Mornington Peninsula is one of the ‘dress circle’ wine regions surrounding Melbourne, and it arguably has the best view, whether casting one’s eye back down the bay along the beachside suburbs to Melbourne and across to the Bellarine, or over the east side into Western Port Bay and to French Island, or more wildly out onto the Southern Ocean. That rich environment makes for many pleasure-seeking activities on the peninsula and a good deal of fancy second homes, too. All that gives the wine region a dose of glamour that is enhanced by some of Victoria’s best restaurants and cellar doors and myriad accommodation options from the humble to the decadent. And while this beachside conviviality may drive many a business, Mornington Peninsula winemakers have been cutting a very serious path solely with quality and individuality the driving forces, and few would argue against the fact that pinot noir has become the region’s most emblematic variety. And it’s well due that we tested the water temperature with a Deep Dive.
We gathered every Mornington pinot noir that we could find and set our expert panel the task of finding the wines that compelled the most. All wines were tasted blind, and each panellist named their top six wines. Below are the wines that made the panellists’ top-six selections from the tasting.
Our panel: Dr Ray Nadeson, owner and winemaker Lethbridge Estate; William Downie, owner/winemaker William Downie Wines; Chris Ryan DipWSET, senior buyer Trader House restaurants; Amy Oliver, Head Sommelier Point Leo Estate; Christina Kaigg-Hoxley, sommelier Gimlet at Cavendish House; Simon Black, winemaker Motalto; Dan Buckle, chief winemaker Chandon, owner/winemaker Circe; Victoria Pun, sommelier Recreation Bistro & Bottleshop. All wines were tasted blind.
The Top Wines
2021 Quealy ‘Musk Creek’ Pinot Noir $48 RRP
This appearing on five of the panellist’s top-six lists, with it being Oliver’s top wine of the tasting. “Raspberry and bramble, burnt orange, lemon thyme and dried woody herbs,” she wrote, “layered and harmonious on the palate with an attractive Campari bitterness that just walks the line of not being too much on the finish.” Kaigg-Hoxley had it just one place back. “An intriguing combination of dark and light here, lots to be unfurled in the glass,” she noted. “At first, it’s all fresh mushroom gill, soft tomato leaf and the damp of the greenhouse floor. A blend of underripe and fresh strawberry mixes with black cherry, giving the palate depth and freshness. The structure is silty, with notes of damp earth and smoky spice. A really appealing wine where vibrancy is grounded by structure and where some of those greener elements add interest and really enjoyable complexity to the fruit profile.” Nadeson saw “a highly aromatic nose consisting of perfumed red and black cherry fruit, which leads to a vibrant, energetic palate – lean but not scrawny. The overall impression in the mouth is long and silky, with fine tannins, gravelly, stony minerality. Excellent wine in a lighter style.” Buckle and Ryan also rated this highly. “Really engaging aromas of blood orange, Campari and fresh garden herbs,” wrote Ryan. “A slightly edgy application of whole bunch that keeps pulling you back in. More swirling, more layers; some classic red berry fruit, more spice and a savoury autumn leaf character. A contemplative style that would encourage conversation and evolve at the table.” Buckle saw “a lot of winemaker influence … but well played and reflected back by the fruit.”
2021 Prancing Horse Pinot Noir $75 RRP
Topping Black’s list for the tasting, this was one place back for Pun, with Oliver and Ryan one spot further back. “Red and blue fruits (fruits of the forest) with some orange zest and Indian spices: think cumin and cardamom together with a pinch of dried herb to finish,” wrote Black. “Fresh, bright fruits with plenty of mid-palate flesh on a beautiful framework of velvet tannin. Lovely flow and integration, with some wet-stone minerality and a savoury, almost celery salt, line to the finish. Long, vital, and expressive.” “Elevated presence on the nose; a mixture of fresh red and black fruit (strawberries, raspberries, plum, blackberry); peppery and fruit forward, a touch of sea spray, seashell; generous, good intensity and length,” wrote Pun. “Successful in a more powerful style, while staying distinctly pinot noir,” noted Ryan. “Red and dark cherry fruit, sweet spices; there’s a seriousness you feel on the palate, layers, concentration and quite long.” Oliver called it a “harmonious wine. Florals and lifted red fruits, a real strawberries and cream nose. I enjoyed the contradiction on the palate where I found a lovely earthy savouriness, and a hint of charcuterie amidst the fruit providing complexity. Tarter fruit profile of cranberries and just ripe raspberries on the palate. Elegant tannins and fine persistent finish.”
