Sergio Carlei, first generation boutique winemaker, grew up in an Italian household, where wine drinking is part of the culture, part of the staple diet. Each year, Sergio would accompany his Calabrian grandfather, known as Nonno Sam, into his home, or ‘cantina’, for the annual ritual of making home grown wine. “My Italian heritage accounts for the passions and loves of my life,” he says. “Family, cultural tradition, wine and food, and human and environmental health all matter to me.”
Sergio started his own winemaking career in a modest Australian ‘cantina’ and has recently developed a more commercial ‘boutique’ winery in the rolling hills of the Cardinia Ranges in the Southern Blue Dandenongs, just east of Melbourne in Victoria.
Sergio sources grapes from the dozen or more vineyards that he manages in Heathcote, Bendigo and the Yarra Valley. He is the founder and winemaker of his own Carlei Wines, and is winemaker for several other boutique handcrafted labels. “A project of joy and inspiration for me,” he says, “has been the development and management of two vineyards in the Heathcote region, both planted to shiraz.
“The Carlei Estate Nord label, is at the northern end of the Heathcote region, on predominantly deep red volcanic Cambrian soil, at an altitude of 154 metres, a few kilometers north of Corop. The other is the Carlei Estate Sud label, from Tooborac at the southern end of the region, on predominantly granitic sand over cracking clay soils, at an altitude of 350 metres. These two vineyards, about ninety kilometers apart, have provided a study of terroir since 2004.”
Sergio believes that wines should tell the story of where they are from. He defines terroir as “the summation of four elements: earth, expressed in geology and soil; fire, expressed in sun producing light and temperature; air, expressed by the wind; and water, expressed by rain and its distribution, and how it affects the growth patterns of a vine. The vine is the living entity that brings these four elements together to determine the flavour characteristics of aroma and taste that are recognised in a glass of wine. These elements combine to tell the story of where the grapes were grown. They determine the terroir of each wine, or ‘sense of place,’ which is the nearest English translation.”
How does he see his role as winemaker? “I see myself as a caretaker of what the vineyard gives me. My role is to nurture each wine with natural winemaking techniques and to respect the individual nuances of each region,” he says. “This means that the two Heathcote vineyards from which I source fruit produce distinctly different flavours and taste.” Although the two wines come from genetically identical vines, the grapes grow in two different locations, with different soil types, at different altitudes, in areas that differ in daily temperatures by as much as six degrees.
Sergio’s first career was as an industrial chemist. “I completed a chemistry degree at the University of Melbourne in 1983,” he says. “Then I went to work in the petrochemical industry. I read an article in a professional journal one day, and, hidden among the footnotes, was a remarkable statistic. According to the research cited was the chilling revelation that industrial chemists, such as myself, had an average life expectancy of 41 years, and that cancer was the most common cause of death.”
Sergio, married to Mary, already had two of their seven children. He decided a career change was critical for his long term survival. He graduated as a Doctor of Chiropractic in 1988 and started a practice in that field in 1988. He also started a degree in oenology in 1990 which he completed in 1996, giving him yet another career option. But, also in 1996, he was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia and told that he would probably die within two years, unless he had a bone marrow transplant. “For all my best efforts,” he says, “I still had not managed to outrun the law of averages. It put to the supreme test my holistic approach to life, and the belief system that underpins it.”
“I rejected the transplant and set about a process of allowing my body to heal itself. I mapped out a ‘return to health’ plan which included lifestyle changes such as fasting assiduously followed by a strictly regimented diet of seventy percent raw food and thirty percent macrobiotic food. Two years later my cancer was in remission. Was this good management? Was it good luck? Whatever the cause, it generated an even more intense belief that I should follow similar organic practices in my viticultural practices.
“Soil to a vine is like blood to a human being. Toxins in the blood lead to all sorts of health problems in people. Toxic soil means improper vine health. Cleaner vineyards allow the true flavour in the fruit to be expressed, resulting in better tasting wines. These viticultural practices are not new. Wines were grown naturally up to the 1920s. We are just turning back the clock, as are some of the most reputable European winemakers. Nonno Sam was my mentor and helped shape many of my early ideas.
“Like grape growing, winemaking is a natural process and will express terroir if left to its own elements. No doubt the personality of the winemaker will be imprinted in that wine… and that’s terroir too. The wines I make, for our own label and for others, are made with minimal interference. The goal is to produce interesting wines that are well suited to food, resulting in an experience that has elements of pleasure and happiness, feelings that we recognise, but are difficult to measure.”
Sergio Carlei, his wife Mary and their children run a family based boutique winery and cellar door in Upper Beaconsfield, Victoria. Every Sunday they dish up the traditional tastes of Naples with a large range of wines, including his Heathcote wines.