Tag Archives: Mornington Peninsula

To Be Dexterous & Deft

So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact
And remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.
And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed!

– Dr Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

Tod Dexter went a long way to get where he is today, at home on his Mornington Peninsula vineyard this crisp autumn day. And he wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for some sound advice from his mum.
Young Dexter had yet to settle on anything serious after leaving school in the mid-70s. He’d “travelled a bit and done a bunch of jobs”, including a stint with one of Melbourne’s best known wine merchants and a weekend in the cellar at Wantirna Estate. His latest escapade was a ski season in the States. His mother asked if he was going to carry on that way for the rest of his life. Dexter thought probably not. “And so she said: ‘Why don’t you go to the Napa Valley and learn how to make wine?’ And I thought: ‘That sounds like a good idea’.”
That was May 1979. Robert Mondavi’s was the first door he knocked on – and the first of many to knock him back. “So I got a job in a cooperage assembling barrels and I figured I’d either take it up as a trade or at the very least meet winemakers coming in to pick up barrels.”
And that’s just what happened. Bruce Cakebread of Cakebread Cellars picked up on the accent and gave him the break he was looking for. Dexter’s drifting days were over; he rolled up his sleeves and remained elbow-deep in Cabernet, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay until 1986, overseeing a crush that grew from 150 to 800 tonnes. “I look back on it now as a seven-year apprenticeship,” says Dexter. “I got involved with every aspect of the business. They more or less adopted me for that period, so it was a really good time.”
During that period he met wife Debbie, and the two of them started to toy with the idea of setting up in Australia in the mid-80s. Back-to-back vintages at Brown Brothers in the King Valley in 1985 and ’86 served as a trial.
The experience – including the jump from Cakebread’s boutique operation to a 6,000-tonne crush – was a good one. “Brown Brothers were fantastic to work with, a really nice family. They were very generous to Debbie and me being ‘foreigners’ from America and it was very good to see the other side of the industry.”

