The Mornington Peninsula has become firmly entrenched as an epicentre of chardonnay and pinot noir, duelling with the Yarra Valley for top billing in Victoria. The 2020 Young Gun Top 50 features makers anchored in the Mornington Peninsula, as well as those that have roamed there from other regional bases, with micro makers and some of the most established names. On the micro side, Mattara Wines, Dhiaga and Noisy Ritual were all accorded Top 50 berths, as were Kooyong and Port Phillip Estate on the established side of things.
For a region that was pitched as the Australian answer to Bordeaux in the second wave of planting in the 1980s, with a comparable maritime climate and an apparent similarity in terms of heat summation and the like, it turned out to be an almost universally ordinary place for the cabernet family – with some notable exceptions. It wasn’t long before chardonnay and pinot noir put up their hands, and the region has been defined by them ever since, turning out styles that are notably different to the generally earlier ripening ones of the Yarra Valley, and somewhat more fruit forward and less rugged than those from much of the Geelong region, across on the other flank of Port Phillip Bay.
On the edge of Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs, vineyards start popping up on the Peninsula, both on the sheltered Port Phillip Bay and cooler Western Port Bay sides, and right the way to the glittering conclusion on some of Melbourne’s most expensive real estate, in Sorrento and Portsea. Indeed, there is much glamour down this way, and property prices are such that vineyards can be a questionable commercial proposition. However, the Peninsula has become a tourist destination that far exceeds filling your car boot with bottles after a tasting on an upturned barrel.
The Peninsula is now home to some of Australia’s most stunning cellar doors, world class restaurants, galleries, sculpture gardens and the like, but amongst the conspicuously grand gestures are producers of all types, new and well-established, turning out wines that are largely built around that Burgundian pair. And while pinot noir and chardonnay may hold sway still, the Peninsula has also proven to be an excellent source of coolly aromatic shiraz, as well as high-quality pinot gris, arneis and gamay.
The spectacular Pt. Leo Estate Sculpture Park in Merricks (the Western Port Bay side of Mornington Peninsula) opened in late 2017. Photograph by Lucas Allen.
Mornington has yielded up two Young Gun winners, Rollo Crittenden (Crittenden Estate), in 2010, and Mike Aylward (Ocean Eight), in 2011. Crittenden is the son of one of the region’s pioneers, Garry Critenden, while Aylward’s family helped lay the foundations of the modern Peninsula with the establishment of Kooyong in the late 90s. Both have largely focused on chardonnay and pinot noir, as you’d expect, but Aylward has also made a significant name for himself producing pinot gris (which now occupies 18 per cent of Mornington’s crush), while Crittenden’s first savagnin matured under flor yeast, ‘Cri de Coeur’, presented tantalising possibilities for ploughing a less familiar furrow.
Justin Purser was drawn to the Peninsula for his Victoria-wide homage to Italian varieties, Dhiaga. Purser’s day job is running the winemaking operations for Great Western legend Best’s, but time spent making wine in Italy instilled a love for Italian wines, especially from the north-west, and a friendship with Crittenden – they both have worked at Brezza, in Piedmont – meant he had access to fruit from over 30-year-old arneis vines.
“Some of the things I like about the Mornington Peninsula and sourcing arneis from there – apart from the fact that the Crittenden family pioneered Italian varieties in Australia, and they’ve got the oldest arneis vines in the country – are that it’s cool and maritime. Arneis is grown in Piedmont, where it’s continental, but they get high rainfall and it’s humid, so Mornington is also suitable. I also find that arneis has a naturally nutty saline note that reminds me of the sea, and I find that character is expressed even more there,” says Purser.
Matt and Tara Campbell hold down day jobs, with Matt the assistant winemaker at Crittenden Estate since 2008. For their Mattara label, the pair focus primarily on pinot noir from the Peninsula and a multi-regional rosé that changes its composition with the seasons – Peninsula syrah made it into the 2019. They have sourced cinsault from the Port Phillip region, on the fringes of the Peninsula, but go elsewhere to source nero d’avola and other ‘alternative’ varieties. “I think if alternative varieties are planted there, they are being used by the vigneron or winemaker,” Tara says. “I think it is still such a young region compared to overseas and there should be plenty of other varieties going in the ground to see how they perform, but chardonnay and pinot noir are known varieties that work well.”
Matt Campbell at work in his day job at Crittenden Estate.
Top dollar grapes
While fruit from less-familiar varieties may be hard to buy on the Peninsula, the availability of high-quality pinot noir and chardonnay is not quite as hard to come by. Alex Byrne has gone there – or rather it came to him – to launch his ‘Full Noise’ range for his micro-batch Noisy Ritual label, made in the urban winery cum wine bar in Lygon Street, in Brunswick.
