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50 Years of Winemaking on the Mornington Peninsula

From pioneers like "Bails" Myer to it's present day champions, Sally Gudgeon explores a half-century of pure Mornington magic.

Everyone loved Bails. Baillieu “Bails” Myer AC was a pioneering grape grower, a businessman, a philanthropist, and a gentleman. His humour, spirit, and generosity touched many lives. He died in January this year, aged 96. 

The commercial wine industry on the Mornington Peninsula started with Bails, even though he only ever viewed it as a hobby. Vines were not new to the region, but had never really flourished in the 19th century as they had  in other areas of Victoria, where the settlers came from wine-producing countries. Early farmers on the Peninsula planted orchards, and ran cattle for meat and dairy.

Baillieu "Bails" Myer - a Pioneering grape grower.

Elgee Park's vine rows.

A few early vignerons, such as Robert Caldwell, and the Balcombe family, ventured into wine-growing in the 1880s, but none of these ventures in the region succeeded. In 1946 Mick Seppelt, from the eponymous wine family, planted five acres of different grape varieties on his pastoral property in Dromana as an experiment. After he sold the farm, a few wines – notably  Riesling – were produced by subsequent owners, but the vineyard was destroyed by a bush fire in 1967. 

So, when Bails planted 400 vines of Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling Elgee Park at Merricks North, in 1972, and built a 50-tonne capacity winery a year later, it was the beginning of something truly remarkable. Three years later,  in 1975,  he released the first commercial Mornington Peninsula wine, a “Rhine Riesling”, made by Ian and Stephen Hickinbotham, both key figures in the early years of wine development in the region for their knowledge and expertise.

 

REGION ON THE RISE

Whilst Bails was the first, others followed shortly after. Nat White AO, and wife Rosalie, wanted to bring a taste of Burgundy to the region, so as well as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, they planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at Main Ridge Estate in 1975. In 1981 they released their first wines, charging the princely sum of $5.50 a bottle for their Pinot.

When Nat was awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 2017 for his services to the wine industry, it was a fitting tribute. He allowed many first-time growers to take vine cuttings and helped them make wine. Lindsay McCall remembers, “When I was first planning a vineyard, he was a great help. He advised me on the width between rows, spacing between vines and which varieties.”

"Bails" at Elgee Park

Kicking back at Main Ridge

A few years after the establishment of Main Ridge, George and Jacquelyn Kefford who had also travelled to Europe, put in Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Riesling at their property, Merricks Estate. Just down the road, another French wine lover, Brian Stonier, bought a property in Merricks North. His inspiration was Champagne, so he planted Chardonnay in 1978, followed by Pinot a few years later, to make the first sparkling wine in the region. 

The early years of winemaking on the Peninsula were a time of trial and effort, but there was a lot of enthusiasm to learn together, help each other, and lend equipment. As early as 1976, a wine seminar was held at Elgee Park, which led to the formation of the Mornington Peninsula Vignerons Association (MPVA) in 1981. The group held blind tastings, industry discussions, and field days on topics such as pruning and trellising methods. A spirit of optimism and cooperation prevailed, which continues to this day. Current president Rollo Crittenden comments, “As a region we have proven ourselves to be stronger as a team than individuals. The MPVA is the mechanism to pull this together.”

Back in the 1980s no one really knew which grape varieties would succeed, even though wine experts were promoting the region as the Antipodean equivalent of Bordeaux. Garry Crittenden planted Bordelaise varieties, when he and wife Margaret bought 27 acres, and established Dromana Estate in 1982. A horticulturist by profession, he was fascinated by the process of growing grapes. He also put in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It was the Dromana Estate Cabernet Merlot blends, however, which received wide critical acclaim, and featured on many of the top Melbourne restaurant wine lists in the 1980s, such as Mietta’s and Lynchs. 

Stonier Winery

Paringa Estate

Following the trend to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, Lindsay McCall decided to grow it too. In 1983, he bought an old north-facing ten-acre orchard, which he cleared and planted a year later. As well as Cabernet, he put in some Shiraz, even though he had been told it wouldn’t ripen. He chose the warmest spot on the property, and the rest, really, is history, as it has won numerous awards over the past 30 years. It is Pinot Noir, however, for which Paringa Estate has established a reputation. This all began with pruning cuttings from Nat White, which Lindsay planted directly into the red soils of his new vineyard.

