Tom Carson presents Yabby Lake's 2009 vintage   
A serious producer from Australia's Mornington Peninsula, currently making some stunning Pinots and Chardonnays

Tom Carson (above) is one of the bright stars in the Australian wine firmament. He built his reputation largely through his work at Yarra Valley winery Yering Station. A couple of years ago he moved on to boutique Mornington Peninsula outfit Yabby Lake. 

Some time ago I reported on the 2008 releases from Yabby Lake (below and also for more detail on Yabby Lake itself). This was the first vintage that new winemaker Tom Carson had produced, and the wines were quite stunning.

I caught up again with Tom over lunch at La Trompette in Chiswick to taste through the 2009 releases. This is the first vintage where Tom has had complete control through the growing season as well as the winemaking. More recently (2013), I tried the 2010s, which are another step up.

2009 was a vintage with issues in southern Victoria. Overall, the vintage was slightly cooler than average, but then in late January there was a heat spike, with three days hotter than 43 °C in Melbourne, and then a week later came Black Saturday: temperatures tipped 47 °C, and big bush fires erupted, killing 170 people.

The Yarra Valley was badly affected, with smoke taint a major issue. At Yabby Lake Tom lost 30% of the fruit: the bunches that were exposed just shrivelled up. But the rest was protected. 

Pinot Noir was picked over a six week period, which is remarkable for a single site. ‘We made 30-40% of what we’d normally make,’ says Tom. The good news is that 2010 is a cracking vintage. This was followed by 2011, the year of the breaking of the drought, with lots of water during the growing season and harvest.

‘We don’t want to clutter the wines up with winemaking,’ says Tom. For his Chardonnay there is some crushing. ‘We like to get some phenolics and solids in the juice,’ he says. The alcohols are not high (around 12%), and there is no manipulation with acid or sugar additions. ‘We don’t measure nitrogen,’ Tom reveals. ‘We don’t need to.’

‘We want intrigue and complexity in our wines, so we use solids and wild yeast ferment,’ says Tom. The previous winemaker used to inoculate everything with just one strain of yeast, and so for the first couple of years Tom says he has struggled to get complexity from his wild yeast ferments. ‘This year we had one barrel that had Coche Dury style matchstick characters, so we spread this yeast through all the barrels.’

Tom’s Chardonnays are mostly fermented in 500 litre barrels, seasoned for four years, with slightly thicker staves and medium toast. The Yabby Lake policy of lower alcohol helps here. ‘At 13% alcohol and under the extraction of oak is a lot less,’ explains Tom. ‘At 14% and over alcohol acts as a solvent, resulting in coarser oak tannins.’

There are seven clones of Chardonnay and 10 clones of Pinot Noir grown in the Yabby Lake Vineyard, all planted on their own roots.   

For Pinot Noir, Tom destems into vat, usually on top of some whole bunches. There’s no crushing and the grapes are left for 2-4 days until they start to show some activity. Then he inoculates with 2-4 different yeast strains. Tom has played around with natural ferments but the results haven’t been great so far. So he uses very low levels of inoculation and different strains of yeasts to achieve complexity. Fermentation takes 10-14 days and when the wine is dry it is pressed off. Pinot Noir can quickly oxidise on skins when there is no fermentation activity, he points out. The wine is then settled in tank for a day before going to barrel, where it isn’t racked until it is pulled out for bottling. 

Tom likes to play around a bit with whole bunches in his Pinot Noir ferments. ‘I am still experimenting, and I’m reluctant to go in too hard, because I don’t like wines with a mulchy, herbal character,’ he explains. ‘When it’s good, whole bunch fermentation gives fragrance and perfume, and adds a bit of strength and firmness to the tannins. But when it’s not good it can dull the fruit, adding mulch and compost character,’ says Tom. ‘We want to highlight the fragrance of the Pinot. We don’t want complexing elements that are not vineyard-derived.’ Tom did 8% whole bunch in 2009 and 20% in 2010, but then backed off a lot because it was a wet year and the stalks were quite green. ‘We are still learning what is the right amount.’