Dexter at Stonier, 1991
Dexter at Stonier, 1991
Dexter came home for good in late 1986 with a six-week-old daughter in tow. Two years previously he’d come back for his sister’s wedding and fitted in a recce of the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula. On that same trip he’d met up with the peninsula’s pioneer vignerons. “I was kind of impressed with the wines but it just looked like a small, backyard industry and I wasn’t sure it had the potential to go as far as the Yarra Valley had already come,” he recalls. But when push came to shove, the former ski instructor couldn’t resist the lure of the beach.
He and Debbie bought land on a north-facing slope in Merricks North and planted vines in 1987. That same year he made the wines at Elgee Park. That hotchpotch harvest speaks volumes about the region’s fledgling status at the time. The grand sum of 15 tonnes was crushed, from a quintet of producers with two varieties apiece.
And then came Dexter’s next Cakebread moment. One of those five producers was Brian Stonier, whose winemaker, Stephen Hickinbotham, had been killed in a plane crash the previous year. “Brian realised he could do one of two things,” says Dexter. “He could either stay very small and keep it as a hobby, or he could grow the business. He decided it was time to take the giant leap of faith and build a brand. So he said to me: ‘Do you want to come along for the ride?’ And I said: ‘Sure, why not?’”
Dexter knew where he was with Chardonnay after his time in Napa (his preference for the “unhygienic” practice of barrel fermentation initially raised eyebrows among Morningtonians, mind you) but these were early days for peninsula Pinot Noir, a grape with which Dexter had scant experience. “The first one I made was the ’87 Stonier and it was not very good,” he laments. “It really gave us no clues.”
He got a bit more of a clue about the heartbreak grape when he spent some time working with James Halliday at Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley. “I spent three weeks living in James’s house. We obviously drank a few Burgundies and that gave me some good tips on how to handle Pinot,” says Dexter.
The 1988 Pinot was “lovely” but was followed by the “wet, terrible” 1989 vintage and a thin 1990. But 1991 turned out well, and a further glimmer of hope came when Domaine Chandon selected a Stonier Pinot Noir to serve at its gala opening in the Yarra Valley that same year. Other high points included the shock of winning Best Varietal Red Wine at the Adelaide Wine Show in 1994 and then Best White Wine at the International Wine Challenge in London for the 1999 Reserve Chardonnay.
“The ups and downs were extraordinary,” says Dexter of the Mornington Peninsula’s learning curve. “A lot of people think it’s always been Chardonnay and Pinot and it’s always been great and it was always an easy decision. In fact it was the pioneers like Brian Stonier, Garry Crittenden, George Kefford of Merricks Estate and Nat White of Main Ridge who did all the hard work and made it easier for the newer players.”
Dexter left Stonier in 2003 to take the reins at Yabby Lake, whose vineyards are a stone’s throw from his own. In 2006, a decade and a half after his site started yielding fruit for Stonier, he turned 50. A friend told him if he didn’t do his own thing now, it’d never happen. The Dexter label was born.
His vineyard is planted to 10 acres of Pinot Noir and 7.5 of Chardonnay, and he makes roughly the same quantity of each. He knows a lot more about Pinot now than when that single barrel of ’87 Stonier – topped up with Cabernet, by the way – dribbled dishearteningly into the glass. What he strives for in Pinot is what he looks for in any wine he drinks: aromatics, prettiness, texture, elegance, line and length.
He’s altered his approach to Chardonnay, too. “In Australia we got stuck in a wave of thinking bigger is better. We were producing many wines that by today’s standards were just too big and clumsy to be enjoyable. But journalists loved them, the show system loved them. It was the way we were. Even the 1999 Stonier Reserve Chardonnay in its day was probably a bit clumsy.”
Now, though, it’s all about elegance and finesse, acid balance, good fruit and a lick of oak. “And drinkability,” he adds. “That’s a word I use more often now than ever before. You’ve got to be able to enjoy more than a glass and not feel like you’ve drunk too much. We’re older and wiser but we’ve also got older Chardonnay vines. What I know from my vineyard is I can pick at earlier sugar levels and still get really good flavours and a nice natural acid balance. I couldn’t have done that 15 years ago. We needed to let the grapes hang longer and get riper.”
So it is that the happy-go-lucky youngster who drifted off to the US ski fields all those years ago has become a sage of this relatively young region. “Those formative years make it so much easier to do what I do now,” says Dexter. “But that was never part of the grand plan. The business plan I wrote in 1984 was to come home and buy the land, plant the vineyard, build a winery and start selling the wine. It’s taken a bit longer than I thought.”

Dexter Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay 2012

Clear pale straw. The nose is fairly pronounced, a roll call of inviting Chardonnay characters. It has lemon rind, grapefruit, nectarine, grilled nuts, toast and a suggestion of burnt caramel. From the citrus-edged attack flows a medium-bodied, intense palate that wraps in everything that was on the nose. Lively and fresh, the zesty acidity giving it real drive. It’s got beautifully integrated oak and fruit, impeccable line and impressive, delicious length. Exemplary Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay.

