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Gippsland’s Fertile Ground
– 2021 Top 50 Winemakers Feature

Wines Of Now
16 April 2021. Words by YGOW.

Gippsland is a vast region, sprawling across Victoria’s south-east and right up to the north-east border with New South Wales. It abuts the Yarra Valley to the west, and though it dwarfs that region for sheer size – and many times over – it has less than ten per cent of the plantings. But Gippsland has long been a fabled place, home to such icons as Bass Phillip and the heir to the region’s pinot noir crown, Bill Downie. The region is currently seeing its stocks of young makers and vignerons swell, inspired both by the proof of its qualities from top producers and for the sheer scope of its untapped potential.

The 2021 Young Gun of Wine Top 50 features Jessica and James Audas (A.R.C. Wines), Ryan Ponsford (Entropy) and Jayden Ong (Moonlight Forest), who are all helping to shape Gippsland’s future. [Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.]

Lay of the land

Jayden Ong farms the old Chestnut Hill Vineyard – for his eponymous label as well as wines for his Moonlit Forest range – which is at Mount Burnett, south of Gembrook, and a whisper away from being included in the Yarra Valley wine region. That’s about as westerly as it gets for Gippsland. A little to the east, with Warragul as its centre, West Gippsland’s Baw Baw Shire is home to Bill Downie, along with A.R.C. and Entropy Wines.

“I think the wines take the best elements of Mornington and the high parts of the Yarra. Mornington has pretty red fruits as its defining feature. The Yarra tends to be a bit savoury. The wines here have a bit of both. I think, as a result, they're more complex and nuanced, and we definitely see dramatic changes in expressions over short distances.”

A 70-kilometre drive from Downie’s home vineyard due south will take you to Inverloch on the coast, where Marcus Satchell’s Dirty Three cellar door has taken residence. A little further inland, you’ll find Neil and Anna Hawkins – from The Wine Farm – who have revitalised an older vineyard in Koonwarra, not far from the iconic Bass Phillip in Leongatha. Head east 200 or so kilometres and you’ll find one of the region’s pioneers, Nicholson River, which was first planted in 1978. And while wineries thin out beyond that, there are vines planted as far east as Cann River, near to the NSW border.

“You can’t really talk about Gippsland as some homogeneous place, because South Gippsland is totally different to West Gippsland, which is completely different to Central Gippsland, which is utterly not related to East Gippsland,” says Downie.

“But if I was to talk about Baw Baw Shire, I think the wines take the best elements of Mornington and the high parts of the Yarra. Mornington has pretty red fruits as its defining feature. The Yarra tends to be a bit savoury. The wines here have a bit of both. I think, as a result, they’re more complex and nuanced, and we definitely see dramatic changes in expressions over short distances.”

Photo by James Morgan
Above: Bill Downie. Opposite: James and Jessica Audas.

Local attractions

In 2017, Jessica and James Audas traded in some stellar hospitality careers in Sydney to get their hands dirty, settling in West Gippsland for the long haul, and launching their A.R.C. Wines label in 2018. “For James it was an opportunity to work with local legend Bill Downie,” says Jessica Audas. “Once we were here, we instantly felt at home. There is a very strong sense of community and connection to the land, something as Sydneysiders we never really felt. We were drawn to a slower life, one where we could have land, grow food and be connected to a community. All of which we’ve found.”

That sense of community is very much centred around the Wild Dog Vineyard, which the Audases co-farm with Downie, Patrick Sullivan and Entropy’s Ryan Ponsford. That vineyard supplies fruit to several makers, but it is also home to the much-loved Hogget Kitchen. “Hogget uses only Gippsland produce,” says Audas, “and has been hugely supportive of all of our region’s small winemakers, especially those farming with an ethical background. It is the heart of our community.”

“Once we were here, we instantly felt at home. There is a very strong sense of community and connection to the land, something as Sydneysiders we never really felt. We were drawn to a slower life, one where we could have land, grow food and be connected to a community. All of which we've found.”

Entropy Wines’ Ryan Ponsford – another Gippsland transplant – came via a career in fine arts, but was similarly drawn by the wines of Downie, who he also worked for. He and his wife went to the region solely for the wine, but their reasons for putting down roots mirror those of the Audases.

“My wife grew up out here and had actually sworn not to return,” says Ponsford. “But Bill had shown me the potential for a life living off the land, a life of farming and community, a life of sharing some of the greatest food and wine with those around you.”

Above: Wild Dog Vineyard. Opposite: Trevor Perkins, the chef behind Hogget Kitchen. Jessica Audas says, “For long lunches or special occasions, no-one brings together the community more than Hogget Kitchen, West Gippsland's only hatted restaurant. It is our favourite place to catch up over a meal curated by Chef Trevor Perkins, or to enjoy a bottle of wine on the deck overlooking our vines. Hogget is the heart of our community, one that would be much less liveable without a great place like this to eat.”

It rains like clockwork

Gippsland is largely traditional dairy territory, with ample rains ensuring lush pastures, which means the region generally bucks the trend for much of Australian viticultural land, where water scarcity is posing a threat to not just quality but ultimate viability. “In our region, in Baw Baw Shire, we have some of the most predictable rainfall in the country – it rains a lot,” laughs Ponsford. “But we also have these incredible, old, red volcanic soils that are deep, free draining and nutrient rich.”

