Every week I come across another one or two or 12: funky labels put out by enthusiastic sommeliers; new brands dreamed up by old wineries; début vintages from young vineyards. To help you keep up with all this newness, here's my pick of three of Australia's best emerging winemakers – ones that have really stood out in the last year.
Fleet Wines, Gippsland, Vic
In 2016, Justin and Lisa Jenkins got a call from a winemaking friend in Gippsland: a couple of tonnes of cabernet franc grapes were available if they wanted them – but they only had a few days to take up the offer. At the time, Justin was working for a winery in Sunbury and Lisa for a winery in the Yarra Valley but they had been discussing establishing their own label. Now it looked like fate had made the decision for them. Fleet Wines was born.
The following year, the couple moved to South Gippsland, where Justin grew up. They sourced grapes from local vineyards and, leasing space in friends' wineries, started making a range of lithe, savoury, elegant wines: beautiful, textural skin-contact pinot gris, savoury rosé, nervy syrah. Last year, Justin and Lisa took the plunge and bought their own land, 21 hectares of rolling country just outside Leongatha. The plan is to plant pinot noir and chardonnay this coming spring, and farm the property using the principles of biodynamics and permaculture.
In the meantime, the 2019 vintage saw Lisa and Justin look outside Gippsland for grapes to satisfy growing demand for their wines. The result is a quartet of lovely wines from vineyards in the Yarra Valley, Sunbury and the Mornington Peninsula that all have the Fleet fingerprint of brightness and elegance.
Aphelion, McLaren Vale, SA
Rob Mack and Louise Rhodes had been making small experimental batches of grenache under their Aphelion label since 2014, but in 2017, the wines really took off: Aphelion was named Best New Act at the Young Gun of Wine awards that year, and Mack was named The Young Gun of Wine the following year.
Mack calls it a case of "right wine at the right time". When he and Rhodes started crafting their wines in the new grenache style – grapes picked a little earlier; wines made lighter, spicier, more sinewy than the big, boozy grenaches of yore – they were ahead of the curve. By the time the style became popular in 2017, they had had a few years to get it right. Aphelion wines – both the straight grenaches plus various permutations on the grenache/shiraz/mataro triumvirate, as blends and single varietals – are particularly vibrant and delicious expressions of this new wave
In 2019, the Aphelion range expanded to include two intensely flavoured dry whites made from the great chenin blanc grape variety: one, called Kryos, from a vineyard in the Adelaide Hills, is all cool chalky minerality; the other, Pir, is plumper, lemon-pithy. Both are destined to blossom in the cellar, and will help build the reputation of the young label even further.
Wines of Merritt, Margaret River, WA
Nick and Sarah James-Martin both had wine and hospitality careers behind them when they moved to Margaret River in 2015: he came from a grape-growing family in South Australia and had worked as a winemaker, marketer and writer around the world; she had run some of McLaren Vale's top cellar doors and restaurants.
In 2017, they started making wine under their own label, named after Nick's great-grandparents, Forrester and Prim Merritt, who arrived on the Murray River in 1894 as pioneer blockies. Nick's travels in the Loire Valley cemented his love for chenin blanc and cabernet franc – both of which grow well in Margaret River – and these now make up the core Wines of Merritt range, plus a marvellous vermentino and gorgeous sauvignon blanc, also both grown locally (although Nick says he's tempted by an offer of some old-vine McLaren Vale grenache grapes this coming vintage).
Nick and Sarah are attracted to the textural, food-friendly qualities of minimal-intervention wines, and they've adopted this approach successfully with their own project: fermented wild, some skin-contact, old oak, bottled unfined and unfiltered – it's some of the best new wine from the region in recent years.