Costs $40 direct from the producer – Alcohol 13% – Tasted 27/05/14

The Good Grump’s Gamay

If you want to read a gushing review of this post, don’t look to David Lloyd. I remember him telling me some time ago that he’d read a feature I’d written for the literally titled Australian & New Zealand Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine. I’d agonised over the piece and was pleased with the result. I gave Lloyd about a minute to follow up with the inevitable compliment.
Not a word.
“And…?” I dumbly enquired. “Bit fluffy,” came the reply.
You can see where the Mr Grumpy moniker came from that adorns his favourite mug and t-shirt. But really that’s all show. It was his kindness that first brought me to Eldridge Estate, the beautiful, eight-acre vineyard he and wife Wendy have called home since 1995. He didn’t know me from Adam but still let me loose on the vineyard, indulging my curiosity with some “work” leading up to the 2013 vintage.
Perhaps a better measure of his goodness was the way he dealt with my wrapping his tractor around Row T of the Pinot Noir. He didn’t even take the piss. Maybe he forgot.
If you cut David Lloyd he would bleed Pinot, and the fact he refers to Wendy by the acronym QoC – Queen of Chardonnay – tells you almost all you need to know about their devotion to the Burgundy grapes so prevalent on the Mornington Peninsula.
Almost, but not quite. When they bought the Red Hill property, they glimpsed an extra opportunity. “We were standing, looking at the hills and imagining Beaujolais, where the vineyards face due south with rolling hills. And we thought, ‘Let’s put Gamay in because we love it’.”
That affection dates back to a trip to France in the 80s. Travelling around on “ill-gotten (gambling) gains” he had no qualms about spanking some francs on fine wine. The gay abandon with which he worked his way through a “cheat list” of top Burgundy left him somewhat blinkered. “It was only at the end of the trip that I’d look around and think, ‘What’s everyone else drinking?’,” he recalls. “You’d be amazed. There was Beaujolais everywhere. It was always Morgon or Moulin-à-Vent, and the odd Fleurie. So I tried it and it was more food friendly that just about any other wine I’ve come across.”
This attribute seems to have won Gamay a lot of fans among young sommeliers I know, who seem to come at it untouched by the Nouveau nausea that seems to have afflicted older generations. Likewise they seem not to subscribe to that most irrational of wine prejudices: that a drink-young drop, no matter how delicious, is somehow less valid than a venerable, ageworthy Pinot Noir.
Now Lloyd may be as pious about Pinot as the next Morningtonian, but this man of contradictions commits what many round here would hold to be a sacrilege. Since 2011, he’s released a Pinot/Gamay blend he calls PTG, modelled on Bourgogne Passetoutgrains. The exact make-up of the blend is not predetermined but every year it’s ended up a 50:50 split, while Lloyd tends to select the Gamay and Pinot batches that show up lightest from his hotchpotch of clones. It’s then aged in 30% new French oak to give it a bit of oomph. “The key factor is I want the PTG to be light and fresh,” says Lloyd. “I want it zingy, with a bit of acid kick. I also like it to have a slight hint of spritz.”
For my money, it’s a lovely, bright-fruited summer wine with slow-burning depth. But tell him I found it a bit fluffy.
2014-02-14 09.37.52
Eldridge Estate Gamay 2012 Mornington Peninsula

Clear crimson purple in colour, with a nose of cherry, plum, kirsch and geranium. It’s dry and medium-bodied, with nicely defined cherry and blueberry fruit plus a hint of cherry cheesecake. It has a pleasing plum-skin texture and grip, with cracked black pepper coming in to offset the juicy fruit. Firm acidity pushes it out to moderate length with lingering plum and sour cherry aromas. This vintage shows plenty of spice and brooding depth; drink with Chinese duck pancakes or chorizo and serrano ham.

