The Mornington Peninsula wine region is somewhat of a latecomer, with ongoing commercial production not taking hold until the 1980s. But it has blossomed somewhat since then. Blessed with naturally beautiful surroundings, wine country filters in as the suburbs become sparse around Mount Eliza, extending all the way to the rarefied real estate of Sorrento and Portsea towards the tip of Point Nepean. While still essentially suburban Melbourne, this is holiday country, with sheltered bays on either side until Western Port Bay surrenders to the ocean around Flinders. Now boasting over 200 vineyards, with 60-odd wineries and over 50 cellar doors – as well as breweries and distilleries – the Mornington Peninsula is also incredibly well serviced with restaurants, golf courses, family activities and a variety of accommodation options.
Like much of cool climate Victoria, the Mornington Peninsula had some success in the late 19th century, with international accolades for the wines, and 14 producers registered by 1891. It certainly never experienced the boom of say the Yarra Valley, but it went equally bust, with the land essentially vine-less by the 1920s. The swing to fortified wines – unsuited to the region – and a general economic decline were the culprits, with the industry not seeing meaningful recovery until the 1980s.
In Dromana, on the site that is now Trofeo Estate, Seppelt and Seabrook ran a commercial vineyard in the 1950s, which is thought to be the first vineyard planted in the 20th century. Those plantings totalled an ambitious 40 hectares, but with its destruction by a bushfire in 1967, the operation was abandoned, and the site lay fallow until 98.
In line with the cool climate wine revolution that started to rumble in the late 60s and build meaningful traction in the 70s, the Mornington Peninsula was caught in the wake of regions like the Yarra Valley. The Yarra had ample historical records of successful grape growing, and were in the grip of a tangible renaissance, generating ripples of interest in regions like Mornington that showed promise, albeit without quite the same historic markers.
In 1972, the Myer family planted Elgee Park in Merricks North, marking the rebirth of the region. Nat and Rosalie White bought an old lemon orchard in 1975, gaining council approval for the region’s first winery in 1978, which saw the Peninsula’s first commercial vintage in 1980. The White’s Main Ridge wines hit the market in 1981 – a pinot noir, pinot meunier and cabernet. Interestingly, though pinot noir is unquestionably the region’s leading variety today, it was cabernet that was touted as the future back then.
Indeed, the climate data at the time, which led many pioneers to plant on the Peninsula, all pointed to Bordeaux varieties. The maritime climate was the first clue, and then the official numbers indicated that it was warm enough to plant the cabernet family, and too warm, they suggested, for growing pinot noir, though chardonnay was still on the table.
When Garry Crittenden and Dr Richard McIntyre went land shopping together in the early 80s, they hadn’t crossed pinot noir off the list, but it was more a hopeful rather than aspirational notion (McIntyre in particular was a Burgundy lover). Crittenden came from a horticulture background to McIntyre’s medical one, and faithfully followed the data, planting his vineyard predominantly to Bordeaux varieties in 1982, with Dr McIntyre generally following the best advice at his Moorooduc property a year later. Though correctly interpreted by Crittenden, that data proved to be misleading, with the region substantially cooler than it suggested.
Like Tasmania, that first foray into cabernet and friends took a little time to be abandoned for all but the most successful pockets. With both chardonnay and pinot in the ground in many of those early vineyards, it was not long before the suitability of those varieties became apparent. Brian Stonier had planted chardonnay in 1978, with pinot noir committed to the soil in 82, although his inspiration was Champagne rather than Burgundy. George Kefford also had the pair in the ground by 78 at his Merricks Estate. And it was not long before both Crittenden and McIntyre pivoted to the varieties which they have become famous for.
That notion of the Peninsula being Victoria’s answer to Bordeaux was officially shattered sometime later by legendary agronomist Dr John Gladstones in his seminal 1992 book, Viticulture and Environment: “[The Mornington Peninsula] would appear to be one of the few regions of Australia where the precise characteristics of the great Burgundy wines (both red and white) might reasonably be aspired to.”
Other notable early adopters include Eldridge Estate (84), Paringa Estate (85) and Hickinbotham of Dromana (88), with the 90s seeing a rapid increase in vineyards, though many of them remained small. In 1996, Kooyong was planted by the Aylward family, while Yabby Lake was founded by the Kirby family in 1998. Both estates are somewhat of a symbol of a new wave of investment, and on a larger, but by no means large, scale. In fact, even with its growing stature and attendant increase in fruit prices around the turn of the last century, and beyond, the Mornington Peninsula has remained a region without large-scale producers.
