Still punching: James Lance

The 2009 Victorian bushfires could have been the end for Yarra Valley winery Punch, but six years later, the wines under James Lance’s watch are superb.

Words: Campbell Mattinson | Pictures: David Hannah

All vineyards are precious, but some are more precious than others. When fire tore into the bordering hills of the Yarra Valley six years ago, there was a special vineyard near the hamlet of St Andrews in its direct line of fire. The site was sporting a patch of the most important pinot noir vines in Victoria, if not Australia. 

It was the old Diamond Valley close-planted vineyard – the new bedrock of Punch wines. Planted by David and Catherine Lance, their son James was now responsible for it.

“When I heard where the fire was, straight away I tried to get out there,” James recalls. “But I was 25 minutes away and there were road blocks, and I couldn’t get through. I tried for hours and eventually did, but it wasn’t until the next morning.” It became something like the Saving Private Ryan moment of modern Australian wine. Tragedy burned all around that weekend, but amid that devastation, a symbol of hope had to be saved.

“The fire went straight into the vineyard and zapped straight through the trunks of some of the vines, then went up the hill and was at the winery before Dad could do much about it,” James says. “We’re still not sure how or where it got in, but there are roller doors to the winery and there’s a gap or a weak point at the top, and we think that’s where it was.”

With a roar of wind and flames, it was in; the winery’s storage section was first to succumb. It housed a bottling line with empty and full bottles, and stacks of cardboard boxes for packaging. It all went to blazes. “Everything, completely ruined. Twenty pallets of wine,” James says.

Another section of the winery housed cellar reserves of wine as well as the as-yet unreleased 2007 and 2008 vintages, and while fire didn’t make it right into this section, it got up under various surrounding verandahs and burned along the outside walls. The wine wasn’t destroyed outright, but most of it was ruined by radiant heat. “The vast majority was cactus,” James says.

The Lance family had been growing wine on the property since 1976 and had been at the vanguard of Australian pinot noir’s long slow journey towards real quality; its museum stocks were treasures of cool-climate Victorian wine. 

The fire wasn’t done yet. David and Catherine Lance still live on the property and the fire got into the roof of the family house. That looked like it was going too – the home, the heart of everything that had happened on that property over the past 40-odd years – until Country Fire Authority trucks suddenly appeared. They ripped the tin sheets straight from the roof and controlled the fire seconds before it spread into the house proper. 

The damage bill was left at two sheds, masses of stock, 40 per cent of the estate’s cabernet vines, 30 per cent of the “newer” pinot noir plantings, 10 per cent of all vines across the estate and the need to replace all vineyard trellising and wires. 

The old close-planted pinot noir vines, fundamentally irreplaceable due to their pioneering place in Australian pinot history, were badly burned too. That’s not to mention the massive whack the new Punch brand took to any momentum it had built in the market.

The Lance family founded and ran Diamond Valley Vineyards from 1976 to 2004 before selling it and its commercial stocks to Graeme Rathbone. But they did not sell the all-important estate vineyards or the winery; hence the lightning zero-to-100 arrival of Punch on the Australian wine landscape at the start of 2005. 

Those days walking about the sad, blackened landscape following the fires must have been anxious, to say the least. And for all those reasons – and no doubt many more – it must have been immensely gratifying to have a bunch of winemaking friends help come to the rescue. 

Among them were Bannockburn, Quartz Reef, Mallani Vineyards and others who helped bring the Friends of Punch label to life. 

“Every time I look at a Friends of Punch wine, I just feel really grateful,” James says. He must have also felt incredibly grateful on that fateful day in the following spring when the old closeplanted pinot noir vines sprouted back up from underground, glowing green, like they were young again. Before long they’d be trained back onto wires, shooting buds and setting bunches of grapes, taking in the juices of spring and the warmth of summer, and capturing it for year-round enjoyment. They were alive. 

James could hardly have expected such drama when he took over from his parents almost 10 years ago. “It’s been more of a rollercoaster than I’d expected,” he calmly understates. He was largely frosted out in 2007 and there were the fires in 2009 that saw the vineyard produce only 20 per cent of its usual output in 2010. And in the cool, wet of the notorious 2011 vintage, they spent twice as much in labour hours as they normally would. “Topping things off, a poor spring leading into the 2014 vintage saw crops 60 per cent down.”

If you lack resilience, don’t be a wine farmer. Partly as insurance and partly because James has come to enjoy experimenting with other styles and grapes, the Friends of Punch range of wines continues beyond the aftermath of the fires. 

All this is ironic given James’ attitude to wine when he was growing up. His parents were fast becoming stars of Australian wine, but it had little effect on him. “I used to have no interest in wine. It just looked so hard. It seemed like a really hard way to make money,” he says. 

On leaving school, he found a job with Telstra as part of a digging crew of new cable trenches. He then bounced around a couple of university courses before his dad asked him if he wanted to work a vintage at the family winery. 

It hadn’t struck James as a kid, but as an adult, watching a wine grow from nothing to something beautiful in the bottle was mesmerising. “It was like falling in love. I fell in love with wine, with grape growing, with the whole process. It’s very special. And once I’d fallen in love with it all, I realised why my parents were prepared to work so hard for it,” he says.

When you work through all the steps, you start to see what a beautiful thing wine is. It’s ancient, it’s cool and by [a combination of] chance and intuition and experiment, it tastes amazing.

It’s especially amazing when it’s grown on one of Australia’s great vineyards. “Growing up, it didn’t twig to me that what my parents were achieving here was anything out of the ordinary,” James says. “It wasn’t until later on, when I went to an awards lunch with them and saw Mum and Dad accept an award, and saw that not many trophies were handed out, that it occurred to me that maybe we had a special place.” 

Part of that specialness is the extra-close planting of a section of the vineyard. It’s one of the oldest close-planted vineyards in Australia – a pioneer. “The benefits [of closeplanting] are huge. Intensity, power, tannin; it’s the better wine in the long run.” 

But as James emphasises, it wasn’t planted as a copy of the Old World’s ways. “Dad sat down and worked out the best way to grow the best grapes on our land, taking everything into consideration, and it just so happened that it would work best if the vines grew closer together. For the first 10 years of the close-planted vineyard’s life, we referred to it as the ‘experimental vineyard’,” James says. 

“You have to remember that in the 1980s, we still printed the words ‘pinot noir is the red of Burgundy’ on our back labels because we felt we had to explain what it was. We’ve come a long way since then. When my parents planted two rows of chardonnay in 1977, there wasn’t much of that around either. 

Again though, when we later [in 1984] decided to expand our chardonnay plantings, we didn’t do so because it was the trend – we did it because we were so excited about the taste of the chardonnays we had sitting in a couple of barrels,” James says. “Everything here is all about the taste and about how we can get the wines to taste absolutely as good as they can.”

Punch Wines to Try 

Trapeze Pinot Noir 2012, $28
Trapeze isn’t strictly a Punch wine, but it’s made by James using pinot noir grapes grown on the Thousand Candles vineyard at Gruyere in the Yarra Valley. It’s spice-shot and inherently complex with a ribald personality. The value is high. CM

Punch Lance’s Vineyard Close Planted Pinot Noir 2012, $80 

Super, taut, ageworthy pinot noir. It takes quality and screws it tightly into place; succulent and crunchy at once. CM

Punch Lance’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, $40
Heady, but controlled. Class personified. Races with flavour, but then steely and refreshing through the finish. CM

Visit the Punch winery page.

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