Yabby Lake Vineyard Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 Mornington Peninsula, Australia
Strongly mineral nose with mtachstick, citrus and pear. The palate is taut and lean with citrus, pear, peach and toast notes, as well as an attractive minerality. Real intensity with great freshness and keen acidity, but also finesse. 94/100 (03/13)

Yabby Lake Vineyard Single Block Release Block 6 Chardonnay 2010 Mornington Peninsula, Australia
100% Mendoza clone, no malolactic fermentation. Super-fine, taut grapefruit, lemon, toast and mineral nose. Real complexity. The palate shows amazing concentration and finesse, with pristine citrus, herb and mineral notes as well as lively acidity. There’s a subtle toasty warmth on the finish, which is long. Not a hint of fatness; an incredible Chardonnay. 96/100 (03/13)

Yabby Lake Vineyard Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 Mornington Peninsula, Australia
Lively and precise with fine cherry and plum fruit, and some spicy tannins. Lovely balance between the sweet fruit, the silky texture and the spicy grippy structure. Ripe, pure, fine and beautifully constructed. 93/100 (03/13)

Yabby Lake Vineyard Single Block Release Block 2 Pinot Noir 2010 Mornington Peninsula, Australia
From rows 1–37, MV6 clone, 14.5% alcohol. 3780 bottles. Floral, taut cherry and plum fruit with an asian spice note. Very expressive. The palate is ripe and richly textured with some spice and herb notes as well as sweet cherry and berry fruits. Some grippy tannins under the fruit. Youthful with a slight reductive edge. A wine for ageing. 94/100 (03/13)

Yabby Lake Vineyard Single Block Release Block 6 Pinot Noir 2010 Mornington Peninsula, Australia
75% D2V4 clone, 25% MV6; 40% whole bunch. Fresh, floral, sweet cherry and plum fruit nose with some fine spiciness. The palate combines sweet, supple cherry and berry fruits with good acidity and a grippy, savoury quality. Fine-grained but firm tannins under the sweet fruit suggests this is built to age. Very classy. 95/100 (03/13)

Yabby Lake Red Claw Chardonnay 2009
A selection of clones and parcels. Taut and slightly toasty with some fresh, citrus, mineral notes. The palate is really fresh with nice acidity and bright citrus fruit. Taut and crisp, with a bit of toasty richness: a lovely fresh, pure style. 91/100 (07/11)

Yabby Lake Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2009
Nicely complex nose with minerality and a hint of struck match as well as taut citrus fruits and subtle toastiness. The palate is fresh and lively with good acidity. Intense, mineral, precise with subtle notes of toast and nuts. Very similar to Red Claw, with a touch more intensity. 93/100 (07/11)

Yabby Lake Single Block Release Chardonnay 2009
This year, this wine comes from Block 1. Interesting nose with some toast and herb notes, as well as mealy richness. There are also fine citrussy notes. The palate has toast and nut richness but also lovely freshness. Real personality and minerality here. 95/100 (07/11)

Yabby Lake Red Claw Pinot Noir 2009
Very attractive ripe, sweet cherry and berry fruit nose: vibrant, sweet and direct. The palate is boldly flavoured with ripe berry and cherry notes and appealing texture and structure. Fruit focused. 90/100 (07/11)

Yabby Lake Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009
Lovely, vibrant intense aromatic nose of fine red cherry fruit with some lushness and richness. The palate is supple, vibrant and elegant with lovely focus. Fragrant, perfumed and pure with smooth yet fresh cherry fruit and fine tannins. 94/100 (07/11)

Yabby Lake Single Block Pinot Noir 2009
This is from Block 20 in 2009. All NV6 clone, 20% whole bunch. Slightly meaty, spicy richness on the nose with black cherry as well as red berry fruit. The palate is rich and dense, yet elegant, with sweet cherry fruit. Some lushnes here, underpinned by spicy structure. 95/100 (07/11)

The 2008s

I met with Tom Carson at Ransome's Dock restaurant in London to try the newly released 2008s from Yabby Lake: the first vintage that Tom had been responsible for. These are striking wines of real class, and with this vintage I’d say Yabby Lake is now among Australia's elite band of top wineries. The Block Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are peers of Australia's best.

Yabby Lake is owned by the Kirby family, who made their money from a cinema chain called the Village Road Show. The first vineyard plantings were in 1998. The Kirbys also own Heathcote Estate and some vineyards in the Strathbogie Ranges. 

