2012 Winemaker of the Year finalists
The first four finalists
It’s time to meet the first four finalists from this year’s compelling field of talent.
By the end of the 15th year of presenting this major Australian award, Gourmet Traveller WINE will have told the story of more than 120 women and men who have graced this country’s landscape transforming quality grapes into wines that have ranged from daringly cutting edge to dazzlingly traditional, from superb to sublime: bubblies, whites and reds across the full spectrum, stickies and fortifieds.
These are hard years for the industry, but our awards focus on the good-news stories, placing the spotlight on individuals, telling about those with whom they have toiled and the wineries and regions in which they work.
The judges are a constant, comprising myself Peter Forrestal (chairman), Peter Bourne, Nick Bulleid MW, Andrew Caillard MW, Huon Hooke and Sophie Otton. We have concentrated on the quality of wines produced in the recent past – 18 months or so. We all taste exhaustively, regularly noting wines that have stopped us in our tracks and the winemakers who have crafted them.
Two of the winemakers who are reviewed in this issue have already been finalists, Sandro Mosele in 2005 and Virginia Willcock in 2010. Mosele has attracted further attention because of the refinements he’s made to his single-site chardonnays and pinots, as well as the work he’s done on Italian varietals. Willcock has been largely responsible for the continued rise of Vasse Felix and has carried all before her on the show circuit in the last few years, especially with her breathtakingly complex 2010 Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay.
An almost obsessive preoccupation with the vineyard is a feature of both of the first-time finalists profiled here: Rob Mann of Cape Mentelle and Timo Mayer of Gembrook Hill and his own label, Mayer. Interestingly, both winemakers have family backgrounds in wine that stretch back more than 100 years and their stories make compelling reading.
Sandro Mosele, Kooyong/Port Phillip Estate
The precise, expressive and harmonious wines of this star of the Mornington Peninsula continue to garner attention across Australia, particularly from within the industry.
Sandro Mosele is a gentle giant – soft, calm and engaging. His passion for pinot is palpable, though recent projects see him making several cool, spicy shirazes and a swath of Italian varieties. Winemaking wasn’t his immediate career path but, coming from an Italian family, who made and drank their own wine, a vinous vocation seemed inevitable. After graduating with an honours degree in biological science, he found himself manag-ing the family farm of prominent Melbourne builders, the Grollo family, which included a small vineyard earmarked for domestic cons-umption. Vintages with Sergio Carlei in 1994 and at Rochford in 1995 were pivotal with Mosele’s tenure at Kooyong beginning in 1996, when the Mornington Peninsula vineyard was merely a gleam in its founder, Chris Aylward’s eye. Wine science at Charles Sturt University followed as Kooyong’s 33-hectares of newly planted chardonnay and pinot noir vines slowly matured.
Mosele graduated from CSU in 1999; the same year he made the first wines in the new Kooyong winery, a substantial structure with the capacity to handle contract winemaking. This gave him the opportunity to play with fruit from local vineyards including Port Phillip Estate, where new owners, Giorgio and Dianne Gjergja, were so impressed with Mosele’s winemaking that they purchased Kooyong and gave him his head. It was a smart move, for not only have the Kooyong and Port Phillip Estate wines flourished but Mosele has become intimately involved in a number of exciting projects with local vignerons such as Paul Scorpo and, further afield, celebrated vine nurseryman, Bruce Chalmers. The Chalmers family has vineyards at Euston on the Murray River with new plantings at Heathcote focusing on Italian varieties, such as vermentino, fiano, negroamaro, nero d’Avola, lagrein, aglianico and sagrantino. Mosele relishes the opportunity to play with these varieties from his ancestral homeland but two other Heathcote projects have been equally stimulating. Greenstone and Graillot are contrasting ventures with shiraz a commn pivot point. The direction of the Greenstone label is largely determined by one of its shareholders, the respected Italian oenologist, Alberto Antonini, while equally respected Rhône Valley winemaker Alain Graillot guides the path of his eponymous project. Mosele may be a great winemaker but he’s also a skilled communicator, with an uncanny ability to nurture disparate philosophies from the vine to the bottle.