Costs $38 at the cellar door – Alcohol 13.5% – Tasted 03/02/14

Onannonward Journey

“Wow. This is my first interview,” jokes Will Byron. As we watch my one-year-old son clamber over barrel racks towards the sulphur dioxide, I think it’s fair to say Byron hasn’t hit the big time yet. But I’m honoured to catch him near the start of Onannon’s journey. The three lads behind it have “proper” jobs at wineries of fine repute. But this too is a serious venture that’s turned out some seriously good wines.
Charming, cheerful and hardworking, Byron’s the kind of bloke at whom mums would gladly fling their daughters – or themselves. The same could be said for the other two Onannoners, Kaspar Hermann and Sam Middleton, grandson of Mount Mary legend Dr. John Middleton. The three of them kicked off Onannon with a three-barrel production of Gippsland Pinot Noir in 2008. By 2012, the range had grown to three releases, taking in a Mornington Peninsula Pinot and Gippsland Chardonnay.
When I first heard the name it immediately called to mind the peerless Longpigs song On and On, while it seems those of a less romantic bent have linked it with a seed-spilling sinner from the Bible. It is, in fact, an amalgam of the last letters of the boys’ surnames. Whatever, it seems assured that the story of Onannon will run and run.
Gippsland likewise appears to have a bright future. The likes of Phillip Jones of Bass Phillip have put it on the map but that map remains sketchy. “I think it’s still an untapped resource. It’s going to take people to go out there and make definable wines from specific sites for Gippsland to become a region that people can taste and recognise,” says Byron. “It’s nice to feel like you’re at the forefront of a region getting discovered.”
For those who don’t know, Gippsland is a zone to the east of Melbourne’s suburbs, with well over 200km separating its westernmost winery from its counterpart in the farthest east. The latest edition of James Halliday’s Australian Wine Encyclopedia has the area’s winery tally at 56, but it’s a fair bet a few new ones have sprung up since.
Onannon makes its wines on the Mornington Peninsula, home to the bolder but equally good Pinot Noir the trio makes. Their Gippsland wines, meanwhile, betray the coolness of the zone with their fresh, almost crunchy fruit. “We’re not afraid of having some acid in our wines,” says Byron. “To my mind, Chardonnay and Pinot are wines that probably should be a little bit edgy when they’re young. You’re waiting for the flesh and personality to go around the skeletal stuff that you prepare when you’re making it.”
Fruit for the 2012 wines came from East Gippsland. Byron says the Chardonnay here shows stone fruit characters reminiscent of classic Yarra Valley, while the acid line reminds him of the Mornington Peninsula. On top of that, there’s an elusive dimension that sets it apart. This particular one was fermented and aged for 10 months in French oak barriques (25% new), saw a little lees work and didn’t undergo malolactic fermentation.
The 2012 Pinot hails from another vineyard close by, where Byron sees “gameyness, purity and prettiness” as hallmarks. The future 2013 release, on the other hand, is made from South Gippsland fruit, noted for the structure and ageworthiness of its wines.
Byron and his partners are “bloody busy doing a lot of other things” but they’ll somehow find time during vintage to put together some more head-turning wines. The plan is for one of them, most likely Byron, to take a lead and build it into a two to three thousand-case production over the next couple of years.
“We’re just really good mates and we wanted to make wine together,” says Byron. “It’s a bit like being in a band. We could all go off and release our own solo albums but we thought that with the three of us coming together, it just ticks all the boxes.”

Onannon Gippsland Chardonnay 2012

Gleaming medium lemon in colour with a somewhat muted nose of lemon peel, peach and banana skin, plus some nuttiness. It really grabs your interest on entry, with pure, zesty lemon zinging around a core of firm white nectarine. Tightly structured and focused, with bracing, citrusy acid driving it to a white-grapefruit finish of moderate length. Drink now to 2018+.

Costs $38 direct from producer – Alcohol 13.3% – Tasted 22/12/13 – Diam

Onannon Gippsland Pinot Noir 2012

Crimson pink and perky, a touch hazy too. Lovely, fragrant nose of strawberries, red cherries, fennel and spice. Fresh, crunchy red berries are there on the silky palate, which has good intensity, too. The tannins are fine, the acidity cleansing with a tangy sharpness. The finish of wild strawberry with a faint whiff of rose petals leaves the mouth watering for another glass. Beautiful, summer-drinking Pinot Noir. A revisit a few months later showed greater complexity and depth to the wine; I expect the next five or so years to be very kind to it.

