Returning to a small family winery after working for one of Australia’s largest wine companies may seem like a backward step. Yet Simon Osicka, of Paul Osicka Wines in Heathcote, Victoria, fully embraced the chance to reconnect with a site that his forefathers had planted and nurtured, allowing him to take the label in new and exciting directions.
The Osicka family has a long tradition of winemaking in the Czech lands (specifically the town of Velké Bílovice in South Moravia), reaching back to the late 18th century. Following World War II, Paul Osicka Snr migrated to Australia as a refugee, with barely a penny to his name. Keen to re-establish the family wine business in his new home, he was led by an old Czech priest to an 1890s vineyard near Graytown in central Victoria, noting that the area was conducive to growing grapes.
In 1955, a new vineyard was planted, with cuttings from the old one, on a property owned by three elderly brothers, making it the first new wine-grape vineyard planted in Victoria for more than 50 years. Several years later, having made a healthy profit from this productive land, Osicka Snr bought the vineyard from the brothers and made it his own. The mishmash of grapes included a majority parcel of shiraz, as well as riesling, trebbiano, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, some table grapes, and a few other rogue grapes scattered around the vineyard.
Initial vintages of Osicka wine were sold in bulk in drums or barrels to wine merchants or for home bottling under the label Osicka’s Winery, which you can still see on the sign on nearby Heathcote-Nagambie Road.
In the late 1960s, Paul Osicka Jnr became involved in the family wine business to help out his parents. Having trained as a jeweller, he completed short courses in winemaking and eventually took over the duties in the mid-1970s.
The original winery was a rustic tin shed and not ideal for the Australian summer; Osicka Jnr later replaced it with a dark and spacious subterranean cellar door and winery.
If you’ve visited Prague, you may be forgiven for feeling like you’ve just stepped into an underground Czech beer hall. The structure was crafted from second-hand bricks from a railway building in Seymour, as well as red-gum sleepers from a decommissioned railway bridge in Axedale, with many finer touches, such as the courtyard and wood-fired oven, added over the years.
More vines were planted through the 1970s, and the wines regularly began to collect awards at wine shows, particularly for his vintage port-style drops. Following Osicka Snr’s death in 1984, Osicka Jnr made further changes, such as planting more riesling and cabernet sauvignon, and putting estate-labelled wines in bottle rather than selling them in bulk.
Simon Osicka, Paul Osicka Jnr’s son, has fond memories of venturing to the winery and spending time with his grandparents; his grandfather once gave the five-year-old a tumbler of wine, upsetting his grandmother, until half was poured out and the rest was diluted with water. It’s possible that this early exposure to wine may have had some influence on his later career choice.
After high school, Simon studied winemaking in Adelaide, completed some vintages around South Australia, and then travelled to Germany, undertaking a harvest in Mosel. His backpacking journey took him around Europe, exposing him to a not-so-typical early-20s experience of drinking high-quality wine. While in Champagne, he received a message to call Peter Dawson, chief winemaker at Hardys, regarding a job he had applied for. He says it “didn’t hurt my cause at all” to be phoning from this famed region.
On his return to Australia, he began working at Houghton in Western Australia, where he stayed for seven years. He was able to develop his winemaking skills by creating large volumes of commercial wine but also small amounts of top-end ones. This was followed by five years at Leasingham in Clare Valley, before taking on a more corporate role as senior red winemaker at Hardys.
In 2010, Simon went back to Heathcote to help his father, who “threw him the keys”, knowing his son could do whatever was needed, while dad still kept an eye on things in the background. By the time of his father’s death in 2019, he had completed more than 50 vintages on the land – a mind-dizzying number.
Simon proudly credits the success of the business to his father’s intimate knowledge of the estate vineyard – the multitude of soils, how different sections ripen, the effects of climate on individual parcels – knowledge that was evidently passed down to him. While he might come across as stoic and softly spoken, his passion for wine can be seen most keenly through his words and work.
Given that this is Heathcote, it’s no surprise that shiraz features heavily in their offerings. Interestingly, a feature of their red in the past was the inclusion of some of the white grapes from the vineyard, yet when Simon started making the wines, he says he specifically excluded all the white varieties. Subsequently he felt that the wine might have lost something, so the white grapes were added back to the Paul Osicka Wines Shiraz.
The plot of shiraz can be incredibly low yielding – “painfully so”, says Simon – with much work occurring in the last decade to re-trellis and reinvigorate the vines, many of which are now decades old. The main criterion for parcel selection is the soil in which it’s grown, with individual plots fermented separately, imbuing their own unique character to the finished wine. In exceptional years, such as 2019, a stand-alone wine labelled as Moormbool Shiraz will be produced.
Since 2011, Simon and partner Alison Phillips (a viticulturist) have been producing under a second label called Bull Lane, sourcing fruit from nearby vineyards. This has allowed them to create wines different from those produced from estate fruit, as well as providing some off-farm income after years of drought.
The approach to the Bull Lane Marsanne, in particular, was influenced by Simon’s vintage at J.L. Chave in Hermitage in 2010, a time that he says was significant in his development.
A new Paul Osicka wine that will undoubtedly be embraced by the public is grenache, a grape Simon fell in love with while tasting a Domaine de Marcoux Châteauneuf-du-Pape during his Hardys days. The grapes will be harvested from a semi-recent planting of bush vines in soils similar to those in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which can produce intensely perfumed wines. The new vines are arranged in a quincunx pattern to allow for easier working of the soil and mowing around the vines.
In turn this means less reliance on chemical intervention. A recent tasting from the barrel of the very first crop from these vines suggests that this will become an excellent wine.
Wines are mainly available to a committed bunch of mailing-list customers, with one claiming to have been buying wine consistently since 1969. Simon thinks of them like ambassadors, as their customer base has grown mainly through word of mouth, rather than through their own marketing efforts.
It is for this reason that Simon acknowledges the huge efforts of his forebears. The wine tutelage from his father was his most important education, he says, just as first-hand knowledge was passed down to Simon’s father, too.
Despite his experience, Simon says he’s “still learning how to make the best wine”, offering something that is a good and true expression of the land. He has recently acquired a new de-stemmer and grape-sorting equipment, and is using large-format barrels to let the fruit speak more prominently.
Given the quality of the current offerings, as well as some up-and-coming releases (including an exquisite tawny port still in barrel), you’d be forgiven for thinking he is already very much at the top of his winemaking game.
2021 Paul Osicka Wines Riesling, A$30
Picked early for acid retention and with several months on lees, this is a beguiling wine with intense aromatics of peach, apricot, citrus and talc, and an invigorating and firm mouthfeel.
2021 Bull Lane Marsanne, A$30
From Tooborac, south of Heathcote, with a small percentage of roussanne. A medium-bodied yet rich wine that exudes citrus, nectarine, wax and blossom. Like the riesling, it has a lovely mouthfeel, with an oily, saline character making it a joy to drink.
2020 Paul Osicka Wines Shiraz, A$38
Ripe, fruity (blueberry, strawberry, raspberry) and spicy, but lighter than other years. It’s a little rough on opening (it’s still very young), but let it breathe for a few hours and watch as everything comes together nicely. Having tasted older vintages, I know what’s possible when it’s aged for a few years.