2021 Yabby Lake ‘Single Vineyard’ Pinot Noir $70 RRP
This was Kaigg-Hoxley’s wine of the day. “A generosity of fruit that was pure and fresh without leaning into those compote profiles,” she wrote. “Juicy fresh raspberry and pomegranate, refreshing acidity and ripe tannins showcase a delightful purity of fruit. There’s some soft earthy elements and a fine-boned structure, but the beauty of this is its approachability and restraint. Such a generous mid-palate without the sweeter elements, showcasing very good judgment in picking time and handling. Unapologetically delicious.” Nadeson and Buckle had this in second place on their lists. “Excellent perfume of old-fashioned roses interlaced with earthy, meaty tones, green tea and spice,” noted Nadeson. “On the palate, lovely layers of fine but grainy tactile tannins, which reinforce the overall savoury profile of the wine. A beautiful wine with real personality.” “Opens with lifted berry fruits,” wrote Buckle. “Very bright raspberry and red cherry fruits, dense and vibrant. Fine-grained tannins, oak in the background. Length of flavour lasts ages in your mouth and sustains interest while purity of Pinot Noir fruits is the primary focus. Clarity of fruit characters sitting proudly above any winemaking or oak indicates a shining future.” “Ripe fruit and red fruit, bright and juicy, and good intensity; hints of baked earth, potting soil, very savory,” wrote Pun, placing this in her top six.
2021 Paringa Estate ‘Estate’ Pinot Noir $70 RRP
This was Ryan’s wine of the day, while it also appeared on three other panellist’s lists. “A balance of ripe red berry fruit, macerated strawberry, rhubarb and red cherries are framed by well-judged oak,” noted Ryan. “The palate has good density and concentration balancing a ripe, red-fruited style with a freshness that others were lacking. There are tannins that frame the fruit and some sweet spice – a layered Pinot Noir with good detail.” “This wine really is begging for those summer days,” wrote Kaigg-Hoxley. “It’s once again in a pretty, youthful style, but with a little more of those rhubarb compote and strawberry leaf elements. There are nostalgic elements of the country lolly shop – mouth-watering raspberry drop and sour straps – and the structure is lithe and long. It’s here for a good time and could certainly take a chill as those summer days sometimes call for. The word playful certainly comes to mind.” “Wild blackberries, raspberries and bramble, dried mushrooms, black tea and hint of fennel,” noted Oliver. “Heady spices and sandalwood. Fine and elegant tannins. Would love to sit with a glass and watch it unfurl. Beautiful perfume.” Black saw “earthy, root veg, cherry fruit with blood plum and blood orange notes. On the palate, lots of cherry and raspberry flesh with some strawberry compote in tow. Some plushness to the palate, but also a rustic feel with some bolder chalky/pumice-stone tannins in play.”
This took out top spot for Downie, while Kaigg-Hoxley and Nadeson also gave it a top-six finish. “Balanced and open with gentle red fruits,” wrote Downie. “An honest looking wine. Complex. Show’s a touch of oak but still quite balanced. Round and soft with good length. A less commercial looking wine.” “A really great example of the youthful and fresh styles that emerged in the line-up today,” noted Kaigg-Hoxley. “Refreshing acidity with mouth-watering raspberry and boysenberry notes, wonderfully lifted Turkish delight and rosewater duskiness on the nose. Not the most complex wine in the line-up, but I can’t help but really enjoy this playful style. Its fresh, plush strawberry is really inviting, and the taut structure and acidity keeps you coming back for more.” Nadeson saw “a plush riper richer style. Ripe sweet raspberry, with a hint of green herbs on the nose leading into a palate of sweet strawberry, plum, Chinese five-spice and earthy beetroot undertones. One for those that like a touch of richness and weight in their pinot.”
2020 Crittenden ‘Kangerong’ Pinot Noir $45 RRP
This was Pun’s wine of the tasting, while it also made Buckle and Downie’s top-six lists. “Bright and pale ruby to sight,” wrote Pun. “Fresh and just ripe red fruit of strawberries, red cherries, red plum, but more black fruit (e.g., black plum, blackberry); tannin has made its presence but not overpowering, lengthy and pure.” Buckle noted an “interesting nose on this one that draws you in. Sense of decadence here, roasted game birds, foresty notes layer over plum and dark berry fruit. Plum cake. Like. Structure is lovely – slippery tannins and loads of length, complexity and cohesion make it seamless.” “Pretty and lifted fruit,” wrote Downie. “A nicely aromatic wine. Loads of red cherry and raspberry fruit. Nice texture and length. The palate shows a bit of charry oak, but it adds complexity and interest. Some interesting earthy and spicy characters – cardamom and clove. A little more chewy and rich than some of the other wines.”