Costs $38 direct from producer – Alcohol 12.8% – Tasted 03/09/13 – Diam

Quealy’s Daring Gambol

Pobblebonk. I know what you’re thinking: Wacky. Wait till you hear the ingredients. But this inauspicious start heralds an experience as joyous and carefree as a frolic in summer meadows. And then there’s Rageous. Odd name again, the label displeased my eyes and the ménage à trois – Sangiovese, Shiraz and Pinot Noir – seemed a tad far-fetched. The woman behind it admits her friends tried to save her from herself. “When I made Rageous, everyone said ‘You shouldn’t make that wine’. But it’s like the Pobblebonk. To make it, you have to commit from the beginning; you can’t just whack it together later on.”
Few would dispute the fact that Kathleen Quealy’s committed – though some might wonder if she should be committed. These are wines that undoubtedly inspire curiosity. I had to know more.
Fittingly it developed into something of a quest, in spite of the fact they were concocted a stone’s throw from my home. Part of the problem was the holiday season, part of it communication issues. “So where do I find your blog? Is that an internet thing?” she asked when I tried to set up an interview.
I was pleasantly disoriented on arrival at Balnarring Vineyard. It was like landing in a foreign country, an extreme version of Australia, possibly some time in the past. Quealy was hanging out washing on the garden fence, with five bikes lined up like family outside the shed. She still hadn’t seen my blog. “I went on the internet last night to try to figure out how to use the washing machine,” she explained. “That kind of broke me.”
Quealy started the business in 2006, three years after selling T’Gallant, the Mornington Peninsula winery she’d built up with winemaker husband Kevin McCarthy. The wines I’m dealing with here, Pobblebonk and Rageous, were the first made under the new venture, though the range has expanded to include varietal wines from Pinot Gris, Friulano, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo.
Pobblebonk is a nickname given to a number of species of Australian frog of the genus Limnodynastes. Their call, according to the Frogs of Australia website, is “a short musical, explosive note producing a resonant ‘bonk’”. When the billabong banter really gets going, it’s apparently quite a rousing chorus.
The name was chosen to evoke the symphony of grapes: Friulano, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay and Moscato Giallo. The inspiration for the wine was twofold: the Pinot Grigio blends of Friuli in Italy, and whites such as Houghton White Burgundy, the humble but brilliant Aussie wine which always had a good splash of aromatic grapes.
Pobblebonk is a field blend, which is important because “it has to be like a problem that you solve”. Friulano was chosen as the dominant component because of its high acidity and scent of meadow flowers. The Friulano and Moscato are given 24 hours’ skin contact for texture, and these pile on the aromatics alongside the Riesling.
The Rageous, on the other hand is Quealy’s “rip-off of the super-Tuscan”. It’s a blend of roughly 50% Sangiovese, 30% Shiraz and 20% Pinot Noir and is only made in years when the peninsula – a Chardonnay and Pinot haven – ripens the less-common black grapes well.
The Sangiovese and Shiraz are co-fermented, the Pinot added as soon as possible in order to keep its tannin. It spends 30 days on skins, with only the free-run juice used for the wine, which then spends 18 months in a mixture of French and American oak.
The label bears the Ogden Nash-penned couplet: In the land of mules, there are no rules. The Latin rendering of this (‘Mundus
 mulorum/non est regularum’, in case you’re rusty) was once handed to Quealy by a former colleague. “It kind of means that if you do it yourself, you can do whatever you want,” she explains. “That’s all it is really, just a bit of fun.” There are diehard Rageous fans out there – and I’ve met a few – but then plenty of others who won’t go near it.
So do we call it a cult wine? Quealy laughs at the suggestion. “Maybe it is a bit cult, but not with the heavy hitters. I think I’m going to miss the heavy hitters in my lifetime.”

Quealy Pobblebonk 2012 Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
Pale straw in colour, it has a super-fragrant nose of chamomile, citrus blossom and honey, alongside apple, pear, apricot, lychee and slightly soapy Muscat grapeyness. Medium bodied with good flavour intensity, those orchard, citrus and stone fruits skip over each other through the slippery mid-palate. Even with that range, it’s nicely bound and harmonious, with some stone-fruit kernel savouriness too. The fine natural acidity and phenolic grip leave the perfume and a hint of sweetness lingering on the finish. A lovely wine showing great flair, probably best enjoyed over the next three years or so.

Costs $28 from the cellar door – Tasted 11/10/13 Alcohol 13.2%

Quealy Rageous 2012 Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
Clear pale ruby in colour with a fairly pronounced nose of sour cherry, plums, fennel and dusty earth. The palate is bursting with sweet cherries and plums with layers of earth, black cherries and vanilla creeping in beneath. It’s exquisitely soft but the real joy is how nicely framed the wine is, with tannins ranging from fine to dusty and chewy shepherding the fruit to a long and very moreish finish. This offers well-judged generosity, and Sangiovese rightly gets its chance to shine. Drink with lamb backstraps. I’d expect it to develop nicely over the next five years.

