Let’s start with the similarities. Don Quixote was a wandering romantic on a Spanish quest, a noble sort with lofty ideals whose author lent him the epithet “ingenious”. And the differences? The man from La Mancha was vain, deluded and got his name on the cover of the book.
Andrew Marks, meanwhile, turned down the role of hero in his own story. When I ask where the Wanderer moniker came from, he tells me: “I just didn’t feel it needed to be eponymous. The wine has to speak for itself.” You hear that a lot in this game, but often the wines don’t get to do the talking. You sense an ego there, prodding the wine to perform. Wines raised to get themselves noticed, groomed for the limelight.
But the Wanderer wines, like Marks, are measured, modest and gently persuasive. They make no grand demands and then you note their welcome presence, stronger and more enduring than you’d expected. You nod and think, “Good trick,” but then realise it wasn’t a trick. It was good wine. And then you want some more.
Marks has been around wine since he was a child, with his parents planting vineyards at Gembrook Hill in the southern part of the Yarra Valley in 1983. After high school, Marks studied Oenology at Adelaide University and landed a job at Penfolds in 1998, a year after graduating. He stayed with the company until 2003, during which he fitted in vintages in Sonoma, Burgundy and the Languedoc.
Then came the time to expound some Marksist theory. “After working for Penfolds all those years, I just thought I’d be better off working on my own dream rather than someone else’s,” as he puts it. So he returned to the Yarra Valley, where he does his real job at Gembrook Hill.
Marks released his first Wanderer wines in 2005. He started with a pair of field blends – a Gewurztraminer/Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir/Chardonnay rosé – plus a frizzante Muscat he called Moscatito. He then started adopting, bit by bit, the sites that make up the current range. First came a single-vineyard Lower Yarra Pinot Noir in 2007. This was followed a year later by an Upper Yarra Pinot and brilliant Shiraz from single vineyards in Yellingbo and Dixons Creek respectively. In 2010 he added a lovely barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc.
Where a company like Penfolds has a glut of options when it comes to fruit sources, Marks is more exposed to the vagaries of nature at home in the Yarra. Perhaps it’s further sharpened his acutely sensitive touch. “With Gembrook Hill, working in the vineyard you learn year in, year out that you’re producing a wine that’s a product of the year and of the vineyard,” he says. “The most important step is getting the picking day correct. I’m looking for bright, sweet fruit flavours, with the acid balanced.”
Then there’s Marks’s quixotic venture far from the Yarra, in Catalunya. El Wanderer traces its roots back to 2000, the year Marks met “legend” Anna Espelt while working in California. Her family has Carinyena (Carignan) vines planted in 1908 in the Empordà region of Spain’s Costa Brava. Marks worked a few months in the Espelt cellar in 2004, then spent a further six months there a year later, at the end of which he was invited to head up the winemaking. Needless to say he declined, but the annual pilgrimage to this second home continues.
Marks plans the trip to ensure he’s on Catalan soil comfortably in advance of the fruit hitting perfect ripeness. As with the Upper Yarra Pinot Noir, he sorts the Carinyena grapes in the vineyard. He then places them in an open fermenter (10% whole bunches), gives them three weeks on skins and likes to have them pressed to barrel before hopping on the plane back to Australia. “I feel pretty lucky to play with fruit of that character,” he says. “It’s a medium-bodied wine with good structure and balance, light enough to go with fine foods. As with all wines, texture is critical. Texture is what makes wines drinkable and smashable. Sometimes it’s a little bit overlooked.”
The Wanderer name wasn’t simply inspired by Marks’s globetrotting winemaking escapades. He was something of a searcher before all this began and, of course, it isn’t just about him anyway. “I’ve always enjoyed a sense of adventure, and as you get older you realise that pretty much everyone is on a journey in some respect,” he says. “I just want people to drink the wines and enjoy them. And people who look for a little bit more should find it.”
The Wanderer Upper Yarra Pinot Noir 2012 Yarra Valley
Clear pale ruby. Pretty nose, red fruits leaping from the glass accompanied by rhubarb and fresh mint. Crunchy red fruits – strawberry, raspberry, redcurrant – mark the entry, and the wine is shot through with subtle sweetness and spice across the palate. It’s medium-bodied with a somehow surprising intensity. The very fine tannins give a touch of grip and there’s lively acidity. A strong sense of unhurried, assertive flow, leading to a finish of juicy redcurrant and fresh herbs. Gorgeous.
Costs $55 from the Wanderer website – Alcohol 13% – Tasted 14/04/14 – Diam closure
El Wanderer Alt Empordà Carinyena 2010 Empordà DO, Spain
Clear medium ruby, bright and inviting in the glass. Red-fruited nose, raspberries and cherries, with fresh liquorice. It’s juicy and medium bodied in the mouth, with base notes of beetroot earthiness and cinnamon spice playing below buoyant raspberry and blackberry. Firm, chewy tannins and sprightly acidity fit like comfortable clothes. It has a sense of rusticity; candid with a country air to that wholesome fruit and earth. Not fussy and precise, but beautifully composed. Delicious and full of character.
Costs $55 – Alcohol 13.5% – Tasted 14/04/14 – Diam closure