Ryan had this one place off his wine of the tasting, while Pun had it one place further back. “Bright almost sappy fruit,” wrote Ryan. “Crunchy red berries, red cherry, cranberry, rhubarb and spice. Simple in many ways but a wine of high drinkability. Captures freshness and joy in a commercial but very likeable style.” Pun noted a “fragrant Bouquet, bright ruby to sight, light on the first impression, fresh and crunchy strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, quite savoury, tannin at moderate level – very integrated. Very clean, simple and approachable.”
2021 Polperro Pinot Noir $55 RRP
This was Buckle’s wine of the day, and it also made Black’s list. “The nose is a flurry of pinot fruits, raspberry, ripe cherry, dark plum and delicate violets,” wrote Buckle. “Delightful fruit characters, purity and finesse here. Suggests very meticulous viticulture and detailed winemaking. Complexity will come with time, oak whispers in the background. Balance and integration make the whole experience seamless, nothing out of place. Lingering tannins like rolling a cherry pip in your mouth.” Black saw “a wine of fragrance and purity. Blood orange, strawberry, rosewater/rose petal, cherry and violets and some fuji apple skin meshed with some attractive tiramisu oak qualities. On the palate, fresh fruits of the forest, wild berries, plum skin and some fresh OJ also in the mix. Medium-plus weight with a cool acid line on some attractive pumice-stone tannins. While it’s more in the mediumweight zone, it’s certainly not lacking presence.”
2021 Kerri Greens ‘The Duke’ Pinot Noir $68 RRP
This was Nadeson’s favourite wine of the tasting, with Ryan also ranking it in his top six. “The nose of this wine was indeed intriguing, making me return to it repeatedly before putting it in my mouth,” noted Nadeson. “A sign for me of true interest. Although initially quite shy, the nose and palate deliver gorgeous crunchy raspberry, white cherry close to the stone and a refreshing spicy, leafy note. I really love the way this wine showed power and finesse.” Ryan saw “seductive aromas of macerated strawberry, ripe red and black cherries. The palate is quite plush and framed with well-judged oak, red plums and pure cherry fruit. A voluptuous pinot noir that balances its riper, rounder fruit profile with some engaging red berry fruit. An allrounder with broad appeal.”
Pun, Downie and Buckle included this as one of their top-six wines of the day. “Ripe fruit (a mixture of red and black skinned plum and cherry) on both the nose and palate, very integrated smooth tannin, delicate, very savoury – this is one that goes well with food,” wrote Pun. Downie saw “crystal-clear red fruits. A crunchy, bright, enjoyable wine. Transparent and easy. A delicious wine.” “Redcurrant sorbet, some clean lifted perfume, nicely managed whole-bunch notes adding perfume and aromatic interest,” wrote Buckle. “A slightly different style, with a well-integrated whole-bunch component builds interest and perfume.”
Both Black and Oliver had this in their top six. “Fragrant high-toned violets and raspberries,” noted Black. “Some pink peppercorn and talc notes together with some classic Mornington blood orange. Complex and intense. Lovely varietal definition on the palate with a core of red fruit and again, that quenching blood orange character. Velvet tannins with brightness and energy. Expressive and sensuous.” “Lots of spicy plummy fruit intermingled with raspberries,” wrote Oliver. “A sense of something black peppery or perhaps granitic earth. Violets and green tea, black wine gums. I was attracted to something that felt a little bit wild and brambly in this wine.”
2021 Stonier Reserve Pinot Noir $67 RRP
Black had this in second place for the day, while Buckle also had it in his top six. “Clearly a whole-bunch offering here, with root vegies – beets and parsnips – tied together with plum and cherry fruit,” wrote Black. “On the palate, generous fruit flesh on a chewy and structural frame of skin and stem tannins with a sweet core of plum and cherry fruit. A bigger, more savoury offering with chalky tannins that will please those who enjoy this style.” “Great example of whole bunches done well,” noted Buckle. “Perfume, musk, nicely lifted aromatics and complexity. Youthful and vibrant cherry fruits sit underneath. Slightly firm sappy tannin pulls the palate along and grounds the more ethereal elements.”
Downie had this second on his list for wines of the tasting. “Earthy and spicy with some whole-bunch character showing on the nose,” he wrote. “A lot more personality than many of the other wines. Shows some oak, but I like the balance. Still has underlying Mornington fruits, raspberry and redcurrant. Nice length, texture and structure.”
