With a clear division between traditional, established styles and boundary-pushing examples, it’s an exciting time to be making wine in the Yarra Valley. And drinkers are reaping the rewards.
Steve Webber’s mind had been rolling a lot of things around. Sometimes nothing seemed too crazy not to be considered in his new school of Yarra Valley winemaking.
The ferment had been bubbling, taking hold, since arriving in the Valley in May, 1989, with his wife Leanne De Bortoli to take control of the De Bortoli family’s newest winery outpost.
In 2012, he let launch one of his wild ideas: a 2010 reserve release shiraz he renamed syrah – because it wore its French name so much better style-wise. It had been transformed using winemaking techniques borrowed from pinot noir, with 50 per cent of grapes left as whole bunches during fermentation to promote vibrancy and a truffley savouriness.
In December of that year, the wine turned up in London at an Australian wine tasting conducted by Yvonne May, Wine Australia’s UK and European regional director.
“It divided the room,” recalls Steve. “Half the room absolutely loved it and the other half thought it was green.” The divided room piqued Yvonne’s interest and she asked Steve to comment.
He remembers feeling surprised by the question, then a little angry. “For some reason it’s not fine for Australia to divide the room,” he says, eyes blazing. “Why is this? If we’re from France we can divide the room in terms of style because the wines challenge drinkers. Why, when Australians challenge the norm, do we all of a sudden get criticised?”
Steve genuinely appears in equal measure frustrated and challenged by what he sees as the extended wine community’s innate conservatism. Dividing the room, he reckons, is a sign of a healthy, progressive bunch of winemakers.
Today, Steve has plenty of company in the Yarra Valley. An interesting state of play exists between those we might label the establishment, the kind of producer with layer upon layer of history with an accompanying locked-in set of winemaking practices and values – traditional maybe, but not necessarily intractable, makers like Yeringberg or Mount Mary – and a bunch of separatists daringly and publicly going out on a limb, testing boundaries.
Familiar versus forward-thinking
It’s an exhilarating ride for drinkers, taking us from the relative safety of the familiar engagement, if not quiet joy, found in a glass of Mount Mary Pinot Noir to the funked-up Dr Mayer Pinot Noir by Timo Mayer or resolute herbal saturation of Arfion Pinot Noir.
It’s been going on for some time, probably since the early Noughties, and it’s not a stretch to see the burly, rover-sized Steve as one of the leaders of the non-conformists (for want of a better word). Then there are the winemakers he embraced into the De Bortoli wine family who are now major arbiters of Valley style: Timo Mayer (Gembrook Hill, Timo Mayer), William Downie (Thousand Candles) and David Bicknell (Oakridge, Bicknell FC).
Why the fuss? The division? It’s all about taste. Let’s start with picking dates. Pick grapes early in their ripening development and acidity will be at its highest, at the same time fruit flavour is still emerging. This is how some Valley non-conformists like it.
“I have certainly taken notice of the style,” says winemaker Gary Baldwin, who sources chardonnay from the Valley for the Handpicked wine label. “While I’m interested in picking grapes early when the season is hot when you want to get them off young and fresh, I would be in big trouble if we produced wines that were picked on acid and the fruit flavour is masked.
“I want to taste fruit flavour. What we hear from the marketplace is yes, some have gone too far. People actually say to us that they don’t want those thin, acid wines.”
Knife-edge acidity can be thrilling. Sometimes. At other times it can taste like the winemaker has maybe misread the manual, forgetting the fruit. If misplacing the fruit seems forgetful, choosing not to soften aforementioned abundant acidity by introducing a second ferment, a malolactic fermentation (conveniently known as MLF) as a matter of course every year appears prescriptive.
Non-conformists generally like their acid bite, no MLF for them. Others aren’t so sure.
“The last five years chardonnay has moved to a very austere profile, it’s not how I like drinking chardonnay,” explains Bird On A Wire winemaker Caroline Mooney. “I like more weight and elegance.”
Caroline suggests increased competition is driving change in the Valley, with 146 winemakers scrambling to be noticed. “To stand out from the crowd is not easy.”
To present a diverse set of winemaking opinions can’t be a bad thing. As James Lance, winemaker at Punch Wines, St Andrews, says, “You start to become irrelevant the moment you stop learning new things.”
Wine learning in the Valley took a sharp directional change in the early Noughties when the levels of new oak in chardonnay winemaking began to tumble. Producers, such as De Bortoli and Coldstream Hills, argue the decision resulted in better fruit definition.
“In the Yarra Valley, chardonnay lends itself to a more measured use of oak,” argues James Halliday, wine writer and founder of Coldstream Hills. “Finesse and length,” he adds are Valley chardonnay strong suits.
That finesse can be enhanced – or not – when winemakers choose to ferment their white grapes on skins. It’s not for everyone. But it is for Steve Flamsteed.
“It began by trying winemaking styles we could have a play with,” says the Giant Steps winemaker of his separate venture, Salo Wines, made with Dave Mackintosh of Arfion. “In 2008 I got hold of some of our own fruit and had a bit of a wrestle with it.” The wine won. “It was a whacky style,” he says of the resulting 100 per cent whole bunch fermented chardonnay.
Steve had first seen it done in Margaret River, but no one was having a go at it in the Valley. The wine was by all accounts pretty extreme, meaty, “animaly” even. These days Steve and Dave use just five per cent as a “complexing factor”. Still, it’s enough to make Salo chardonnay stand out.
Redefining a regional hero
Redefining an emerging grape like pinot noir, which has been around in serious volume in the Valley since the 1980s, has also seen a search for what some describe as character or structure.
Employing whole bunches, not removing stems (or, at least, some of them) and not crushing skins might deliver complexity, and perfume too if you are lucky. Sometimes.
Too little can make little impact, too much spoils the effect totally and looks downright mean.
And when it’s just right? “It’s addictive,” suggests Garry Hounsell, owner of Toolangi Vineyards whose 2013 standard and estate pinots benefit from modest whole bunch additions.
Whole bunches in winemaking is not new – far from it. It’s been performed in France, Burgundy in particular, for hundreds of years. In the Valley it’s edgy because it’s on trend. At TarraWarra Estate, the question raises winemaker Clare Halloran’s blood pressure. “I’ve seen some 100 per cent whole bunched wines that, quite honestly, are undrinkable,” she says. “Having said that I’ve seen some skin-fermented chardonnays that have been really lovely, textural and very interesting.
“I think your decisions have to be made on your site and not on fashion or fad.”
Which resounds with common sense. But is it going to divide the room?