Growing up in Montana in the 1970s, physicist Brian Schmidt remembers family Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations with Mateus Rosé, Blue Nun and Chianti that arrived at the table in very cool straw-covered bottles.
“Really, you haven’t heard of it? I’m amazed!” he laughs. “It’s Portuguese, a red wine in a clay bottle and was to a type, let’s say.”
It wasn’t until he moved to Boston to study for his Ph.D. in astronomy at Harvard University — his thesis research was in Type II supernovae — and his first date with a fellow Ph.D. student, Jenny Gordon, who he would later marry, that wine next came into the picture.
It didn’t start well.
“I remember there was a wine list and she said, ‘You order’ and I was like blub, blub, blub,” he says. “She looked at me and said, ‘Okay, you’re going to need to learn something about red wine if you’re going to date an Australian.’ And that was our first date.”
He took her up on that challenge.
At the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics he participated in Friday after work wine tastings.
When he arrived in Canberra, Australia’s national capital, in 1995 to start work at the Mount Stromlo and Siding Spring Observatories, he and Jenny discovered themselves in the midst of an exciting, emerging wine region. Their property at Sutton, outside the city, was surrounded by vineyards and friendly winemakers. What happened next was inevitable.
Planting a vineyard
First came 2.7 acres of Pinot Noir vines in 1999. As the 2001 vintage approached, Schmidt started helping and learning winemaking on the weekends with neighbors, David and Sue Carpenter, at Lark Hill. There was, he recalls, a lot of reading and asking questions with Canberra vignerons before he tentatively made his first wine in 2002. It was followed by a “not very drinkable” 2003, but the following year was better, respectable is how he remembers it. He was on his way.
Pinot Noir seemed logical on the Schmidt’s 760 meter high, cool site called Maipenrai, from the Thai phrase for “it’s okay.” He says that 2009 was “the vintage when I realized I could make seriously good wine,” because “every year I was in learning-from-my-mistakes mode and in 2009 I didn’t really make any mistakes, so that was good.” He adds that the wine is “very long lived and has a good brace of structure and a real sophistication about it, neither too big nor too flimsy.”
The vineyard also proved a valuable escape from the stresses of his Australian National University research project, which eventually led him to discover dark energy, which is detected by its effect on the rate at which the universe expands. For that, he was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, alongside American astrophysicists, Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess.
His role as vice-chancellor at the Australian National University in Canberra leaves little time for on-going scientific research, but this year Schmidt was involved in the discovery of a star in the Milky Way that was born after the Big Bang. The discovery, reported in the journal Nature, could solve a mystery that has puzzled scientists for 40 years.
All this has run alongside Schmidt’s journey of wine discovery. He discusses the five wines that excited, enlightened, inspired, and gave him sheer joy along the way.
Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1986
“This wine was at one of the first wine tastings I went to, around 1991. I remember it well. It had an amazing perfume. Silver Oak was renowned for lots of oak, but this wasn’t just oak, it had an intense perfume and was complicated. It wasn’t particularly a heavy wine either, it was medium-bodied,” says Schmidt. “That was the wine that made me realize there was something beyond okay and good wine, there was truly outstanding wine. It’s where I really got interested in wine. I’ve had it twice since and it was never quite as bang! as that first time, probably because I had moved on in my tasting, but it was always interesting.”
He says he still has “a whole bunch of Napa cabs from the 80s that I bought in graduate school sitting down in the cellar. Whenever you have one you think, ‘Ah I should have waited just a little longer’. They’re wines for the long, long haul.”
Current vintage: Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($85) available at Wine.com
Lark Hill Canberra Pinot Noir 1996
“I moved here in 1994. I knew there was a little wine region here, but we kind of made fun of it,” says Schmidt, who was later served a masked bottle of Lark Hill. “I didn’t know what it was, but I knew immediately that it was a really, really good Pinot Noir. Quite frankly, it was the best Pinot Noir that I’d had in my life up to that point. And then I found out it was from Canberra and I was like, are you kidding me!” Schmidt says he was so stunned by the wine that he decided to plant his own vineyard.
Lark Hill wines are not available in the USA.
Clonakilla Canberra Shiraz Viognier 2001
“When I tasted it, I had that Silver Oak moment. I was like, Wow! This is one of the best wines I’ve had in my life,” he says. “It was really aromatic and a wine of texture rather than being huge.” Schmidt says he got to meet winemaker Tim Kirk and then became very good friends with him. “You get those rare little glimpses in your life where you just get a wine that you are truly excited about and that was one of them. I’ve only ever had two or three experiences like that in my life, sorry to say.”
While the Canberra District covers a region which has a range of climates, it’s generally considered a cool climate region. Like everywhere else, however, it’s warming up, prompting Schmidt to plant some Shiraz and Viognier. “In a warm year like 2019 I can get it ripe. In a cool year like 2021 we didn’t pick it. We just couldn’t get it ripe. It’s my climate change hedge.”
Current vintage: Clonakilla Canberra Shiraz Viognier 2018 ($99) available at Wine.com
“I can’t remember the vintage, but this was a wine moment for me because I had it at Jancis Robinson’s house for her birthday,” says Schmidt, of meeting the famous British wine critic. “I had had a conversation with her just after winning the Nobel Prize and she was interested in the fact that I was a winemaker and an astronomer, she being a mathematician by training.”
Schmidt says he had watched her entire TV series, Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course, so he was interested to see what she would choose for her birthday. “It was a classic vintage Krug and my memory was that it had been recently disgorged. It was a pinch me kind of moment. She was very personable, and I even got my wine written up in the Financial Times.”
Jancis Robinson MW checked her 21,000 strong tasting notes database for Pix, but could not find a reference to the wine. “It may well have been Grande Cuvée,” she emailed, “which is always just as good as any vintage.”
Current vintage: Krug Grande Cuvée 168th Edition ($170) available at San Francisco Flatiron Wine & Spirits
Domaine Jacques Prieur Montrachet 2011 ($890)
“I was wandering around Burgundy in 2013 and tasted lots of interesting wines and this one stood out to me,” he says. “Drinking a Grand Cru in the house with the winemaker, Nadine Gublin, was truly memorable. She was so down to earth.”
Schmidt says that though he can be somewhat dubious about the notion of terroir, wines like this can convince him it’s real. “I’ve had the best Chardonnays in Australia, in California and they just don’t taste like this,” he says. “Those are the wines you go, ‘Wow, I want to make that,’ and you just realize you’re never going to make that.”
The Wines Served at the 2011 Nobel Prize Dinner
Professor Brian Schmidt was served the 2010 vintage of the Moscato and the 2008 vintage of the Pinot Noir at the banquet following the Nobel Prize ceremony. We have listed the available vintages.