Both Yabby Lake and Kooyong have also championed the increased focus on smaller detail within their sites, adding more depth to the broader subregional overviews. This exploration of site has become a key driver of defining the region, with makers like Allies and Garagiste sourcing from single vineyards in different ‘townships’, while a producer like 10 Minutes by Tractor has revealed the light and shade of their three key sites in Main Ridge, all located within 10 minutes of each other – by tractor that is…
And although chardonnay and pinot noir eventually grabbed the spotlight and have been justifiably hogging it ever since, pinot gris/grigio has a notable history on the Peninsula, too. Kevin McCarthy and Kathleen Quealy’s T’Gallant took the variety and expressed it in many different guises, from the zippy and achingly dry to the opulent. That enterprise was started in 1990, then sold in 2003 (to Southcorp, now Treasury Wine Estates), with McCarthy working on the T’Gallant wines for the next decade as a consultant. With the possibilities opened up, makers like Paradigm Hill, Scorpo, Ocean Eight and Kooyong have championed the variety as a worthy third key variety for the region, while McCarthy and Quealy continue to under their Quealy Winemakers banner.
Today, the region is still led by many of the modern pioneers, with Moorooduc Estate, Crittenden Estate, Stonier, Main Ridge, Paringa Estate and the like stronger than ever, as are 21st century icons like Yabby Lake, Kooyong, 10 Minutes by Tractor and Scorpo. And while the tightly held fruit sources and high cost mean that it is a region where the price of entry can be too much for many younger makers, Kerri Greens, Garagiste, Allies, Onannon and Mattara are proving that it is certainly not out of reach.
Geography, Soils & Climate
There are many nuances of site in the region, with the low-lying hills that span the Peninsula offering up a range of elevations and aspects, with sheltered, warm pockets as well as exposed and quite cool ones. Additionally, the Western Port Bay side, which arcs up into the open ocean is notably cooler than the side that curls into Port Phillip Bay, effectively creating two different general zones. While there is no doubt some cooling effect simply due to the elevation in some of the higher sites, the exposure to cool ocean breezes on the Western Port Bay and ocean side amplify this considerably.
The subregions, like the Yarra Valley, are centred around townships, so are essentially ‘political’ borders, which are not recognised in the Mornington Peninsula GI (1997), nor are any of them homogenous enough to be definitive, but there are generalities that are helpful.
In broad terms, the areas of Moorooduc and Tuerong are generally sandier, with brown loam and clay soils at a generally lower elevation, with warmer bay-side breezes meaning the grapes typically ripen earlier. Heading further south, yellow duplex soils over well-drained clay feature around Dromana. Around Red Hill and Main Ridge deep and fertile volcanic red soils predominate, with the conditions cooler. Brown duplex soils are more common in Merricks and Balnarring, and the position on the Western Port Bay side mean cooler conditions and later ripening. Heading further out past Cape Schanck, the soils turn sandy, but interestingly there are limestone outcrops further along around Portsea.
The humidity is generally high on the Peninsula, with typically good winter and spring rains setting up the vines, though there has been an increase in dry years over the last decade, a phenomenon mirrored in many wine regions. Although there are notable climatic differences in short distances, the region is in general quite a cool one, even with the moderating influence of the twin bays and the ocean. That coolness extends the ripening season while helping to retain bright natural acidity in the wines.
Grape Varieties & Wine Styles
Although Mornington was very much pegged as a territory for the cabernet family, none of that research made what happened in the glass any more convincing. There are warm sites that can ripen cabernet, much like Tasmania, but it’s generally a marginal prospect as compared to the cool climate suitability for varieties such as chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot gris, which are now the mainstays. Shiraz is perhaps underrepresented, especially given a growing appreciation for more elegant styles, and riesling doesn’t get much of a look in. Riesling may not be a classically coastal variety, but the soils are suitable, and the coolness of the region with its tendency to retain acid in the grapes is a notable plus. So, the potential is there. Sauvignon blanc has a modest but meaningful foothold, and though it is only planted in frugal amounts, Eldridge Estate has proven oven decades that gamay has a strong future.
The style of wines is naturally heavily influenced by decisions both in the vineyard and winery, but pinot noir from the warmer zones, like Tuerong, can be quite brooding and assertively structured, while the cooler areas tend to make more fragrant and elegant styles. The typically long ripening will often allow for real intensity no matter the location, with fruit-forward plushness quite common. Chardonnay traces a similar arc, though the retention of acidity while flavours still build on the vine is a feature that advocates believe place it as the region’s strongest suit, with natural balance and excellent site reflection key features.