“Most of the wines we make are early release wines. When we got offered this fruit it was an offer too good to refuse. Beautiful fruit. We made it the way we though it needed to be – a little more oak and a little more time – and bottled it as cleanskin, and knew we had some time. So, in the end, we decided to launch the ‘Full Noise’ range of the best fruit of the season made the way it deserves to be made,” says Byrne.
That wine is a little more expensive than the regular releases, though it’s still exceptional value. That cost is down to the fruit costs in Mornington, which make it a harder fit for his early release wines, though Byrne thinks those fruit costs are not unreasonable. “It’s expensive. Especially with good pinot noir. But fruit in Victoria is actually pretty reasonably priced; the price is usually in favour of the buyer than the seller.”
Fine tuning the vineyard
At the helm of Kooyong and Port Phillip Estate, Glen Hayley doesn’t need to worry about sourcing fruit for most of his wines, with well-established estate vineyards. Hayley is, however, adjusting those plantings to better match site to variety and clone. “We’re replanting our cooler property to get more pinot and chardonnay in the ground. Then working on reassessing our warmer site for the future,” he says.
Glen Hayley at Kooyong and Port Phillip Estate is adjusting their grape plantings within their vineyards.
The Kooyong and PPE ranges are very much focused on subregions, specific sites and individual blocks. That development of recognisable site specificity is a key driver for both them and the region as a whole, seeing Mornington grow significantly in stature. “It’s a coastal environment, with interesting sub-regional differences of warmer lower sites and higher, cooler red soil areas,” says Hayley.
And while those with deeper interest will pick over the minutiae of terroir influence, the region has already imprinted itself on the larger wine-drinking public, especially with its lead variety, pinot noir. As Byrne notes, Mornington pinot is well understood and very much in demand.
“They often have generous and vibrant red-fruit characters – it’s a very Australian expression of pinot noir. And I think people see this as a very recognisable regional expression of pinot, and one that has a lot of appeal. It’s a bit similar to the Bellarine, where the lighter soils and maritime influence make lighter and more vibrant wines, where places like the Moorabool Valley and Ballarat, on volcanic soils, tend to be darker and more structured.”
2019 Mattara Wines Rosé $20
Pale orangey pink. There’s a cool lift to the fruit here, with some wild berry notes and sour plum, with a slightly savoury, earthy edge to it. With time in glass, there’s a subtle burst of raspberry, a coolly ripe suggestion with sour accents. This is very much dry, with a crisp edge and a brush of cool tannins. Bright and quite fine, not soft, but not assertively linear either, with a gently textural feel, though the acidity has plenty of punch and drive.
2018 Mattara Wines Pinot Noir $25
Very lifted nose here flushed with red berries, cherries, rosehip, pomegranate and a brush of spice. This is expressive and very much in a fragrant and fruit-forward mould, with a stress on purity and delicacy, but with plenty of complexity and detail, too. The palate is similarly bright and uncluttered with winemaking, with vibrant red-fruited flavours persisting along a line of taut acidity and ripe, fine tannins.
2019 Dhiaga Arneis $25
Tight and briskly crisp aromatics of cut green pear, nashi, and some lightly waxy notes, with a brush of white florals and sea spray. There’s a nice interplay between cloudy apple juice phenolics, linear acidity and a gentle slip of leesy texture. This runs long and very pure, but is not simple at all, with tension and gentle flex in equal measure and a lovely array of varietally distinct flavours.
2018 Noisy Ritual ‘Full Noise’ Pinot Noir $42
Lifted red fruits, smoky, floral and quite fragrant, but with a savoury edge. There’s a lick of match striking paper and crushed dry leaves, with lingering spice and wild red fruits. This a has savoury complexity to it, complexing the red fruit, with it lingering in a spicy quarter. But there’s plenty of fruit here, too; it’s just more sinewy, rather than fruity or rich.
2018 Port Phillip Estate ‘Morillon’ Single Block Chardonnay $55
There’s plenty of flavour here, but with plenty of restraint, too. There’s a white peach note and hints of yellow nectarine, with a savoury kernel character coming through. A sensible lick of oak plays on the nose and palate, with a savoury strictness to the mouthfeel, but it’s impeccably in balance, with the occasional toasty flicker. Although there is real fruit intensity here, there’s no sweet spot, just a nicely contained sense of concentration in harmony with linear direction.
2018 Kooyong ‘Meres’ Pinot Noir $75
Classic and quite fine profile here, with red and dark fruits and a brush of graphite and spice, too. There’s a crackle of woodsmoke, with gentle whole bunch accenting subtle oak notes. This has quite a sour/wild red fruit autumnal thing going on, with a tension between ripeness and nervy cool-toned fruit working in fine balance. This is a refined and elegant expression, with ample underlying flavour, and it will benefit with more time in bottle.
See the full list of Top 50 winemakers in the 2020 Young Gun of Wine Awards here. Join in our virtual events here, and also vote on who wins the People’s Choice until June 1.