Last month in London the Australian Wine body has been going into overdrive with a whole host of imaginative tastings. Two weeks ago the light was being shone on nine winemakers from the lesser-known cool climate region of Mornington Peninsula that is producing some quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – but which were the standout wines and are they worth the price tag? Justin Keay investigates.
The wines of Mornington Peninsula may make up only a fraction of Australian wine output but the quality trajectory is increasingly upward.
It’s been almost impossible to cross the road in London this month without bumping into an Australian winemaker. A collective decision, perhaps, to escape the domestic political chaos which has claimed the scalp of Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, the fifth unscheduled change of PM in six years? Or maybe a sadistic desire to watch us crazy, clueless Poms embark on our own inexplicable odyssey of economic self-harm?
The real reason is more mundane. This September is – unofficially – Australia wine month, with more events ongoing than you could shake a stick at. They include a series of tastings organised by Wine Australia, Liberty Wines’ stand-alone Australian tasting held at Somerset House, and other happenings at which Australian wine features strongly.
To kick off the party though, nine winemakers from the little known region of Mornington Peninsula gathered for what turned out to be a superbly organised masterclass and tasting at Australia House.
For those unfamiliar with it, Mornington Peninsula is where Melbourne goes to play. Located one hour south of the city, it has long attracted people to its sunny beaches at such resorts as Sorrento and Portsea. Over the past 20 years however, it has also witnessed an impressive growth in its wine industry which, although dating back to 1886, didn’t really get going until the late 1970s. Mornington Peninsula today benefits from a cool maritime climate and ambitious, clued-in winemakers who want to make the most of what the region has to offer.
“The beauty of this place is that it has a wide range of soil types and aspects that combine to give real diversity,” says Rollo Crittenden of Crittenden Estate, which was established back in 1982, making it – along with Stonier Wines and Moorooduc Estate – amongst the older producers of the region.
There are currently around 200 wineries in the peninsula. Things remain small-scale, if not boutique; typical volume is between 100,000-300,000 bottles and judging by the cameraderie I saw, winemakers here are as keen to promote the reputation of the region as much as their own wines.
And this is a place that punches well above its weight – output is equivalent to just 0.5% percent of Australia’s total, but quality is on an upward curve as growing vine age and improving viticulture add depth and complexity to the wines. Little wonder then that although Mornington Peninsula isn’t well known beyond Australia (and much of the wines are consumed in the fine restaurants of Melbourne’s trendy suburbs like Carlton, Toorak, South Yarra and Malvern) several wineries have already achieved international acclaim. These include Paringa Estate, whose Pinots have become world famous, and 10 Minutes By Tractor, so named because when it started operation 20 years ago it comprised three family vineyards that were literally ten minutes tractor journey from one another.
“They truly have elegance and style…I think that the wines coming out of here are smarter than anywhere else,” says Matthew Jukes, who hosted a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir masterclass ahead of the tasting.
I’d say he wasn’t wrong. The nine Chardonnays selected for the masterclass were a mixed bag, and all the better for it, demonstrating a definite sense of terroir – no winery here is more than five miles from the ocean – the wide range of soil-types but also the impact of the winemakers, most of whom follow low intervention winemaking.
Amongst the Chardonnays, the Kooyong 2016 Single Vineyard Farrago was impressive, showing elegance and good acidity with only a light touch of oak, allowing the fruit to show through nicely. Made from grapes grown on sandy loam, the wine was very different from, say, the Paringa Chardonnay 2015 where the red volcanic clay and older vines helped produce a wine of great flavour and balance.
My favourite Chardonnay though was Moorooduc Estate’s The McIntyre 2012 made from old vines on sandy soil on what was many years ago, seabed. Winemaker Kate McIntyre says 2012 was a “classic vintage…the aim here was balance and I think this wine shows this perfectly.”
“What’s exciting about Mornington Peninsula is that the region has the capacity to let Pinot show in warm and pretty styles… we’ve tried to show this,” says Mike Aylward, winemaker at Ocean Eight. His wine, made from fully de-stemmed grapes grown on sandy loam, showed these characteristics well as did the others. Well worth mentioning here are the Kooyong Single Vineyard Ferrous Pinot Noir – incredibly long and intense, reflecting the very low yield – the Yabby Lake Single Vineyard Pinot which has great complexity and purity of fruit; and the Moorooduc Estate Robinson Vineyard Pinot which showed great cherry fruit and surprising complexity for such a young wine, with savoury notes supporting the tannins.
The tasting that followed further demonstrated how well Mornington Peninsula has evolved with most of the producers showing a distinctive range of Chardonnay and Pinots, as well as some good Pinot Gris and Shiraz (Paringa’s Peninsula Shiraz is a prime, good value example).
And there was a surprise – well, two – with Crittenden’s 2013 and 2015 Cri de Couer Savagnin. These were big, generous savoury wines, with the 2015 almost too much, 15.4% so just a tad more alcohol that you might find in Jura, but for someone like me who likes offbeat unusual wines, just too good to miss, though maybe too flamboyant for purists. And why Savagnin?
“Australia has the world’s second biggest plantings of Savagnin outside the Jura because the cuttings bought in were wrongly believed to be Albariño. But it works very well, I think,” says Rollo Crittenden.
And so, in conclusion…..
Mornington Peninsula wines aren’t cheap, even in Australia. Small volume and very high land prices have seen to that. With the latter continuing to rise, and the Brexit-battered pound barely holding its own against an Aussie dollar buoyed by over 20 years of unbroken economic growth, you aren’t going to see bargains coming from this region any time soon. But these are truly worthwhile wines, with lots of expression; little wonder that eight of the nine wineries here already have a UK agent. The only one that doesn’t, Polperro Estate, should find one pretty soon, judging by the purity of fruit in and the concentration of their 2017 Chardonnay and 2017 Pinot.
With no tartness, good complexity and lots of pure fruit coming through these wines wear their cool climate tag well. And that’s something you can’t always say.