Angoves expansion builds organically

Our Stories: Angove expansion builds organically

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Innovation and a strong sense of consumer trends has underpinned the continued expansion of the SA-based Angove wine business the past 135 years.

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INNOVATION and a strong sense of consumer trends has underpinned the continued expansion of the SA-based Angove wine business, which now incorporates the fifth generation of the family.

From a doctor experimenting with tonics in the early days, being the first winemakers in the Riverland and inventing the 'goon bag', and to today being the largest organic vineyard in Australia - the Angove Family Winemakers business has constantly evolved to ensure its ongoing success across the past 135 years.

Today, five family members are involved in the business - John and wife Claire, and children Victoria, Richard and Sophie.

John is chairman of the company, Victoria and Richard are joint managing directors (since 2017), while Sophie is the viticulture supervisor at their McLaren Vale vineyard (since 2016).

Victoria said they were never pressured to go into the family business.

"It was always education first," she said.

As a result, John said his children all had different journeys into the business.

"Victoria knew she was going to run the business at age 8," he said.

"While Richard was initially a professional snow skier, but then got into winemaking in California.

"Sophie started out as a teacher, before studying environmental science, and then ultimately viticulture oenology.

"She got a job at Yangara vineyard (McLaren Vale) for a few years, who were some of the early adopters of organics in the state.

"Because she was also very into the environment - our company's focus on organics, sustainability and environmental custodianship made her more enthused to return to the family business."

The Angove business comprises about 135 staff, including three export managers and a national distribution business with an office in each capital city.

While the Angove name is more synonymous with the Riverland and now McLaren Vale, the family's wine history actually first started in the outer suburbs of Adelaide.

Where it all began

In 1886, Dr William Thomas Angove emigrated from Cornwall, England, to South Australia and set up a medical practice in Tea Tree Gully.

It was there that he first started experimenting with wine and brandy as tonics for his patients.

By 1903, the family had 100 acres of vineyard - one of the largest holdings in the state - producing dry red and white table wines and some sweet fortified wines for the domestic market.

A South Australian wine depot also opened in London at the time so the Angove family exported wine back home.

In those early days, the family were processing their grapes on-farm and fermenting it at the nearby Brightlands Cellar, owned by the Farr family.

As the Angove business grew, WT decided they needed their own winery at Tea Tree Gully.

In 1908, the original St Agnes Distillery and Winery was built and began producing what would become one of the family's first instantly-recognisable brands.

Riverland connection

To make St Agnes brandy though, WT was buying in spirit, mainly from the Riverland.

"My grandfather (WT's son Carl) grew increasingly interested in the opportunity the Riverland presented to produce fortified spirit," John said.

"Renmark was oversupplied in fruit for the dried industry at the time, so they decided that was the ideal location to establish the Riverland's first winery and distillery (late 1910).

"They would ferment the dried fruit, distill it and bring the spirit back to Tea Tree Gully - it was the first ever winemaking process in the Riverland."

The partnership of Angove & Son was also formed in 1910 to incorporate Carl and brother Ted into the business.

UK ups and downs

In 1929, Carl and fellow Roseworthy graduate Ron Martin (from Stoneyfell Vineyards) established Dominion Wines in England and throughout the next 20 years, Angove & Son would become one of the top four Australian wineries exporting to England under the joint venture.

"In the 1930s and 40s, so much of the industry was based around fortified wines, sherries, brandies, much more than it is today," John said.

"Everything we exported to the United Kingdom was fortified wine because it arrived in a good condition after being on the boats.

"Dad (Tom) said back then, if you ordered a bottle of wine at a restaurant, they'd put you in the back corner as table wine was not a natural part of Australian culture, beer was.

"It was only when post-war immigration started to increase, that Australians began to open their eyes to wine."

Dad (Tom) said back then, if you ordered a bottle of wine at a restaurant, they'd put you in the back corner as table wine was not a natural part of Australian culture, beer was. - JOHN ANGOVE

John said the two World Wars were hard on the business, but the UK joining the European Union was up there as more disruptive.

"Australian wine became less respected when the UK started having access to European wines," he said.

One thing it did do for the business was strengthen a relationship with the well-known D'Arenberg family, who had also been sending a lot of wine to the UK.

Tom Angove, who became Angove & Sons managing director in 1946, started taking a "substantial amount" of the McLaren Vale winery's surplus wines in the early 1950s and created a new 'bull's blood' label.

"In the 1950s and 60s, McLaren Vale wasn't known for their varietal red wines, like it is today," Richard said.

"It was just dry red, so often Tom would buy McLaren Vale red grapes and blend them with his Riverland fruit as it gave body and richness - which is why they called it 'bull's blood'."

