Words: Jane Faulkner | Photos: Bannockburn Wines & Woollaston winery
Following a successful 10-year stint at Bannockburn in Victoria, and two decades in Australia, Kiwi winemaker Michael Glover is returning to his roots in Nelson, New Zealand.
Time was running out. So a sense of urgency precipitated this final tasting with Michael Glover at the distinguished Bannockburn vineyard in Victoria’s Moorabool Valley wine region. Within a matter of weeks he’d be gone, leaving a huge dent in the Australian wine landscape. Our loss and New Zealand’s gain. After two decades or so in Australia, half of that spent at the mighty Bannockburn, Michael decided to acquiesce to a yearning and return to his roots in Nelson, at the top of New Zealand’s south island. Despite working at one of the most extraordinary and lauded Australian producers, nothing could stop his leaving. The desire ran deep, pulsing in his heart through to his very core.
Besides, he adores Nelson for its beauty and untapped wine potential. While there are established producers the likes of Neudorf, Greenhough, Seifried and Waimea Estates, to name a few, the region remains largely youthful and constrained. Yet it is here in the Upper Moutere sub-region that Michael’s love of wine sprouted when his parents established a vineyard in 1984. At 15, he helped push those spindly plants into the warm earth, wondering what all the fuss was about. Coming full circle, he realises people and place are inextricably linked to wine and the synergy between both is what defines them.
Michael’s father, Dr Dave Glover, is a Nelson wine pioneer. With a doctorate in algebra, and later a wine degree, he worked at the Department of Defence in Canberra for 16 years before heading home to New Zealand where he and his wife Penny established Glover’s Vineyard. Today, time is wearing and wearying them.
“My dad’s almost 70, and if I don’t get back, it’ll all go. The vineyard will be sold and then what’s the point? That’s where I started my wine journey and my sister, who’s an architect, feels the same way. We feel the same connection to our place,” says Michael.
There’s much work to be done and he wants to establish a close-planted vineyard soon, but another Nelson link brought him back. Actually two.
Walk about 500 metres across the Glover vineyard and there’s Woollaston winery. Michael left Australia on January 30 to be its winemaker – a coup for the certified organic producer – and how it all came to be is serendipitous. Philip Woollaston, then a Member of Parliament for Nelson throughout the 1980s, was friendly with Dave Glover, and a young Michael helped the politician plant a vineyard 25 years ago.
Michael has longed to make wine unencumbered. A label without compromise, an expression of his personality and more importantly, place. The Hooper family, Bannockburn’s owners, allowed Michael to pursue this providing it didn’t interfere with his commitments to them. That was in 2005.
“When I started thinking about what to do, everything felt a bit illegitimate or a money-making exercise, which is not what I’m about. I could have bought fruit from anywhere, put my label on it and sold it easily, but I realised the only thing that was going to make me happy and fulfilled was to make something authentic. To do that, I had to go home.”
In late 2012, at the behest of his wife, Cath, Michael contacted Woollaston wanting to buy a tonne of their best pinot noir off their most masculine block so he could ferment using 100 per cent whole bunches. He says there was a simpatico between him and winemaker Shane Munn, although he praises vineyard manager Julian Coakley for his integrity and dedication to organic dry-grown farming. So with vintage 2013, he made 100 cases of pinot noir from fruit off the top of Woollaston’s Mahana dry-grown vineyard, planted in 2004. Mammoth was born. It turned out better than he expected.
Then late last year, four days away from signing papers to build a house near Bannockburn, Woollaston asked Michael to be the winemaker. Shane Munn was leaving to take up a gig in British Columbia.
“It’s as if the wine gods had sent the train to the station and said ‘the train only stops once, so hop on board. Or stay’.”
Michael will rock the Nelson establishment and be a shining light, part of the new wave, next generation. It will be exciting to witness his on-going journey. However, a few weeks shy of leaving Australia, his Bannockburn legacy is in front of me.
This impressive tasting at the winery includes samples of the top chardonnay, S.R.H, named after the late founder, Stuart Reginald Hooper. It is made with fruit coming off 12 specific rows from a vineyard planted in 1976. The stunning 2010 is unparalleled and Michael’s favourite. The flagship pinot noir, Serré, from its namesake close-planted vineyard, is also here, including the 2012, the finest yet. Other wines include the Douglas, a juicy cabernet blend, and the blandly named sauvignon blanc, which is far from bland and actually a blend with riesling at 12% and chardonnay at 2% for the 2014. The latter two are the least expensive, at $30 and $32 respectively, with S.R.H at $75 and Serré $95.
Michael leaves Bannockburn in a better state than when he found it and with the strongest line-up of wines to date although, he says, “it’s like leaving your children behind”. The yet-to-be-announced winemaker will have some of the best chardonnay in Australia and, “I think Serré is the best pinot vineyard. I thought it was the best in the country before I arrived and it still will be when I’m long gone,” he says.
Whether you agree with him or not, he’s never been afraid to state his point of view frankly yet with honesty – and there’s not enough of that candour in the Australian wine scene. But he’s not flippant. Michael is a deep thinker, one of the most perceptive, intelligent, considered yet rebellious winemakers. After 20-plus years making wine, he no longer accepts anything as given. He doesn’t simply question the status quo, he challenges it.
“I’ll always say a winemaker needs a degree and I don’t resent what I was taught at school [he studied wine science at Charles Sturt University] but I resent it being taught as the way and not a way of making wine. It did me harm from a creative point of view and I had to unlearn it.”