Costs $35 at Merricks General Wine Store – Tasted 11/01/14 – Alcohol 13.5%

Yabby Über Achiever

It’s barely been around five minutes, but it’s made quite a name for itself. Yabby Lake Block 1 Pinot Noir 2012 has just picked up best Pinot Noir and best single-vineyard dry red at the National Wine Show of Australia. That’s after becoming the first Pinot ever to win Australia’s most prestigious wine prize, the Jimmy Watson trophy.
Easy to suspect the bloke who made it of serial over achievement, too. Tom Carson was Dux of the Len Evans Tutorial in 2002 on his way to becoming the youngest National Wine Show chairman, and also led Yering Station to the International Winemaker of the Year title in 2004.
I got a chance to chat with the man of the moment following his triumph at last month’s Royal Melbourne Wine Awards, where his victory speech eloquently summarised his philosophy: “Wines for me shouldn’t have winemaker thumbprints all over them. They should be very natural, very easy, very expressive and just show their beauty without being poked and prodded and fined, filtered or manipulated.”
Carson was quick to dish out credit to Australian Pinot pioneers (pinotneers?) such as Phillip Jones of Bass Phillip, Main Ridge Estate’s Nat White, wine writer and Coldstream Hills founder James Halliday and the late John Middleton of Mount Mary.
Next came the Yabby Lake team, most notably his “gentle, thorough and sensitive” vineyard manager, Keith Harris. It was Harris who planted the vines in 1997/98 and laid the groundwork for greatness. “It’s an exceptionally good site,” Carson told me. “When I arrived in 2008, that’s when we started really delving into the vineyard and looking at each part of it as a separate wine – and trying to understand what we could do, during the season and in the winery, to bring those wines to life, to get that potential out of the vineyard and into the bottle.”
The meticulous mapping of the vineyard, with its myriad clones and sections, means Carson and Harris roam the rows for up to five hours a day during vintage. They chew the fat, taste the fruit and work out when the everything will be ready. “Getting the picking right is a massive part of winemaking,” says Carson.
And from the moment the Block 1 fruit came in, he was sure he was onto a winner. “Right through its ageing in barrel, it was always destined to be a block wine. For me, Pinot has beautiful texture, and this has fragrance and aromatics, with some rose petals and beautiful violets and real subtlety and detail in the aromas. The wine has got a lot of extract and depth and evenness to the palate. There’s real gravitas and energy at the back palate. The completeness of it is what excited us.”
For sure, Carson’s creation isn’t a light, bright babe. It’s a dark, brooding and serious Pinot Noir: deep in colour, with dark cherries, plums and spice beneath those floral tones. Its silky texture belies a taut strength and imposing length. And there’s no question it’s only just begun; the fragrance, purity and structure are obvious, but it’s just hinting at pleasures to come, with 2014 to 2022 shaping up as a promising window.
Just as Block 1’s best is ahead of it, I wouldn’t count on Carson & Co resting on their laurels. If he’s prepared to accept credit for anything, it’s setting “impossible” standards – and pushing his team to surpass them. “It’s about instilling confidence in people that we can do it better next year.”
Yabby Lake Block 1 Pinot Noir 2012
The nerdy stuff: The MV6-clone fruit for Yabby Lake Block 1 Pinot Noir 2012 was grown on the lower, more sheltered part of the vineyard in Moorooduc on the Mornington Peninsula. The soils here are light clay over loam, though they’re a bit deeper, the clay a touch heavier, than in other parts of the vineyard. It was hand picked, hand sorted and gently de-stemmed into small open fermenters, with a small percentage of whole bunches added. Carson then gave it a three- to four-day soaking before a fermentation that peaked at 32 degrees. The wine was pressed off skins after 10 days into French oak puncheons for malolactic fermentation and maturation. It stayed in oak until February 2013, when it was bottled. Only 270 dozen made.