“Really bright red fruits on the nose, redcurrant and raspberry with darker berry fruits also,” wrote Downie in giving this a top-six finish. “Nice clarity and definition. The palate has the usual red fruit plus poached pears and some wood spice, cloves. A little tiny hint of reduction adds complexity.” Pun also had this in her top six. “Quite attractive on the nose, ripe red and black fruit of plum and cherry, sun-kissed, a hint of stem – cut flower stem – nutmeg, clove, star anise; apple skin, plum skin; tannin is present but not overpowering; energised, persistent and well-structured.”
2021 Principia ‘Altior’ Pinot Noir $70 RRP
This was Oliver’s second top wine of the tasting. “On the nose, there’s a high-toned mix of morello cherry and ripe blueberry fruit,” she wrote. “With black liquorice and vanilla spice, on the palate this has plush and decadent fruit of a luxurious and immediate appeal. I see this as a real restaurant wine.”
2019 Kooyong ‘Ferrous’ Pinot Noir $75 RRP3
Downie had this placed in his top three for the tasting. “Lifted red fruits on the nose, raspberry and cherry,” he wrote. “It has some nice floral notes as well, violets and rose petal. Deep and complex with some underlying meaty characters. The palate fine and textured with some more red fruits and spice.”
2021 Dexter Pinot Noir $60 RRP
Ryan and Oliver both had this amongst the top selections for the tasting. “Exuberant aromas of bright, almost confected red berry fruit, really bursting from the glass,” wrote Ryan. “Red liquorice, redcurrant and rhubarb, the palate is quite simple but has this wonderful slurpy quality … lots of yum. Served slightly cooler would be hard to resist.” “A lot of spice!” exclaimed Oliver. “Red and darker ripe cherries raspberries and bergamot, very opulent and concentrated fruit profile. Flecks of blue fruits and damp earth on the palate. Long round finish.”
2019 Yal Yal Rd Pinot Noir $55 RRP
Nadeson had this towards the middle of his top six. “The nose of the wine presents fresh raspberries, crunchy cranberries and black cherry all held together with a thread of a leafy undertone,” he wrote. “In the mouth, I found it a touch austere initially, but as the wine opened up, more generosity was found. Subtle and herbal, smoke and ferric mineral notes interlace nicely with the clean clear fruit flavours. Great individuality.”
2021 Ten Minutes by Tractor ‘Coolart Road’ Pinot Noir $86 RRP
Kaigg-Hoxley and Nadeson had this on their top-six lists. “Some smoky spice and dusky rose aromatics nestled into a slightly warmer fruit profile,” wrote Kaigg-Hoxley. “There’s still crunchy acidity, but those strawberry and red cherry notes are warm and juicy, leaning towards compote vibes. There’s a high-toned element, which is not unpleasant here and helps to add complexity to what feels like a warm vintage; the oak too, while in a toastier profile, helps to bring structure to the generosity of fruit. A touch of green peppercorn and wild anise finishes the palate with some fine, earthy tannins.” “A bright crimson colour sets up the scene for this wine,” noted Nadeson. “Rich dark and brooding, with firm, red cherry and layered ripe sour plum on the nose all hinting at the richness of fruit yet to come. A wine with power and complexity, another for those that like a bigger Pinot Noir.”
2021 Main Ridge Estate ‘Half Acre’ Pinot Noir $95 RRP
Black had this just outside his top three. “Strong depth of pinot noir colour with purple hues,” he wrote. “A nose of plums, mulberry and baked apple, with some cola aromas in support. The palate shows fresh cherry flesh together with darker fruits, black forest cake and some cola/sarsaparilla notes. A plush tannin profile, but also some chalky minerality. It’s structured and layered with brightness, drive and length.”
2021 Kooyong Estate Pinot Noir $54 RRP
“One of the best examples today of a darker fruited, more savoury style,” wrote Kaigg-Hoxley in placing this in her top six. “Immediately evident is that pastrami combination of cured meat and that mouth-watering blend of black and fresh green peppercorn. Black plum and black cherry skin in spades, but what’s really key here is that all these brooding darker elements are achieved with finesse – without the wine falling into astringent elements or showcasing a bitter finish. The spice profile leads into mocha elements on the finish, and a surprisingly soft tannin profile. Bit of a dark horse in the line-up, but I think it’s an exceptional example of the diversity this region has to offer.”
Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir – The Backstory
Mornington Peninsula is one of the ‘dress circle’ wine regions surrounding Melbourne, and it arguably has the best view, whether casting one’s eye back down the bay along the beachside suburbs to Melbourne and across to the Bellarine, or over the east side into Western Port Bay and to French Island, or more wildly out onto the Southern Ocean. That rich environment makes for many pleasure-seeking activities on the peninsula and a good deal of fancy second homes, too. All that gives the wine region a dose of glamour that is enhanced by some of Victoria’s best restaurants and cellar doors and myriad accommodation options from the humble to the decadent. And while this beachside conviviality may drive many a business, Mornington Peninsula winemakers have been cutting a very serious path solely with quality and individuality the driving forces, and few would argue against the fact that pinot noir has become the region’s most emblematic variety. It’s well time that we tested the water temperature with a Deep Dive.
“From when the vines wake up, to flowering and fruit set, and through to vintage time, there can be a difference of two or three weeks between different sites, so individual weather events and different seasons can affect every part of the Mornington Peninsula differently,” says Moorooduc Estate’s Kate McIntyre MW. “The different combinations of soils, aspect, altitude and latitude add up to many unique sites that express themselves through pinot noir in their own, diverse and special way.”
A little history
The first commercial pinot noir was officially planted on the Mornington Peninsula by Nat and Rosalie White when they founded Main Ridge Estate in 1975 on the site of an old lemon orchard – cabernet, riesling and pinot meunier also went into the ground. With an interest in Champagne, Brian Stonier planted the first chardonnay in 1978, with pinot following in 1982, the same year Garry Crittenden established Dromana Estate.
Pinot noir had been planted many years earlier, in the late 1930s, in a small plot at what is now Morning Star Estate. That vineyard’s fruit was likely intended for altar wine and personal consumption by the Franciscan monks whose monastery and boy’s home still stands today, albeit with the monks long gone, and it primarily employed as a wedding venue and contract vineyard.
Those first pinot vines are still productive today, though it is unlikely that they were ever selected based on any predictions about suitability to the site, with it taking a considerable amount of time to properly identify the viticultural strengths of the region.
A false start
Like Tasmania, what has become one of this country’s key regions for the Burgundy pair of pinot noir and chardonnay started its modern life with a presumption that Bordeaux varieties (cabernet sauvignon, merlot et al) would be key to the region’s success.
On the Peninsula, the maritime climate and a supposed similarity in heat summation and the like were touted as being uncannily close to Bordeaux. A homoclime (similar climate), in other words, which has been a yardstick for selecting many New World vineyard sites, though a not an infallible one. Many early plantings contained some of the Bordeaux red varieties, though principally cabernet sauvignon, along with riesling, a buzz variety in the ’70s and early ’80s.
Indeed, plenty of the early success of the region was on the back of cabernet sauvignon and blends, notably by Garry Crittenden, whose cabernet under the Dromana Estate label had considerable success in the 1980s, both being critically lauded and peppering restaurant wine lists in Melbourne as Victoria emerged again as a winegrowing force after decades of stalled output due to economic pressures at the start of the 20th century.
Crittenden, a horticulturist by trade, scouted for a Peninsula property in the early 1980s alongside surgeon Dr Richard McIntyre, who was also looking for a suitable site. The latter landed in Moorooduc, and the former in Dromana, and both planted their vineyards mainly to cabernet and family, though now are both (with the Crittenden family using the old vines but now their Family name on the label) acclaimed makers of pinot noir and chardonnay, with cabernet a fading memory.
Pivot to pinot
Pinot noir had never been outside the orbit of Crittenden and McIntyre, with a well-honed appreciation for the wines of Burgundy. But the data suggested that it would simply be too hot for the grape. That data proved to be incorrect, and the early evidence in their vineyards, along with the pioneering wines and mentorship of Nat White, guided a change of direction in the vineyard.
McIntyre had already devoted half his 2-hectare vineyard to chardonnay, with 160 pinot vines “just in case”, while cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot made up the rest. The figures that Crittenden and McIntyre were relying on had been harvested from a hot, built-up area, and were a poor reflection of the prevailing conditions across much of the Peninsula.
The swift pivot to pinot and the resulting wines became pillars of Mornington’s success, alongside those of Main Ridge, Stonier, Eldridge and Paringa, amongst others, in helping to shape the vinous identity that we now all know so well.
It was in the ’90s that significant growth began, with landmark estates like Kooyong and Yabby Lake being planted to pinot and chardonnay. Their success would begin in the 2000s, and further cement the reputation of the Peninsula as a premier producer of the Burgundy varieties.
