The Mornington Peninsula wine region
Exploring Australia's premier Pinot Noir region, part 1, introducing
In February 2017 I visited Australia's Mornington Peninsula wine region.
This region has established itself as Australia's most important for
Pinot Noir (Tasmania may challenge this statement), although it also
makes excellent Chardonnay and very good Pinot Gris
In this two-part film and series of articles, I'm introducing some of the
leading producers, and quizzing them about what's special about
The peninsula is a narrow strip of land, south of Melbourne, jutting out
into the Bass Strait, and the maritime influence is probably the key
factor in the success of this region. No vineyard is further than 7
km from the coast, and the sea moderates temperatures, keeping the
afternoons cool and the nights warmer than they might otherwise be.
'The cool maritime climate is the key to our wines,' says Mike
Aylward of Ocean Eight. 'It makes pure wines with really amazing
acidity. That's our strength, and I think we are all playing with
our strengths pretty well.'
The history of a wine region is often difficult to trace, because many
people tend to start at a similar time, on a small scale, and early
wines are often non-commercial releases. The first vineyard of the
modern era planted here was in 1972, by Baillieu Myer at Elgee Park.
But widely cited as the pioneer is Main Ridge, planted by Nat and
Rosalie White in 1975. The Whites had been inspired by a trip
overseas in the mid-1960s, when they visited Burgundy. Nat was a
civil engineer and Rosalie a teacher, and they bought a 3 hectare
block on the peninsula which they planted with Pinot Noir,
Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. They got lucky, choosing the site
because of its easy access to the city, rather than having access to
detailed climatic information. They ended up building a winery and
in 1980 released their first commercial wine. One of the main
figures in the early days of the region was Gary Crittenden, of
Crittended Estate and for a long time Dromana Estate. 'In September
1982, in one weekend we planted 5 acres of vines on this property,'
says Crittenden. 'This doubled the entire Mornington Peninsula
plantings. If you added Nat White at Main Ridge, Brian Stonier at
Stoniers, George Kefford at Merricks and Baillieu Myer at Elgee Park
their plantings came up to 5 acres.' Crittenden had initially been
attracted to Tasmania, because of its cool climate, but realised
that the peninsula offered similar possibilities.
The short-hand of heat summation isn't a great way to assess a region's
climate, but the range for Mornington is cited as 1080-1570, which
is quite a wide one. Somewhere in the middle of this is pretty much
ideal for Pinot and Chardonnay. This is a cool climate region.
There is vintage variation here, and it's quite significant. 2015 is the
latest release for most producers, and it is an excellent one,
considered by some to be one of the very best ever. But it followed
on from a very difficult 2014 where there were tiny yields. 2016
looks very promising, and many of the baby 2016s I tried were really
good, if not to the stellar standards of 2015. 2017 is looking short
on volume because of difficulties with flowering, but quality should
be pretty good if the last stages of ripening go OK. Prior to this,
2011 was another very difficult, cool vintage, although it did make
some smart Chardonnays.
The other key detail about this region is that it is small scale. There
are some 950 hectares of vines, spread out around 200 vineyards,
with just over 50 cellar doors (roughly equating to wineries or
labels). Nothing is very big here, and the micro nature of
operations is good for Pinot Noir. There are no big companies
operating in the area. More than half of plantings are Pinot Noir,
with Chardonnay next largest at just over a quarter.
There's an interesting influence of terroir in the peninsula, and the
Pinot Noir vineyards can be split into two broad categories, up the
hill and down the hill. The hill in question is the the red area on
the map, around Red Hill and including Main Ridge. Here there's the
influence of altitude (up to 250 m) and soil: the soils here are a
distinctive, deep layer of decomposed red basalt-derived clays of
volcanic origin. Down the hill refers to the lower regions to the
north, and also east and west, which include Dromana, Merricks,
Tuerong and Moorooduc. Down the hill, at lower altitude, the soils
transition to more of a sedimentary brown/grey loam that's free
draining. These sites are a little warmer. Up the hill Pinots tend
to be more aromatic and have higher acidity, with bright, floral red
cherry flavours, with the vines much more vigorous because of the
water-retaining properties of the red clay soils. Down the hill the
wines are often more structured with darker fruit characters, and
irrigation is necessary here in most cases.
What are the challenges working here? Surprisingly, one of the main
problems is birds. They are voracious grape eaters, and so every
vineyard has to be netted, just after veraison starts. Nets are
expensive, adding around A$1000 to the cost of vineyard management
each year: they have to be purchased ($14 000 for a 7 ha vineyard,
for example), stored, and applied. They last 10-15 years. Related to
this, viticulture is expensive here, with management costs of $16-20
000 per hectare per hear, and $25-30 000 if the lyre split canopy
system is used.
Labour costs are high here with a minumum wage
of $26 per hour, and $50 at weekends.
Weather is a problem, too. Poor conditions during flowering can really
decimate yields, as occurred in 2014 and to a lesser extent in 2017.
Then there's also the threat of harvest rain. Yields are rarely
high. 'Back in the 1980s some thought we'd make heaps of amazing
Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot from 5 ton/acre crops,' says
Geraldine McFaul, winemaker at Willow Creek. 'This was the theory:
we could have a trellis system that was sufficiently bountiful and
somehow get enough sunshine into that canopy that you could have
amazing fruit and lots of it.' Now, though, pretty much everyone
realises that crops need to be limited to achieve any quality. And
most of the Cabernet has gone.
I was impressed by the Mornington Peninsula. The Pinot Noirs are pretty
serious. Many new world regions deliver Pinots with lovely fruit,
but they often struggle to achieve non-fruit complexity and
mid-palate weight. This is something that the Peninsula can do, with
its combination of climate, soils and vine age (many of the best
vineyards are 20-30 years old now). The Chardonnays can also be
exceptional. Over the next few weeks I'll be adding my producer
profiles and tasting notes.
Part 1 - in order of appearance
0:27 Mike Aylward, Ocean Eight 2:53
Lindsay and Jamie McCall, Paringa Estate 4:58 Simon Black,
Montalto 6:48 Glen Hayley, Kooyong 8:39 Geraldine McFaul,
Part 2 - in order of appearance
0:28 Gary Crittenden 2:39 Sandro Mosele 3:32 Martin Spedding,
Ten Minutes By Tractor 8:48 David Lloyd, Eldridge Estate of Red
Hill 10:25 Hugh Robinson 12:49 Tom Carson, Yabby Lake 15:29
Mike Symons, Stonier 17:34 Kathleen Quealy, Quealy
MORNINGTON PENINSULA 1
Introduction 2 Paringa
Estate 3 Montalto 4 Ocean Eight 5 Stonier 6 Ten Minutes
By Tractor 7 Kooyong 8 Willow Creek 9 Crittenden Estate
10 Yabby Lake 11 Quealy 12 Mooroduc 13 Eldridge Estate of