That fertility is something that he says makes the region one where you can grow just about anything. “Our own farm in the hills is on this red soil, and you can’t put a shovel in the ground without digging up earthworms. I actually had some chicken food that got wet and ruined, so I tipped it in a paddock and a few weeks later had these huge cornstalks growing!”

That abundance of rain is both a blessing and a curse, with disease pressure – downy and powdery mildew in particular – a constant threat, especially when farming organically, says Audas. “As a team, we have to be completely on top of our spray schedules and watch the weather like hawks. Despite its challenges, it’s been amazing seeing the fruit quality increase dramatically since organic practices were employed. We can’t wait to see the resilience of the plants continue to increase.”

It’s a challenge that Ponsford feels just as acutely, noting that during times in the 2020 vintage, “It just didn’t stop raining.” But he stresses that no matter how tough that is, he wouldn’t trade it for drought and irrigation. “I think there are far too many vineyards planted in Australia in places that probably shouldn’t have them. If your vineyard dies if you stop irrigating, should it really be there at all? I think these are questions we need to be asking.”

Ryan Ponsford at Wild Dog Vineyard.

Grape things

Gippsland initially had a decent amount of cabernet sauvignon et al planted when the area was established as a winegrowing region in the latter half of the 20th century, with the handful of vineyards from the 19th century long having succumbed to the economic pressures – coupled with phylloxera – that saw much of Victorian viticulture stalled. Those varieties still have a meaningful place in warmer sites, but it is chardonnay and pinot noir that have become the celebrated heroes.

Pinot noir has long been seen as Gippsland’s strongest suit, with the cool conditions and ample rainfall favouring the grape. But given the region’s size and great variation in weather patterns, geology and elevation, as well as the relatively small and spread-out plantings – leaving much territory unexplored – it would be dangerous to pigeonhole it.

At the Audas home property in Ferndale they are exploring that potential, planting a high-density vineyard to gamay, aligoté and chenin blanc. “Most producers focus on pinot noir and chardonnay, both of which with the right site can make exceptional wines,” says Audas. “However, for us, we are looking outside the classic varieties, and find grapes like cabernet, riesling and pinot gris are just as well suited and unique in their expressions.”

Ponsford agrees that chardonnay and pinot noir’s credentials are well established, but he also stresses that viticulture in the region is in its infancy. “We’ve seen at the Wild Dog Vineyard alone that a whole array of varieties show potential to make some really serious wines. For me, I think there’s heaps of potential for syrah in the area – I just think it makes a style with few Australian reference points that the public might not yet understand.”

On their home property, which Ponsford says is reasonably high in the hills, they’re planting high-density pinot noir and chardonnay, but he’s yet to decide what vines to commit to a steep north-facing slope. “There’s a part of me that gets really excited by the idea of putting single-staked syrah vines on it. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what varieties we plant, what’s important is that the beauty of this place comes through in the wines.”

It is this transference of place to glass that drew him – and the Audases – to begin with, a reflection of site and season, with farming taking precedence over winemaking. “Something I have found really interesting in our small patch of Gippsland is that there’s definitely a style it naturally produces no matter the variety,” says Ponsford. “The red soil gives the wines power and density, and the cool, wet climate gives the wines their elegance. This produces wines that I find have incredible tension.”

The wines

2020 Entropy Sauvignon Blanc Semillon $49

Hazy bright gold to look at, this is aromatically lifted, with yellow grapefruit pith, lemon barley water, not-quite-ripe white peach, white currants, elderflower and a suggestion of dried herbs, with the fruit flavours knitting into barrel ferment and lees notes. This is flavourful and mouth filling, but it’s equal blessed with a mineral-feeling tension and tightrope ripeness that gives it line and carry, with chewy and chalky notes adding complexity.

See Entropy’s website for purchase enquiries.

2019 Moonlit Forest ‘Storm Bird’ Sauvignon Blanc $28

There’s aromatic lift and vibrant freshness here, but it’s not down the familiar sauvignon blanc line, rather a tangy citric expression, featuring lemon leaves and pith and a pucker of salinity on the palate. There are some nutty notes, dried herbs and a whisper of pink grapefruit. The palate is bright and lively, with acidity and gently pithy tannins adding energy and drive to the vibrant fruit, with not a passionfruit in sight.

See Jayden Ong’s website for purchase enquiries.

2020 A.R.C. ‘Avon River Vineyard’ Chardonnay $40

Nose of waxy apples, peach skin and meyer lemon, complexed by smoky and nutty notes and a lacing of salinity. There’s a full textural quality to the palate, with some creamy, lactic notes, but it’s set against a canvas of savoury fruits, with plenty of acidity and finely laced, gentle tannins providing moreish drive.

See A.R.C.’s website for purchase enquiries.

2019 A.R.C. Cabernet Merlot $44

There’s plenty of intensity here, with classic varietal characters of blackcurrant, dusty spices and cedar, along with some darkly tarry minerals. There’s heft to this and ripeness, but there’s also a vibrant drive of acidity and brightness on the palate, giving the fleshy fruit a pleasingly tart edge. Graphite notes trace fine tannins through the finish, along with flashes of bay leaf and woody herbs.

See A.R.C.’s website for purchase enquiries.