Cathy Howard’s love of wines stemmed from another love of hers, horses.
Whilst visiting South Australia to watch a three-day equestrian event in the mid-1980s, Howard arranged a visit to Roseworthy Agricultural College to get a feel of its horse management course. She was then shown around the Roseworthy winery and vineyard and hooked.
After enrolling in the Oenology Bachelor of Applied Science, she returned to her hometown in Tasmania. She found a job at Pipers Brook Vineyard as a cellar hand, before starting a four-year stint as Cidermaker/brewer at Cascade Brewery. She eventually moved back to South Australia to work as an assistant winemaker at Orlando Wyndham, and then landed her dream job at St. Hallett Wines, where she fell in love with Shiraz and Riesling.
She made the move to Margaret River with her now husband, Neil, in late 2000, where Neil was managing the Sandalford Wines Vineyard.
“After working for a number of different wineries in Margaret River, Neil and I felt that it was time for us to do our own thing, giving us the freedom to grow our own grapes and make our own wines without the restrictions that are attached when you work for another company. We found a lovely little property in Chapman Hill, close to Busselton, where we planted our vineyard over 2004 and 2005, making our first wines under our Whicher Ridge brand in 2008,” said Howard.
In late 2010, Howard and her husband built their current winery, Whicher Ridge Wines, in Chapman Hill, Western Australia. Its annual crush has grown to 140 tonnes, but has decreased in recent years for various reasons. Howard said the vineyard was very small, with only her and her husband on hand, or three if you count their dog.
Small-batch wines are what Whicher Ridge Wines specialises in, growing sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, viognier, mouverdre, montipulciano, and viognier. The vineyard also buys in Chardonnay, semillion, malbec, and Shiraz from Margaret River-based vineyards and more Shiraz from Franklin River.
Howard said that her winemaking philosophy was to use minimal additions. She has cultivated practices that enhance flavours and create balanced and well-constructed wines with characteristics specific to where the grapes are grown.
“I like having options for every wine we make. These components are all kept separate until I get the wine ready for bottling. I get familiar with the flavour and structures of each new fruit block. I can finetune my winemaking techniques and match with barrel types to bring out the best flavours and result in the best-balanced wine. This never-ending process is tweaked and tinkered with every vintage, finetuning and improving each batch.”
The Sensory Garden at Whincher Ridge Wines was the first of its kind in Australia, with one opening earlier in the year in Tasmania. The idea came alive as Howard wanted to create an experience that was unique, innovative, educational, and one that could tie in with wine and food pairing without doing a restaurant at the vineyard. The idea became a project through her participation in the mentoring programme, Grow Zone, which resulted in her designing the garden in early 2013, beginning an almost two-year-long project. Howard said that the garden was ever-evolving, with new additions always being made.
Howard noted that one of the most critical factors that can affect the taste and quality of a wine was the soil and climate where the grapevines grow. She said that the timing of harvest was, therefore, a critical step that needed to be done at just the right time to make the style of wine that the winemaker desires. Howard also noted that the Winemaker's style preference significantly impacts the wines, determining the final wine's texture, structure, and balance.
“Winemaking is a mix of art, science, and skill, which means that as an occupation, winemakers are always looking at and seeking to make better wine this year than last year, and the pressure on making a better wine with fewer resources gets harder.”
Finding passion is something Howard believes in when growing wines. Be it a variety or style or to seek ideas and inspiration to make the best example. Howard said anyone who would like to learn about the industry, should grab an opportunity for work experience and learn about the impact of wine flavours and winemaking. Howard added that it's always good to try something new.