A Wollongong winemaker with cellar doors in the Hunter Valley and ACT has been nominated as a 2021 Winemaker of the Year finalist by Gourmet Traveller WINE.
The August/September 2021 issue of the journal named Matt Burton, of Balgownie, among its four finalists for the annual award.
Mr Burton, of Gundog Estate, was also delighted to see another Wollongong name among the finalists in former Australian Winemaker of the Year - Sarah Crowe, of Yarra Yering.
"Sarah and I go way back to the Hunter Valley. When I was at Wandin Valley Estate she was over at Brokenwood," he said.
Mr Burton also worked in the USA, France and Yarra Valley before establishing Gundog Estate in 2010.
The former TIGS student has shared his achievements over the last decade by supporting Path 2 Change, a charity that creates programs for those experiencing or at risk of homelessness, and partnering with Fifteen Trees to help the environment.
He said winemaking has not only allowed him to indulge his passion and creativity, but provided him with a platform to bring positive change in the community with social and environmental sustainability efforts.
Mr Burton said to even be considered a finalist for Australia's most prestigious wine industry award was very exciting.
"It was incredibly humbling and immediately brought up a lot of feelings of gratitude and pride for the people around me," he said.
"I am eternally grateful for everyone. My staff and my friends who have been on this journey with me for 20 years."
Mr Burton said he chose to return and settle in Wollongong in 2018 because he fell in love with the city's lifestyle and natural beauty 26 years ago. He lived at Austinmer for five years after his family moved from Sydney in 1995. His parent's Moore St residence is still considered the family home and his brother has also recently returned to the Illawarra.
Mr Burton left Wollongong in 2000 to study winemaking at Charles Sturt University before initially pursuing his winemaking career at a large winery in the United States.
After returning to the Hunter a second time and establishing, Gundog Estate, his viticultural interests spread south to the emerging cool climate Canberra Wine District.
With a vineyard and cellar door in Gundaroo, he found himself travelling between the Hunter Valley and ACT frequently, which provided the perfect excuse to return to Wollongong and make Balgownie his central base.
"Having the business where it is now I can work more remotely and that was a handy excuse to come back," he said.
"As the business grows it gives you more confidence to hand over some of the controls to the people that have been with you. I have an incredibly talented crew.
"We are only a staff of 16 but half of them have been with more more than five years. The romance of the vineyard and winery aside the reality is, like most people these days, 80 per cent of my work is in front of a computer.
"Being in front of the computer has allowed me to grow the business to where I and my staff have greater freedom to be more progressive and more experimental in the winery and sales side of things. Because the capacity of the business is allowing us to expand.
"I would describe my wine as innovative, different and focused but very true to the regions. I love the idea that grape varieties are specifically suited to or match certain areas.
"Even though our range has grown over the years to 30 odd wines the varietal focus remains really narrow. So in the Hunter I only really work with Semillon and Shiraz. And in Canberra Riesling and Shiraz. But within those varieties we make a whole bunch of styles.
"We work with a really talented brunch of growers both in the Hunter Valley, Canberra and Hill Tops as well down near Young."
Mr Burton's wife Marissa is also from Wollongong. And he is a keen hiker and swimmer who loves lapping local rock pools and walking the many escarpment trails.
"I love the diversity and accessibility of the Illawarra, there are just so many great things to do here, and all within a relatively short distance of one another," he said.
"And it's not just the recreational activities. Having spent so many years away, I couldn't believe how much the CBD had changed there is so much more choice in high quality bars and restaurants these days. Its just an incredibly livable city."
Mr Burton said COVID-19 lockdowns have dramatically reduced his ability to move between regions.
He said visitation to wineries was non existent at the moment but the demand for local Australian wine remains high.
"We are hoping to be able to reopen our cellar doors in a sustainable way in October or November," he said.
"Like last year online sales have really picked up. People were less inclined initially to get behind wineries and restaurants and do the whole at home thing because they were so annoyed we were in lockdown again.
"But now having been in it so long there is a lot of pent up frustration. And there is more willingness among people wanting to get behind businesses they want to see get through the other side.
"The last two days we have been packing a big wine club mail-out which is probably up 40 per cent on Christmas last year. That is just incredible."
Mr Burton said online orders will never match what a cellar door can do but it was really humbling to have members behind your business trying to help it survive COVID-19.
"It will certainly help us see it through," he said.
Mr Burton and the other three finalists were selected by an industry leading judging panel made up of Peter Forrestal, Toni Paterson, Huon Hooke, Peter Bourne, Nick Bulleid, Andrew Caillard and Sophie Otton.
Mr Bourne described Mr Burton as entrepreneur with small, warm and inviting cellar doors in the old Pokolbin schoolhouse on MacDonald's Road named Gundog Hunter Cellar; and Gourmet Pantry and Cork St Cellars in Gundaroo.
"Burton has his Gundog Estate lable plus a standalone brand, Indomitus, to push the winemaking envelope," Mr Bourne said.
"For extra fun, he collaborates with Dylan McMahon to make wine under the Burton McMahon label.
"He takes his winemaking seriously, focusing on three varieties. The Hunter stalwarts, Semillon and Shiraz, along with Riesling and Shiraz from the Canberra District."
The 2021 Winemaker of the Year finalist by Gourmet Traveller WINE will be announced in a virtual award ceremony on October 15.
Read more Illawarra business stories here.