Hank Vandenham, who was the winemaker at Elgee Park, helped Lindsay with his first vintage in 1987. To press the one tonne of grapes forecast, Lindsay had bought an old milk vat. It was a shock, therefore, when the one tonne turned out to be 140 kilos. Not to be deterred, he found an old fish tank in the garage, and wrapped it in an electric blanket to keep the ferment warm.

Thanks to the courage and perseverance of these pioneers, the Mornington Peninsula is now one of the top wine regions in Australia. Fifty years on, the region has over 200 vineyards and more than 50 cellar doors, and is a major draw. Its cool, maritime climate makes it one of the best regions in Australia for growing Pinot Noir – 52% of production is Pinot –and wine and food tourism is booming. With a few exceptions, notably Elgee Park, Cabernet is a distant memory. 

 

PRIMED FOR PINOT AND COOL CLIMATE CLASSICS

There is considerable stylistic variation in Peninsula Pinot Noir, due to the many different sites. At least seven sub-regions have been identified. To make a broad generalisation, the deep red volcanic soils “up the hill’ in Main Ridge and Red Hill (120–300m above sea level) produce more ethereal, finely structured, red-fruited wines. The sandy soils “down the hill” in Moorooduc and Tuerong (around 50m above sea level) generally yield darker-fruited, more tannic Pinots. Then there’s different characters which derive from the yellow duplex soils in Dromana, and the brown duplex in Merricks. Without doubt, many other amazing terroirs remain to be discovered.

Jamie McCall tapping the barrels at Paringa Estate

Tom Carson and the team at Yabby Lake

Whilst Pinot Noir is undoubtedly terroir-driven, the region’s Chardonnay (at 26% of production) is influenced more by the winemaker than the vineyard. In general, Mornington Chardonnays have the classic cool climate characteristics of citrus and stone fruit, with lively acid and good palate weight.Winemakers such as Ric McIntyre from Moorooduc Estate, Tom Carson from Yabby Lake, Simon Black from Montalto, and Jamie McCall from Paringa Estate, build complexity into their wines through clever winemaking. They use techniques such as fermenting the wine on solids in oak and stirring the lees. Some use malolactic fermentation in certain vintages. Their Chardonnays have flinty, struck match aromas on the nose, and a silky texture reminiscent of top white Burgundies.   

The next grape in order of volume is Pinot Gris (15% of production). Kathleen Quealy and Kevin McCarthy introduced it to the region in the early 1990s when they established their first winery, T’Gallant, at a  time when it was a relatively unknown in Australia. They demonstrated the versatility of this grape by making both the lighter ‘Grigio’ styles popular in Northern Italy, and the more textured, powerful ‘Gris’ wines characteristic of Alsace. 

Wines from Kerri Greens

Kerri Greens' Cellar Door

They now own Quealy Wines, based at the Balnarring Vineyard. After visiting  Josko Gravner in Collio Goriziano, close to the Italian border with Slovenia, and tasting his magnificent amphora wines, they have been experimenting with their own skin contact whites. Their powerful, textured orange Friulano is an Australian first. 

Winemaking flair runs in the family; their son, Tom McCarthy, is building a reputation with viticulturist Lucas Blanck (Domaine Paul Blanck, Alsace) and their label, Kerri Greens. They make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from different sites, a delicious Rosé, and a sweet Gewürztraminer/Pinot Gris blend which pays tribute to Lucas’ heritage. 

 

TOWARDS A CENTURY OF WINE

Adventurous winemaking is also in Rollo Crittenden’s DNA, who heads Crittenden Wines. When discussing his father’s legacy, he says, “I feel pride and admiration. I’m delighted to be continuing his work. He forged a path for the next generation.” As well as making excellent Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, he brings a flavour of Spain with his Los Hermanos range; a Tempranillo, and a crisp, white Saludo.

Rollo Crittenden and the young guns of Mornington Peninsula

Peninsula Pioneer Kathleen Quealy

It is his Cri de Coeur Savagnin, however, which has really sparked media attention. This exquisitely golden, nutty, complex wine is inspired by the vins jaunes from Jura, made from Savagnin, and the fortified wines from Jerez (Sherry). 

So, with the next generation of winemakers firmly making their mark, and continuing the camaraderie and innovation of their forebears, the region is in good hands for the next fifty years. And who knows? Cabernet may even make a comeback...

Wine
Published on
31 May 2022

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