From Calabria to Coonawarra
Grape growing and winemaking has been a large part of the Zema Family history and heritage dating back to the 1800’s. It was at this time that the Zema family first became involved with vineyards and winemaking not only for personal consumption but also on a commercial basis.
Demetrio’s great grandfather Matteo opened the first wine bar/tavern in Armo, Reggio Calabria in 1835, much to the angst of the local authorities at the time. Although the tavern no longer exists, it was this legacy and a passion for wine that has been passed down from generation to generation.
In the early 1950’s Demetrio Zema and Francesca Zema began a love affair that would last not only more than fifty years but also across two continents. Soon after becoming engaged, the couple were separated as Francesca and her family departed Italy to escape the aftermath of war and to seize the opportunities that a strange and peaceful new country ‘Australia’ offered. At the time of Francesca’s departure the young couple had an understanding that she would return to Italy for her marriage, once her family had settled in Australia.
Upon arriving in Coonawarra, Francesca’s family went about establishing a home, securing work and adapting to a new language and culture.
In 1953 Nicola Zema (Francesca’s father) started working for Wynns, hand pruning, picking and planting, a job that continued through until his retirement in 1975.
Back in Italy, Demetrio who was impatiently awaiting his fiancée’s return, decided to travel to Australia to marry Francesca and to bring her home to Italy.
After more than twelve months apart the couple were re-united in May 1959 and married in Penola in June that year. Francesca was reluctant to leave her family and convinced Demetrio to stay, at least in the short term and the couple settled in Penola.
Demetrio soon found work helping a local painter and after a short period established his own painting business. In March 1960 Demetrio and Francesca’s first son Matteo (Matt) was born and in 1966 Nicola (Nick) arrived. Demetrio worked hard, painting houses and buildings throughout the south east, with Francesca and later Nick and Matt often helping late at night, on weekends and wherever possible.
Demetrio gained a reputation as a meticulous painter and also a very engaging one, as there was always a good story to be told and one of his home-made wines to be shared.
Whilst painting was the family’s livelihood, the passion for wine never diminished and their dream was to one day own a piece of Coonawarra’s famed terra rossa soil and create their own world class wines.
In 1982 the dream became a reality when the family was able to purchase a small block of mature vines in the very heart of Coonawarra.
The first vintage of Zema Estate wines was made with very little equipment, a tin shed and an old milk tanker under the generous guidance of veteran Coonawarra Winemaker Mr. Ken Ward.
Matt moved away to undertake studies in Electrical and Computer Systems Engineering whilst returning to Coonawarra on weekends to work in the vineyards and in the winery. Nick was in High School at the time of the vineyard purchase and found that his education was instantly transferred from the classroom to the vineyard.
The family moved in to the small home on site and went about establishing their new venture with assistance from their extended group of family and friends who rallied, helping out with planting new vines, hand pruning and picking.
Additional buildings were added over time, from the initial winery and Cellar Door sales constructed in time for the 1983 vintage to the recently added new Cellar Door, office complex and warehouse which was opened on April 19, 2006.
The bottling of all Zema Estate wines is done on-site at the winery. The family has for many years operated its own bottling line however due to increasing demand this has recently changed to using a large and modern mobile bottling facility which sets up on-site on demand. Bottling times are determined by the maturation and development of the wines, with all aspects overseen by Winemaker Greg Clayfield and the family. The new warehouse provides ideal storage conditions for wines awaiting release.
Today Zema Estate is managed by Nick and Matt Zema with Demetrio and Francesca never too far away, either helping out in Cellar Door or cooking up a storm for visitors, staff and guests. Nick is based at the winery and Matt in Melbourne and the brothers are in daily contact and work very closely together.
Matt and Nick are enormously proud of their family’s achievements and they wish to build on this legacy for future generations. Matt and his wife Teresa have one son Demetrio Jnr and Nick and his wife Jackie have two daughters, Olivia and Georgina and a son, Zac.
There is also a small team of dedicated staff, many of whom have worked with the family for a number of years and contributed enormously to the success of the wines and the business.
Although the Zema family deservedly takes great pride in their achievements they have not lost sight of their original philosophies – Estate grown, hand pruned, minimally irrigated, hand crafted, Estate bottled – consistently produced exceptional wines.