Establishing a winery like this in Mornington is a long-term proposition, says Tom. The land is expensive, and the Kirbys have invested in building a new winery; they are committed to the long term. Yering Station, Tom's previous winery, was a much bigger operation. 'It is quite a step down from Yering Station,' says Tom. 'It is more focused here; I can get down to handling small blocks.'

Production is quite small. There are around 2000 cases of the entry level Red Claw wines, 1000 cases of the estate wines, and then 200 cases of the Block wines, which are specific blocks that Tom feels have done something special in any particular vintage.

'The main challenge is getting a better understanding of the vineyard and its potential,' says Tom. 'And the last two years have seen challenging climatic conditions.' The Yabby Lake vineyard is split into 90 blocks, according to the soil type and aspect, and around 100 acres are now planted.

The Mornington is very focused on Pinot Noir, with more than 50% of the region planted to this variety. Tom reckons there are now 10-15 producers now making top-end Pinot Noir here. Two factors have helped in this respect: the climate is a little warmer now than it was, and now there is significant vineyard area with vines over 10 years old.

In winemaking, Tom believes in what he calls expression over impression. 'I don't like the term winemaker. It gives the impression of being some sort of a magician. I am more of a craftsman bringing the expression of the vineyard to life.' He also chooses to work naturally. 'Nothing has been added to these wines except sulfur at bottling. I call them natural wines.' He does, however, use some filtration – the wines go through a cross-flow filter. Tom describes this as 'gentle, really excellent technology', and says that it really polishes the wines.

His Chardonnays are striking. 'Chardonnay should be picked right at the beginning of the ripeness spectrum,' says Tom. Of his Chardonnays: 'I love the precise mineral, focused palate with a bit of matchstick on the nose. Delicate wines with underlying power.' When asked what his favourite Yabby Lake wine is: 'there is no better or worse; the point is that the wines are different.'


Red Claw Chardonnay 2008
Complex, quite taut and nutty with some citrus fruits and attractive toasty notes. Some elegance here. Nice purity and balance. Lemony, minerally finish. Very stylish. 91/100

Red Claw Pinot Noir 2008
Quite rich and aromatic with bright cherry fruit and warm spicy notes. Fresh with lovely herb, spice, red cherry, plum and subtle savory meatiness. Supple and nicely balanced. 92/100

Yabby Lake Chardonnay 2008
Complex, intense, savoury and nutty with some mineral notes and elegance. Powerful, fresh, citrussy, this is a very bright Chardonnay with real class and an intense mineral finish. 93/100

Yabby Lake Chardonnay Block 6 Rows 1-15 2008
13% alcohol. This is Mendoza clone from Block 6 of the vineyard. 'I love the block 6: it's just so precise and beauitifully textured,' says Tom. This is fermented with indigenous yeasts in 500 litre oak barrels with no malolactic fermentation and a little bit of lees stirring.  Tight, fresh and intense. Very light, beautifully fresh and elegant with real precision. There's some subtle matchstick minerality and fresh citrussy fruit. Tightwound and intense with a hint of good reduction. Nervy, precise and pure with the oak in the background. Incredible stuff: totally world class. 96/100

Yabby Lake Pinot Noir 2008
Sweet, pure, ripe elegant cherry fruit with some liqueur-like richness, but also a hint of sappy greenness. The palate is smoothly textured and pure with fresh, cherryish notes as well as some subtle spiciness. Pure with nice fruit: a serious wine. 93/100

Yabby Lake Pinot Noir Block 2 Rows 1-37 2008
Some structure here. Bright, powerful, fresh cherry and berry fruit on the aromatic nose. The palate has wonderful richness and is both elegant and structured, with ripe fruit and some spicy, mineral depth. Silky cherry and berry fruit to the fore, underpinned by fine-grained tannins. A wine of many dimensions. 96/100

Yabby Lake Block 5 Pinot Noir 2008
Taut and structured with some firm cherry and berry fruit and nice dense structure. Quite fresh with tart berry fruit and nice spicy, cherry notes. There's some tannin, but this is an elegant wine of real interest, finishing dry and tannic. Quite serious. 95/100

Yabby Lake 'Roc' Shiraz 2004
Sweet, quite lush, smooth berry fruits nose with some iodine notes. The palate is silky, sweet and forward but with some lovely peppery, spicy notes. Rich, sweet, dense and peppery, this is quite elegant. 94/100

See also:

Landmark Australia Tutorial (series)

Wines tasted 05/10  
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