These projects add interest and fun to his job. However, his main focus remains on the Gjergja’s Kooyong and Port Phillip Estate wines. And there’s a lot happening, especially after a new cellar door, restaurant, barrel hall and bottling facilities at Port Phillip Estate opened in late 2009. This is a truly magnificent structure with sweeping views and posh public facilities, but for Mosele, it’s what’s underground that’s really important. The cool barrel hall, home for his wines maturing in oak, includes three 6000-litre casks acquired especially to age his exceptional Koyoong single-site pinots – a move in parallel to the introduction of a number of foudre, the French upright wooden fermenters that ensure a slow, gentle ferment of his top wines. It’s these quality winemaking tools that really excite him, as does the purpose-built bottling line – with the versatility to permit both Diam and screwcap enclosures. Hardly romantic stuff, but these on-site facilities allow him much greater flexibility when it comes to final polishing of his wines. He says, “It’s these small incremental steps that add up to a 10-20 per cent improvement in the overall quality of my wines.”
And the wines are in top form, be it the three levels of Kooyong Chardonnay: Clonale, Estate or the two single-site chardonnays, Faultline and Farrago. The Kooyong pinots follow the same path with entry level Massale (a brilliant drink-me-now pinot), the Estate bottling and the trio of pinots – Haven, Ferrous and Meres, each an individual expression of its site. The Port Phillip Estate chardonnay and pinots are remarkably diff-erent. Additionally there’s a super-stylish shiraz and the Quartier selection, which includes the Arneis, Barbera and Pinot Gris. Speaking of pinot gris the Beurrot by Kooyong is a marvellous expression of the variety – as is Mosele’s distinctly different interpretation for Paul Scorpo.
And that’s the wonderful aspect of his winemaking – each of the many wines he creates is a pure reflection of its site. Precise, expressive, harmonious wines from a thoughtful winemaker. Sandro Mosele is right on song.
Timo Mayer, Mayer/Gembrook Hill
With a deep respect for expressions of vintage and site, Timo Mayer produces wines for Gembrook Hill and his eponymous winery that don’t succumb to the whims of fashion.
After many years trying to escape his fate, Timo Mayer has utterly succumbed to it. Born in Germany, where his family have been vignerons for over 300 years, he grew up working in the winery “doing everything”. He learned along the way that it was very hard work, and decided to get as far away from it as he could.
After school, he did an apprenticeship in mechanics. Then he hit the road, travelling for years around North America, Europe and Australia, and picking up restaurant work wherever he went. It was during a stint in Quay West in Sydney that he met his partner Rhonda, whose family hail from Melbourne. Further down the road came children.
“I started getting back into wine when we started breeding,” Mayer explains. “I thought I’ve gotta work, make a living. What am I going to do? I was 28, that’s when it all came together. And then I thought this wine caper doesn’t seem so bad after all.”
After a couple of years in Wagga, in 1996 the family moved to the Yarra Valley. Mayer got a job at De Bortoli, and he and Rhonda began looking for land of their own that they could grow grapes on. In 1998 they found some near Healesville, and in 1999 they planted 10 acres of chardonnay, pinot and shiraz, naming the estate Bloody Hill.
“I love the Yarra Valley, it reminds me of the old country a bit, you know, when you come over the hill at Yarra Glen. But back then the site I was looking at was a paddock, it wasn’t meant for vineyards. That’s why we could afford it. It’s a steep hill and people laughed when we said we were going to grow grapes there.”
In 2000 he left De Bortoli and moved to Gembrook Hill. The demands of Bloody Hill were increasing, and Gembrook at 14 acres was manageable on five days a week. He began experimenting there, applying a new philosophy, and owner Ian Marks was happy with the shift. They started spending more time in the vineyards, thinning shoots, plucking leaves and picking rows as they ripened.
“It’s very European, that site; high acids, low sugars, and even more fertile because the soils are quite vigorous. We changed the vineyards a fair bit, smaller crops, open canopy. It took three years to get to know it and what we can make with it.”
Meanwhile Bloody Hill started producing wine that was moving away from the Australian style popular at the time. The first commercial release was in 2002, but hail damage reduced output to only a few barrels. In 2003 they got a full crop, and they continued going hard, with both he and Rhonda working every day until 2006, when they were able, after seven years, to finally slow down a little.
Bloody Hill is a complete contrast to Gembrook Hill, something Mayer finds stimulating. At Gembrook, the wines are delicate and there’s not really much to do. At Bloody Hill, he wants more savoury flavours, so he uses a lot of stalks. Gemb-rook is a late site as well, three or four weeks later than Bloody Hill, which means he can finish his own crop, then have a break before doing vintage at Gembrook. All the same, his phil-osophy is consistent in both places.
“It’s all about the vineyard. Let the vintage be and let the site be what it is, without making the wine to please other people. It’s whatever the site and the vintage gives you that you should see in the bottle. So with the reds, they get bottled straight from the barrel, more or less. The whites do get filtered, because I don’t do malo and I don’t want them to go through malo in bottle. But I don’t try to make something that wasn’t in the vintage. I’m happy to show both site and vintage.”