He did that by going to Italy and France in 2001 and ’02 and taking a dose of humility. A lesson came while working alongside Bruno De Conciliis from Viticoltori De Conciliis in Campania who was fermenting fiano on skins. “I said you can’t do that. He said, why not? Well, there’s a textbook saying you can’t do that because it’ll be phenolic and oxidised. Then I tasted the wines and they were not just good, they were great. I remember it being a huge slap in the face. I thought I was an open-minded winemaker, then I realised how blinkered I was and how narrow our field is in Australia.”
It’s why he’s annoyed by some commentators who have criticised the amount of whole bunches in Bannockburn’s pinot noirs, although a common practice with many Burgundian producers.
Glover doesn’t have a problem with the criticism, it’s opinion, but he takes issue with it appearing as a truth.
“We objectively use whole bunches to bring femininity to a masculine area, which is Bannockburn, Moorabool. If you were to destem it all, the pinot would be muscle on muscle. It really would be a dry red. It is a tough environment here and so whole bunches let you stay in the pinot game. They bring elegance. They bring perfume and they bring restraint.”
Forget whole bunches, that’s part of Bannockburn; talking about lees and its effect on whites is far more interesting, he says. For several years, the S.R.Hs have spent around three years on lees, although with no batonnage as such. A sample straight from the 1200-litre oak cask of the unsulfured 2013 is mind-blowingly fresh, flavoursome and vibrant.
Not an S.R.H but another chardonnay vintage 2011, a ‘little project’ he calls it, has been in stainless steel tanks on lees for four years and will be released with five years’ aging, with half remaining on lees for seven years. Many might think the wine would be clunky or worked; it’s not. It’s the opposite – complex, layered and lively. As Michael says, the lees are keeping the chardonnay fresh. Regretfully, he won’t be making any decisions on Bannockburn’s unfinished wines.
So will it be disheartening to hear when or if another winemaker slips into Bannockburn and perhaps unravels some of his hard work?
“It’s a natural inclination [for a winemaker] to make changes and that’s the way it has to be. It is time for someone else to run with it. I’ve had 10 wonderful years and I’m grateful for my time here. I’m leaving as a different winemaker to when I started.”
An appreciation of site and valuing time are two gifts he takes away from his experience of the past decade. “The limiting factor of any wine is the site. You could be the greatest winemaker 57on the planet but you’re only as good as your site. You can’t make it any better than what it is, so one of my legacies has been to dispel myths.”
“When I arrived there was this Gary Farr thing [Bannockburn’s first winemaker left in 2004 after a bitter falling out with the Hooper family], a cult of personality, signature stuff. I’d like to think I’ve proved this place is greater than any winemaker. If you let it, this site makes the winemaker. It made me. It made Farr. It’ll make the next person.”
“As to time, some of my greatest joys at Bannockburn have been coming in on a Sunday with no one around, just wandering through the cellar, tasting from barrel and thinking, what if I do this? If do that, what would happen? All the while taking notes and coming back to them a week or six months later once those ideas have taken shape.”
Gesturing to the wines still in barrel, including a cracking 2014 Range shiraz, he’s saying adieu to friends.
“I love these wines. I love this place. But I don’t feel I belong here,” says Michael. “The only place I can commit to is where I am from, Nelson. I am not saying it’s better but it’s where I belong. I am going home to my future and my destiny.”
Wines to try
Jane Faulkner on four wines in the Bannockburn range…
Bannockburn 2013 Mammoth Pinot Noir 96 points RRP $70
A beautiful, unforced wine, fragrant with a heady mix of florals, cherries, damp earth, a whiff of prosciutto, woodsy spice and an appealing lozenge character. While fuller bodied, there’s a restraint too, an alluring quality drawing into balance the supple and ripe tannins, sweet fruit plus lively acidity before a persistent finish. Sourced from a dry-grown organic vineyard in Upper Moutere, NZ, with the back label stating: “no acid, enzyme or yeast additions in the production of this wine to ensure authenticity and respect of the site. Mammoth makes wines of presence, personality and place.” Hear, hear.
Bannockburn 2011 S.R.H 97 points RRP $75
S.R.H is one of Australia’s great chardonnays and a reflection of its site. This is a real yin and yang wine. It has spent three years on lees taking its time to morph into a layered, complex wine, and the result is utterly delicious. Superbly balanced with complex sulphides and phenolics all flinty and smoky with a savouriness intermingling with lemon and grapefruit pith, lemon curd, fennel seeds and creamy nougat. Layers of flavour and depth and has flesh yet the fine, tangy acidity keeps this vibrant. Still tightly wound and needs time. A sterling chardonnay. Due for release mid-year.
Bannockburn 2012 Serré 98 points RRP $95
Serré is Bannockburn’s flagship pinot noir – a wine of great presence. Complex nose of florals, damp forest floor, orange zest with a Campari-esque character, cocoa and exotic Middle Eastern spices. A core of rich plum and cherry fruit although more on the savoury spectrum with a stemmy lift, there’s a real drive here. A full-bodied, structured and muscular pinot yet has such supple, detailed tannins, and overall a sapid young wine with a long future. The finest Serré to date. Bravo. Due for release mid-year.
Bannockburn 2012 Douglas 95 points RRP $30
Who would think putting 100% whole bunches of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and shiraz together in the ferment would make the wine so appealing? Michael Glover, that’s who. The result is a structured, highly perfumed wine. There’s no hint of greenness or hard stalky characters, instead this is concentrated, full-bodied and deep. Full of currants, menthol, red and black licorice, mocha, twigs with cassis and leafy freshness and new leather. Very good fruit on the palate with compact ripe tannins and refreshing acidity. Due for release around May.