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This winemaker's steely determination, over 30 years
experience, and sheer talent has seen him create a world-class
range of wines, including one of Australia's greatest pinot
Phillip Jones is a phenomenon. Not only is his main medium pinot noir - in the sense that an artist's medium might be clay or paint - Jones has mastered it arguably better than anyone in Australia. And he's done it pretty much on his own.
Jones's background is engineering and management consultancy. He studied as a mature-age student at Wagga Wagga's Charles Sturt University in 1979, the same year he planted his first vines at Leongatha. Jones has looked more to Burgundy for his inspiration and education than to Australian institutions, and his life-changing experience was drinking the Burgundies of Henri Jayer and Armand Rousseau. Perhaps that's why he was for low yields and against irrigation from the start (he's never irrigated his vines). He understands that grape yields must be paltry in order to grow great pinot noir. He's also embraced close-planting and biodynamics.
Rather than follow other winemakers sheep-like into an established wine region, Jones chose South Gippsland in Victoria, where he's almost on his own at Leongatha. However, he points out that it's one of the few places in Australia where the rainfall is sufficiently high and regular that vines can be grown without irrigation. It also follows that ambient humidity is unusually high for an Australian region. Perhaps these reasons help explain how Jones achieved such spectacular results so quickly with one of the world's most cantankerous grapes.
He has a go-it-alone mentality and a terrific feel for wine. Great artists in any field don't spend their time studying what their competitors are doing: they're driven by an internal fire.
Jones readily admits that some of his wines were a bit erratic in the past. These days, he's more focused and more ruthless about quality, and has reduced his once-bewildering number of labels. In 2006 he lost about nine months of his life due to a debilitating attack of shingles, and this experience helped concentrate his mind. Since then, Bass Phillip wines have been better than ever. The outstanding 2010 vintage produced a stunning array of pinots and chardonnays. Even in the year of the deluge, 2011, his wines are light but delightful.
The three wines on top of the hierarchy, the Reserve, Premium and Estate pinots, have always come from the same original four-hectare 1979 block, known as the Estate vineyard. Indeed the same rows and areas within that vineyard are used for each of these wines every year. That's not for any sentimental reason but because those vines give the best grapes, year after year. Bass Phillip's tour de force has always been its Reserve pinot noir, which is listed on the Langton's Classification of Australian Wine.
Bass Phillip vineyards - about 17 hectares in total - are all run on organic principles with some biodynamic practices. Interesting-ly, Jones doesn't use preparation 500, used by almost everyone. "It just exacerbates the fungal problem," he says. He went organic to control weeds and moulds. "Humidity was invented here," he jokes. On the other hand, he does spray preparation 501 (cowhorn silica) which growers in dry climates don't use. "It's very important in our climate."
The regime seems to be working. In 2011, the "vintage from hell" as Jones calls it, Bass Phillip harvested 85 per cent of a normal crop "when others in the region got nothing". There was of course, a great deal of spraying, hedging, leaf-plucking - approximately every week from early November. "I became a complete zombie," says Jones. But the work paid off, as the 2011s are surprisingly good.
Despite the fact that Jones's favourite wines are small-grower Champagnes, he has no plans to get into sparkling wine production. Maybe in another lifetime…
REGION: South Gippsland
YEARS IN THE INDUSTRY: 34
ANNUAL CRUSH: 50 tonnes
STAND-OUT WINE: Bass
Phillip Reserve Pinot Noir