Despite his success with Bloody Hill, Mayer is content to continue working at Gembrook Hill. He has reduced his workload, and is now doing three days a week there while things progress at home. He doesn’t seem in a rush to move on. “It’s been perfect ever since I started there so I haven’t left. It’s a good manageable size, nice people, good grapes. I’m loving it. Great lunches as well.”
Rob Mann, Cape Mentelle
Armed with a strong family lineage and a CV littered with time at high-profile wineries here and abroad, Rob Mann continues to cause a stir with his Cape Mentelle wines.
Rob Mann’s family have been making wine in Western Australia since his great grandfather, George made the trek from the Barossa in 1910 to work for Houghton. His grandfather, Jack Mann, retired in 1972 after 51 vintages at Houghton as the state’s most influential winemaker. His uncle, Dorham Mann, was involved in the early days in the Great Southern and Margaret River as a gover-nment viticulturist and wine-maker. Rob Mann grew up in the Swan Valley with these influences, drinking wine (with added water) at each evening meal and having his ice-cream topped with Jack Mann’s fortified frontignac as an occasional treat.
His friendship with Ben Glaetzer, begun while at Roseworthy, meant that he spent a great deal of time at Glaetzer’s in the Barossa and so was able to put into practice over the weekend what he learnt during the week. His eight years at Hardys began with working the first two vintages at the remote 12,000-tonne Stonehaven winery in Padthaway and finis-hed with him as chief winemaker at Tintara in the McLaren Vale. A formative influence was doing the 1999 vintage at the large co-op-erative Casa Vinicola Calatrasi in Sicily which reminded him of the Swan.
His time at Cape Mentelle has convinced Rob Mann that the Margaret River region does best with cabernet, cabernet blends and sauvignon blanc semillon blends and these have been his focus. While believing that Cape Mentelle has made very good chardonnays and shiraz, he is aware that so many vignerons are growing these varieties, and so sees opportunities for growing market share by focusing on what the region does best. Many varieties have been pulled out – marsanne, roussanne, viognier (except a small block for a botrytis wine), grenache, mourvèdre, sangiovese and zinfandel (except the original 1974 planting of bush vines). In this case, young zinfandel vines have been unable to produce what the old vines do, and so the winery gets by with 300 cases of its idiosyncratic red.
Two years after he had been appointed senior winemaker at the LVMH-owned Cape Mentelle in 2005, Mann had a career-influencing vintage at Newton in California when he had to take charge of the winery at short notice for the vintage. He was amazed at the quality of the grapes he saw which he learnt was due to the replanting of the vineyards following their devastation by the phylloxera louse. The vines had been replanted at closer density, using excellent quality rootstock and better clones. The outstanding quality of their machinery for grape sorting at harvest was also a revelation.
In the years since, Mann has supervised the removal of vineyards where the yields were uneconomic and the quality was variable. Replanting was done with rootstocks and imported clonal material. He ventured that explaining to an LVMH accountant in Paris that he wanted to rip out a vineyard of merlot – to replant it with merlot – could have been seen as offering comic possibilities; and was not without its tricky moments. Fundamentally, however, the team at head office has been supportive of his efforts to invest in vineyard redevelopment. The results have seen reds with better clarity of fruit and more supple, finer tannins. This has allowed Cape Mentelle to reduce the percentage of new oak they use and improve drinkability without impacting on ageing potential. Investment of about A$750,000 has dramatically improved fruit handling at Cape Mentelle. As a result of all this work, alcohol levels have dropped from 14.5° to 13.5° and herbaceous notes in the cabernets have been minimalised.
In what has taken place, Mann acknowledges viticulturist, Ashley Wood, who has worked on sustainability, reducing chemical input and making the vines healthier and capable of producing more vibrant wines. He describes his philosophy as consistent with that of founder David Hohnen who wanted “to make one of the defining styles of Margaret River cabernet”. Mann is building on what has been achieved over 40 years and taking the winery one step further.
The single-vineyard Wallcliffe Sauvignon Blanc Semillon from old estate vines is tight, fine, linear and refreshing with a wet slate, cold minerality that runs through it, while the Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc Semillon remains a quintessential expression of this popular region style. The Wilyabrup Cabernet is a welcome addition to the portfolio: primal redcurrant pastille, supple and silky smooth. In 2008, the Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon is finer, more elegant and more fragrant than before: ripe pure blackcurrant flavours, velvety texture, wonderful complexity and lacy, chalky tannins.
