Melanie Chester was born for her job. Her family business was importing barrels, and she realised from a relatively young age that the wine industry was for her.

She studied Viticulture and Oenology at the University of Adelaide, where she was the recipient of both the Wolf Blass Prize for Excellence in Winemaking (2011) and the David Bradley Memorial Prize (2012). It was clear this girl was going to go far.

She began to build up her experience working across a number of estates in Australia spanning Central Victoria, the Grampians, McLaren Vale, and Barossa, as well as a stint at Quinta do Crasto in Portugal’s Douro Valley.

Awards – and award-winning wines – came thick and fast.

In 2015, she was named Young Winemaker of the Year by Gourmet Traveller WINE magazine, and in 2018, Melanie was recognized by Young Gun of Wine as the People’s Choice award.

Her love affair with Giant Steps started long before she became Head of Winemaking and Viticulture in 2021, collecting the wines for her personal cellar for many years.

Now general manager of the prestigious Yarra Valley winery, she talks us through her journey in wine.

Melanie Chester, Winemaker, Giant Steps

What was your first experience of wine?

Wine was always a part of our dinner table at home, but my family business was importing barrels, so my earliest memory of the industry was as a school child, on the docks of the Adelaide Port. We had just brought in a container of barrels from France and I can still remember the toasty and rich oak smell of opening that container.

What was the first wine you tasted which really caught your attention?

I was in my late teens, and my uncle, who was an avid collector, opened some iconic Aussie wines around the family Christmas table. That afternoon I tried a 1992 Giaconda Pinot Noir, a 1992 Mount Mary Quintet and a 1994 Henschke Hill of Grace. These wines I can still remember when I think back on them. They were a lighting strike through my brain and it hasn't rewired itself since.

When did you decide ‘I want to make wine!’?

After my first harvest as an intern – I loved the energy of the cellar, the smells, and the transformation.

Giant Steps winery

Where and when was the first wine you made? And was it any good?

I studied at the University of Adelaide and you make a "project" wine in third year. I made a very yucky small-batch white wine. But you have to start somewhere!

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt in your career?

Hard work, dedication and not cutting corners are the foundation for making great wine.

What’s your favourite memory from your career so far?

While people would assume it’s winning trophies or travelling to exotic places, for me it’s remembering those days in vintage where it's all just working. We nailed the picking date on something, the juice tastes great, the team are smashing it and the energy is positive, excited and collaborative. Those are the days I do it for.

Sexton Vineyard at Giant Steps

Which has been your favourite vintage over the last few years – and why?

2022 was my first vintage at Giant Steps so that was a thrill, but the 2023 vintage, cool and mild, has produced some pretty amazing wines of purity. While those vintages are stressful as you're waiting for stuff to ripen, they often deliver incredible quality.

Who is your winemaking hero – and why?

I have a few. Of course, Lalou Bize-Leroy! But closer to home, my mentor and great friend Tom Carson, from Yabby Lake. He’s practical, thoughtful, generous with his time and knowledge, and has a real love of our Aussie wine industry.

If you could only drink one grape for the rest of your life, what would you choose and why?

Pinot noir – it’s the most complex and fascinating variety. I would never get bored as there is so much site discovery and expression to enjoy.

What’s your death-row bottle from your own line-up?

Applejack Pinot Noir.

And from another winemaker?

Ooooooh, very hard – either 1989 Chateau Rayas, 2012 Raveneau Les Clos or a 2015 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Romanee-Saint-Vivant!

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