The Great Flood

Another significant year in the history of the business came in 1956, when there was a fire at the Renmark distillery in January and the region fell victim to one of the most extensive floods in SA along the River Murray later that year.

"Being situated so close to the River Murray, and right on Bookmark Creek, there has been many flood events over the history of the Renmark distillery, including in 1917 and 1931, but the 1956 flood was the stuff of legends," John said.

"On one night in August, the flood bank broke at the nearby pumping station.

"The emergency crews were already busy at another break and most of the town had been evacuated, so dad (Tom) with the employees did a very heroic act of patching up the bank, otherwise we would have lost the lot."

Glorious '60s

The 1960s was a progressive and inventive time for the business.

In 1962, Tom Angove expanded their Riverland holdings with the purchase of 810 hectares at Murtho, east of Renmark, and named it Nanya.

There they would grow new varieties that were in demand for table wine.

"We were always making a broad range of table wines," Victoria said.

"We got up to 26 red and white varieties at Nanya - at the time the largest single vineyard in the Southern Hemisphere.

"Most of the whites were used to make brandy."

Nanya would also become the first property in the company's organic portfolio, converted in 2007.

"The Riverland is one of the most ideal climates in the world to grow organic grapes, because of its dry climate and low disease risk," Victoria said.

"Our biggest challenge is the frost risk in September/October."

In 1963, the company also became the Australian producer of Stone's Green Ginger Wine - another of Angoves best-known brands - while some of the company's St Agnes brandy was being enjoyed by the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Angoves even gifted the Queen some of their trademark brandy for her coronation.

The 1960s was also when Tom Angove would unveil his innovative 'bag in box' concept to the world - a product more commonly known these days as the 'goon bag'.

It had taken two years to develop and was essentially "wine in a plastic bag inside of a cardboard box".

"It was not the first time liquid had been put into a flexible bag inside a rigid container," John said.

"Dad (Tom) was just the first to put wine in the same style of packaging.

"Initially it was a bag you cut at the top and then decanted the wine. Other companies then went on to progress the concept by improving the packaging and adding a tap."

We don't disclaim it [inventing the goon bag], it is an important part of our history - an innovation from little old Renmark that is now used in every corner of the world. - JOHN ANGOVE

From 1965, the cask market grew to 65 per cent of the Australian table wine market by 1990, with sales today about 30pc.

"We have never really liked the term 'goon bag' and my father was always very opposed to it being called a 'cask'," John said.

"He would say 'casks were made out of wood you put wine in to mature'. He always called it a 'bag in box'.

"We don't disclaim it, it is an important part of our history - an innovation from little old Renmark that is now used in every corner of the world.

"But since then we have dramatically changed our direction from that cheaper end of the market to producing premium quality wines."

Hostile takeover

While the 1960s was a prosperous time for the Angove family business, the 1970s proved one of the most challenging decades.

In 1974, the SA Land Commission announced it would be compulsorily acquiring the family's Tea Tree Gully vineyards in a re-zoning of the Modbury district to residential.

"Other than being home to the family's original distillery, we had a fine wine program running out of those very high quality vineyards around the Tea Tree Gully area," Richard said.

The family fought the compulsory acquisition right to the High Court, but with no success.

"That was a very emotional day in our business' history," Victoria said.

The last full vintage at the St Agnes Distillery was in 1975, with the vines removed in 1982.

The distillery still stands today - a heritage-listed building within a retirement village.

RELATED READING:SA vineyards named among Aust best

New beginnings

The Angove family regrouped in the 1980s, choosing to further develop their holdings in the Riverland and build upon the popularity of their well-known St Agnes brandy.

John took over as managing director of the company in 1983 and they established a sales network across Australia, while increasing their focus on export markets.

"Through the 1980s, Angoves grew and changed in different ways and was probably dad's defining time for the vision he had for the company," Victoria said.

"He totally reimagined the winery in terms of infrastructure, because what you need to make high quality wine is quite different to making large bottles of fortified wine or large volumes of table wine.

There has been phenomenal investment since 1983, not just in the winery but at the vineyard level. - VICTORIA ANGOVE

"There has been phenomenal investment since 1983, not just in the winery but at the vineyard level.

"Converting a conventional vineyard to certified organic takes time and a lot of investment.

"When your vines are transitioning to organic, there is also significant yield differences, so we had to grow really slowly in Australia.

"But now we have built up enough product that we are also selling into the United States, Canada, Denmark and New Zealand."

The portfolio of Angove Family Winemakers (rebranded in 2006) has now become Australia's largest certified organic wine business.

"The organic space is very important to us," Victoria said.

"We have had double digit growth every year for the past 15 years."

