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Yarra Valley, part 4
The wines of Phil Sexton: Giant Steps and Innocent Bystander

Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander
Maroondah Highway, Healesville
Website: www.giant-steps.com.au

Phil Sexton is one of those chirpy, energized entrepreneurial types whose enthusiasm for what he’s doing is almost contagious. And he’s a dude with a history of business success. Initially a brewer, he created Matilda Bay Brewing Company (which he later sold), and then the brilliant Fremantle-based brewery Little Creatures. From brewing he branched out to wine, setting up Devil’s Lair winery in Margaret River. [Clearly, part of Sexton’s mode of operation is to come up with a catchy, memorable name for his ventures, and with his current winery, he doesn’t disappoint—the brands are ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘Innocent Bystander’.]

In 1996 he sold Devil’s Lair to Southcorp and moved to the Yarra, along with winemaking wife Allison. We met up at his vineyard, perched nicely on the north-facing slopes of the Warramate Hills, between Coldstream Hills and Yarra Yering. The netted Cabernet Sauvignon vines were almost ready for harvest, which this year would be unusually early. But there was no winery. Normally, the obvious thing would be to build a winery in the middle of the vineyards, but Sexton doesn’t do the ‘obvious thing’. For very good reasons, he’s put it on the main drag of nearby town Healesville. With a combined hi-tech winery and cellar door, which since I visited now also has a coffee shop (with state-of-the-art coffee bean roaster)  and pizzeria, he’s beautifully situated for passing tourist trade. And being in the town rather than out on some hill, power and drainage utility provision becomes much simpler.  

Sexton’s winery is split into two parallel ventures. Giant Steps is the ‘passionate single vineyard producer’, which is supported by the engine room of an ‘entrepreneurial wine producer’ Innocent Bystander. The former has a fixed production of 12 000 cases each year, the latter is currently at 20 000 but this will probably rise to 30 000.

The winery is something else. Sexton is proud that it’s ‘the largest thermomass building in Australia’, consisting of a concrete shell suspended in air with another concrete shell around it. This makes it economically feasible to control the temperature tightly. One huge room is kept at 4 ºC; this is useful for barrel fermentation at cold temperature, or chilling grapes down prior to maceration, for example. There’s a gas supply with nitrogen and carbon dioxide pipes running throughout the winery. The physical structure of the winery is designed to make it possible to move Pinot Noir from grape to bottle without it seeing a pump. It’s a winemaker’s dream. 

The single vineyard Chardonnays are whole-bunch pressed with minimal sulfur dioxide, and only natural ferments are used. Indeed, most of the Chardonnays actually undergo natural ferments.  For Pinot Noir, 75% undergoes wild ferments.

Pinot Noir, chilled before crushing

So, to the wines. Sexton is the designation for the special releases, Giant Steps is the premium Estate wine range, and Innocent Bystander wines are made from bought-in grapes. The Chardonnays really impressed, confirming my impression that Chardonnay is one of the Yarra’s real strengths. In fact, all the wines impressed. It’s as solid a range as you’ll find.

Sexton Tarraford Vineyard Chardonnay 2004
Rich toasty nose is tight and minerally. The palate is complex and rich; minerally and toasty with good acid. Good complexity here. Very good/excellent 92/100

Sexton Bernard Clones 95 and 96 Chardonnay 2004
Complex nose is herby, spicy and toasty with really nice richness. Expressive, broad palate with some herbiness, a bit of toast and plenty of complexity. Very good/excellent 93/100

Giant Steps Sexton Vineyard Chardonnay 2004
Very interesting minerally, complex spicy nose with some toasty warmth. The palate is broad and complex with a mealy edge. Minerally and focused – a delicious wine. Very good/excellent 93/100

Giant Steps Sexton Vineyard Chardonnay 2005
Complex, rich but spicy with a minerally nose and a focused palate of tight-knit fruit. Full and expressive with real potential. Very good/excellent 92/100

Giant Steps Tarraford Vineyard Chardonnay 2005
Focused, tight and bready with lots of presence and some minerality. Lots of potential here. Very good/excellent 91/100

Innocent Bystander Chardonnay 2005
Toasty, rich and focused with nice fruit. Quite serious. Very good+ 89/100

Giant Steps Sexton Vineyard Pinot Noir 2003
Ripe, full, sweet cherryish fruit on the nose. The palate is rich showing some herby development. Lovely ripe, quite elegant fruit. Deliciously rounded in a ripe style. Very good/excellent 91/100

Giant Steps Sexton Vineyard Pinot Noir 2004
Dark cherryish nose with some herbal complexity. Ripe, full and smooth with dark fruit on the palate and a bit of tannic bite. Although this is a rich, almost lush Pinot, it’s quite elegant. Very good/excellent 92/100

Giant Steps Tarraford Vineyard Pinot Noir 2005
Lovely cherry and red berry fruit nose. Nice savoury presence with some spice. The palate has a herby twist to the fruit: ripe, full, but nicely balanced. Very good/excellent 90/100

Giant Steps Sexton Vineyard Pinot Noir 2005
Spicy-edged cherries and berries here with good structure on the palate. Bright and quite juicy with potential. Very good+ 89/100

Giant Steps Shiraz 2005 Yarra Valley
25% whole-bunch, with 6% Viognier. Lovely vivid, direct fruit with firm savoury structure underneath it. Grippy tannins support the ripe yet restrained fruit. Delicious stuff. Very good/excellent 92/100

Innocent Bystander Sangiovese Merlot 2004
Bright cherry and berry nose with a savoury twist. Soft, ripe, sweet cherry fruit on the palate. A very successful commercial wine. Very good+ 87/100

Sexton Harry’s Monster 2003
A blend of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with a dash of Cabernet Franc. Harry is Phil and Allison’s son. Ripe, sweet, chocolatey black fruits nose leads to a palate of vivid rips dark fruits with rounded, berryish, blackcurrant fruit. Pure fruit is the key here. Very good/excellent 90/100

Sexton Harry’s Monster 2004
Ripe berry and blackcurrant fruit nose. Quite restrained. Ripe, pure blackcurrant fruit on the palate. Tasty stuff. Very good/excellent 90/100

Innocent Bystander Shiraz Viognier 2005
Dark, vivid nose with amazing juicy, ripe aromatic fruit. The palate shows vivid, bright dark fruits with a tannic grip providing balance to the fruit sweetness. A fantastic effort. Very good/excellent 90/100

Yarra series:

Wines tasted 03/06
Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

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