Virginia Willcock, Vasse Felix
Second-time finalist Virginia Willcock is renowned for her energy, passion and attention to detail. And of course her incredible Margaret River wines speak for themselves, particularly her Heytesbury Chardonnay.
Young Virginia Willcock’s first experience with grapes and wine came from the “toy vineyard” her father owned with friends at Bindoon, just north of Perth. It seems toys came big then in Western Australia, as the Salvado Spring vineyard had 12 acres of shiraz and grenache grapes which were sold to the Waldeck winery. On weekends, Virginia would join groups of mates to pick, prune and party, and she’d see all the fun her parents and their friends were having as they enjoyed “this rustic wine”.
The 15 year-old Virginia was upset when her parents sold the vineyard, bringing the response from her father, “Well, you’d better study winemaking, then.” And so it was off to the University of Adelaide in 1987, graduating in 1990, with a year’s deferral to get her hands dirty in the vineyard and winery at Capel Vale. After Adelaide she decided to work a vintage in Margaret River at Redgate, where “they soon called me assistant winemaker”, while she “lived out of Bryce’s book (Dr Bryce Rankine’s textbook on winemaking) and lots of phone calls”. She ended up staying for four years. This was clearly a formative period for Willcock and forged her love of Margaret River.
Looking for overseas experience, she started working as a flying winemaker in Europe with Kym Milne MW. Milne remembers her as passionate, focused and seriously hard-working. “She did a terrific job – high volume stuff and small, barr-ique-aged quantities, and made some really good wines. She had the technical skills and communication, too. She’s naturally gregarious and might not have spoken much of their language, but got the message across with her enthusiasm.”
She worked two vintages in Trento and one in Sicily and remembers her excitement about the unfamiliar varieties and the wine diversity. Interspersed with these Northern Hemisphere sojourns were vintages at Cloudy Bay in 1996 and two at Cape Ment-elle in 1995 and 1997. The latter cemented her love of Margaret River, so she gained full-time positions first with contract winemaker Selwyn Wines and later with a group of smaller wineries, including Chestnut Grove and Hay Shed Hill. She joined Vasse Felix as chief winemaker in 2006.
How was it that an Italian-leaning winemaker became so passionate about Margaret River, a place infused almost entirely with French grape varieties? “Travelling is all about finding and bringing back knowledge,” Willcock replies. “I worked in three different regions and the biggest point was the diversity in tannin structure and flavour profiles. What I learnt about tannins was what cabernet could achieve without emulating Bordeaux. Margaret River is a relatively young region and we are still learning how to nurture the fruit.
Cabernet here can give you tannins that are lush like silk and then a really big wallop on the finish.”
What does she find so special about Margaret River? “First, we have a very healthy environment, so often less is better. We’re learning what we can get away with not doing. We don’t use artificial fertilisers, just chook poo, mulch and grape marc. Most of our fermentations aren’t inoculated, including all the chardonnay and the premium shiraz, cabernet and malbec – so just the yeast from the vineyard. We have responsibilities and with our love of the Margaret River region it’s very easy to nurture the vines as part of their environment.”
Matching grape variety to soil type and then using the right canopy management has been a keen thrust for Willcock. She remembers walking around the vineyard not long after arriving and saying, “What’s that doing there? Pull it out!”
Paul Holmes à Court hesitated when I asked him about his colleague at Vasse Felix, “because there’s so much to say. She’s pass-ionate. She really does care about the end product and giving everything attention to detail. Before we appointed her, I could see what she’d done in other jobs with limited resources and was determined to give her the chance to show what she could really do. She believes you’re only as good as your worst wine. Passion, energy and detail – that pretty much sums her up.”
With all that being said, what challenges remain after achieving so much at Vasse Felix in six short years? “There’s never a day when we can’t find new things to do to get the most beautiful representation of Margaret River in the bottle,” she replies. “I’d love to see the day when we can underline the uniqueness of each region, when we can drop the word ‘Australia’ from our labels and just have the regional name, with a less complicated range and stronger focus.”
It seems the past six years were just the beginning. Margaret River grapes couldn’t be in better hands.
WORDS PETER FORRESTAL, PETER BOURNE, SOPHIE OTTON, NICK BULLEID MW PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY KOOYONG/PORT PHILLIP ESTATE, MAYER/GEMBROOK HILL, CAPE MENTELLE, VASSE FELIX
This article is from the June/July 2012 issue of Gourmet Traveller WINE.