RELATED READING:Wine producer backs domestic organic regulations

Changing with the times

Victoria said the COVID-19 pandemic did force another reassessment of the business.

"There has been a lot of work undertaken this past year to adapt to a COVID environment, particularly in tourism," she said.

"At Angove, we have to re-evaluate what a tourist was looking for in their cellar door experience - a project Richard has been the champion of."

Richard says they have made many changes in the way Angove wine is presented.

"We have moved away from standing at the bar to seated wine tastings with more education about provenance and why our wines taste the way they do," he said.

"We have been extremely lucky, as people have been able to keep consuming wine, plus being located in SA helped," Victoria said.

"Other industries haven't been so lucky.

"We did take a hit from restaurants closing and supply chains being affected, but our team has been exceptional in adapting to the issued we faced. It also started another round of innovation, reassessing the way we do things, including online wine tastings and direct-to-consumer sales."

RELATED READING:Angove wins national organic title

Expansion into premium wine making

After losing Tea Tree Gully in the 1970s, John never lost the desire to replace the property with a "jewel in the crown" vineyard "close-ish" to Adelaide.

"Dad (Tom) was never very keen on that - he had the mind of 'been there, done that, I'm not going to get burnt again'," he said.

"He was also very focused on continuing to grow our St Agnes brandy, not really looking forward and seeing where consumers were heading. It took a little while to shift the business in a different direction - making premium quality organic wines."

Victoria said before they decided to consider where they would expand to, the family started sourcing small parcels of fruit from the varying SA wine regions.

"We started a 'vineyard select' range, with some of the state's best GIs (geographical indications)," she said.

"But it was McLaren Vale that we ended up falling in love with.

"It helped that Tom and d'Arry (Osborn) already had a great relationship, so we knew the wines, but the consistency of the region's climate was also exceptional. There's not a better place in Australia to grow grapes.

"Nineteen out of 20 vintages are good, there is low disease pressure - it is very conducive to organics, which was really starting to take off. The McLaren Vale community was also developing and was very forward looking, so it ended up being our preferred choice."

The family then set about making the 14ha vineyard certified organic and biodynamic.

"We had to change every part of the viticulture practices here - we couldn't use artificial herbicides, pesticides or fertilisers," Richard said.

"Weed control is the biggest task, which we can do mechanically, but we also use products like pine oil - it's very effective.

"Certified organic across all the properties is our major focus, with only McLaren Vale biodynamic as well."

There wouldn't be any other distillery in Australia that has the number and age of brandy barrels that we have. - VICTORIA ANGOVE

The McLaren Vale cellar door opened in 2011 to complement the more agricultural-style cellar door "right in the heart of" the winery and production facility at Renmark.

"Our St Agnes Distillery tours in Renmark are quite unique," Victoria said.

"There wouldn't be any other distillery in Australia that has the number and age of brandy barrels that we have.

"We have also just built a substantial, state-of-the-art barrel hall for wine maturation - it is a very special part of the business."

In early 2019, the business expanded its McLaren Vale holdings with a secondary 13ha vineyard at Clarendon and immediately set about converting it to organic.

"The vineyard is right on the boundary of McLaren Vale and the Adelaide Hills - its different altitude means it will produce fruit of a different flavour," Richard said.

"Plus it is home to 20-year-old grape vines, it's going to produce wines that will be iconic."

This year Angove Family Winemakers is celebrating 15 years in the organic wine-making business and 10 years of their McLaren Vale cellar door.

RELATED READING: Angove wines uncork US organic sales demand

Strong future

Victoria said the company focus was now on further expanding their organic range and premium McLaren Vale portfolio.

"Internationally, we have just launched an organic range into the US, which is really exciting," she said.

"We also hope to expand our organic offering into Canada and are now seeing some opportunities with the UK free trade agreement."

But don't think that they have forgotten about their iconic roots, particularly their St Agnes brandy.

"We have definitely seen a resurgence in brandy, particularly premium brandy - we can not keep up with demand," Richard said.

"People that mix drinks or who run small bars absolutely love it because of the flavour it adds to a cocktail.

"Over the past 4-5 years, with the advent of the Australian spirits industry, we have seen the domestic industry grow, from 20 distillers in Australia to now 300-plus.

"That is why we have seen a real interest in our premium brandy. You can make gin today and sell it tomorrow, but with brandy and other brown spirits, it takes time (up to 15 years) to make something of quality.

"It takes a lot of knowledge and investment, and an oak resource, so it is a lot harder to get into that market. There is only a handful of brandy producers in Australia, maybe three in SA. This year we have made more brandy than we have in many years, just in case that demand is there in the future."

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