, if I had the chance on my deathbed, really regret not trying to achieve, and the answer was “Make a superlative bottle of dry red wine”. So I enrolled part-time in a wine science degree at CSU, graduating in 1996. And, in 2003 my new partner Julie White and I purchased Dog Trap Vineyard. Initially, we only grew grapes and sold the crop to Kamberra Winery but, when Hardy’s abandoned the district in 2006, we moved to get our own label underway and, several years later, decided to put in a winery so we could begin taking over the winemaking ourselves.
What varieties/styles do you most enjoy making and drinking?
I particularly enjoy Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon dry reds. Those two varieties are the only reds in our vineyard, and we only use those in our winemaking since we do not buy in fruit. We do have a patch of Riesling too, but Yazzbar takes the fruit from that for their own brand, “Eliza” Riesling. Jules, my partner, mostly prefers to drink dry whites.
What is something unique about your winery?
We (Dennis and Jules) are directly involved in every aspect of production, from vineyard work through winemaking to bottling, labelling and marketing. We do as much of the work as possible ourselves, only employing contractors when it is not possible for us to do it ourselves – harvesting, for example. We have also been herbicide-free, except for spot spraying of problem weeds like blackberry, for over 15 years and, since February 2021, have been disconnected from the electricity grid and run entirely on solar power.
Is there anything about making wine that you fear?
Everything! But, more seriously, I have made and do still make wine for others, and what I dread most is failing to live up to their – as well as my own – expectations.
What’s one thing that no one would ever know about you or your winery?
Our property and vineyard was previously part of broad acre wheat farmland but, when the previous owners (then in their mid-60s) decided to sub-divide, they were advised by a local well-known winemaker and identity that what is now our lot was potentially one of the best locations in the district for grape growing. So, given Hardy’s was then looking for Canberra grape growers to supply their new winery at Kamberra, they went ahead and established our vineyard as well as moving and reconstructing the old, derelict Cook’s homestead from the other side of Yass in which we now live. And the advice they received? It has, evidently, been well borne out since we sell the large majority of our crop every year to other highly regarded local winemakers for their wines, keeping only a small proportion for our own.
What’s your favourite food and wine combination?
An excellent dry red with just about anything food-wise. I don’t believe in the “match the wine colour with the meat colour” principle, so I enjoy a good red with an Indian or Thai curry, spicy fish, chicken, pork or vegetarian meal, for example.
If you only had one wine to drink before you die, what would it be?
Hmm, an unanswerable question. Amongst the best wines I’ve ever had are 1971 Grange and 1976 Chateau Coutet a Barsac. Certainly, the latter and possibly the former would be past their best by the time I die, so probably not them. What, then, about a reprise of one of the extraordinary old Rutherglen muscats or tokays I’ve enjoyed in the past from Morris and Chambers, among others? Yes, maybe. Or, while not a wine, probably the best whisky I’ve ever had is 1956 Macallan Single Malt, and that’d still stand up for sure! So it’d certainly be in the running for my last drink. But, after all that, perhaps I’d choose another Krug champagne like the one Jules, and I shared to celebrate when we commenced our life together more than 20 years ago now.
Do you have any other points of interest about you, your wines, or your winery that Yass Valley Times readers might be interested to know?
I have been taking labels off bottles of wine (and other alcoholic beverages) I have consumed for approaching 50 years now and sticking them into books, of which there is now quite a number. The earlier volumes also have comments (of dubious validity), although these largely ceased when I learned how little I actually knew about what I was talking about! These books are available for visitors to peruse when they visit our winery if they are interested in doing so. I also have many old issues dating from the 1970s of the wine magazines “Wine & Spirit Buyers Guide” and “Winestate”, and these too are available for visitors to inspect if they are interested.
If you have a Cellar Door, why should people call in?
We do not employ any staff, so visitors will always get to talk directly to one or other of the owners who are directly and intimately involved in the whole operation. And usually, it will be me (Dennis), the viticulturalist and winemaker. Moreover, we do not have a “shopfront” style cellar door. Instead, visitors enter the winery itself and are welcome to look around and ask about whatever interests them. And, depending on the time of year, they may see, close up, operations like harvesting or winemaking actually in progress.
Where else can people buy your wines?
From our stalls at the Yass and Murrumbateman markets and selected local outlets (Yazzbar, Thyme to Taste, Yass Tourist information Centre) as well as Plonk and Canberra Wine and Spirit Merchants in Canberra and Bungendore Cellars.