Today, there are just under 1,000 hectares of vines on the Peninsula, with pinot noir accounting for about 45 per cent of production based on the tonnes harvested (Wine Australia data for 2021/22), with chardonnay at 31 percent (cabernet is not even a blip, although it can be a success in warmer sites and is still produced).
“The different combinations of soils, aspect, altitude and latitude add up to many unique sites that express themselves through pinot noir in their own, diverse and special way.”
Small but detailed
“Despite its geographical compactness, Mornington offers significant diversity of style for pinot noir,” says Simon Black, winemaker at Red Hill South’s Montalto. “Vineyards can sit anywhere between sea level and up to around 200 metres elevation, affecting temperature and rainfall. The undulating hills and valleys mean vineyards are planted with the full gamut of potential site aspects, each with a unique mesoclimate and growing conditions.”
Like many youthful Australian wine regions, that exploration of site differences and mapping out areas of similarity to identify subregions is a critical one. Also like many regions, the borders employ existing political boundaries, with the edges blurring together, even if the generalities hold true.
“In the more elevated Main Ridge and Red Hill sites, clay soils have greater water and nutrient status meaning the vines are usually more vigorous, requiring intensive canopy management to limit disease, ensuring good airflow and light interception,” says Black. “The lower lying subregions are generally composed of free-draining sandy loams. Canopies are often smaller, and care needs to be taken during warmer weather to limit exposure.”
Black notes that the higher sites, though the elevation is relatively modest, make distinctly fine-boned wines. “I tend to see more fragrant, delicate, red-fruited styles hailing from the Main Ridge and Red Hill sites, with darker fruited and more structured wines noted in the northern subregions, like Merricks, Tuerong and Moorooduc.”
The complexities of soil, aspect, elevation and variations in exposure make for a rich diversity, and that is only enhanced by geography. “As opposed to other Victorian pinot regions, the defining thing is that we’ve got three bodies of water around us,” says Garagiste’s Barnaby Flanders, who has worked in the region for two decades, including at Moorooduc Estate.
The influences of Port Philip and Western Port Bays and the open ocean provide some advantages. “Proximity to the bays provides moderating influences of temperature and airflow, depending on the prevailing wind direction,” says Black. The effect on temperature by the bays is a welcome influence during the warmer seasons, and it’s a welcome frost preventer during the spring period.”
Flanders believes that the knowledge of growers is now very advanced, with a broad understanding of where works better for pinot than other varieties, and indeed which areas are not suitable for high-quality viticulture. It is this understanding, he believes, that is driving the quality ever upwards.
“We’re farming accordingly,” says Flanders. “If you’re on sand around Moorooduc and Tuerong, you’d be farming differently than if you were up in Main Ridge or Red Hill on volcanic soils. And that can be everything you put in the ground from clonal material to rootstocks to how you physically farm, and the work you need to do day to day. It’s quietly been happening for a while, but there are far more people now drilling down on it.”
Flanders also sees a growing consumer awareness of those differences, where people are genuinely interested in the difference between say Tuerong and Merricks. “Then again, there are a lot of people that just think Mornington is Mornington and Yarra Valley is Yara Valley,” he says, noting that there is a general view of Mornington pinots being on the more fruit-rich side.
“I think Mornington pinot is definitely juicier than some of the other Victorian pinot regions, but behind that – depending on who’s making it – there is savouriness, structure and detail,” says Flanders. “But if you were to line up Geelong, Macedon, Yarra, Mornington and Gippsland, there is a juiciness, a fruit density, maybe power, that consistently sits as a defining factor for Mornington.”
The established vineyards on the Peninsula now have the significant advantage of meaningful vine age. That has positive implication for viticulture with established root systems and better access to water, and it also pays off in the glass, with improved concentration, natural balance, tannin evolution and more character, when handled correctly. But the reality is that many of those vineyards would likely be planted with different clones, different densities and sometimes different orientations based on today’s knowledge.
“There have been more vineyards gong in over the last couple of years than the decade, decade and a half before that,” says Flanders. “But we’re not going to see the fruits of that for a few years. There are new growers entering in, but to see what’s good and what isn’t will take time.”
A key development is a foray into increased planting density. Martin Spedding at Ten Minutes by Tractor planted a high-density vineyard in 2017, while Sandro Mosele (who rose to fame at Kooyong) is due for his first commercial crop in 2023 from an ambitious project that saw him plant 10.6 hectares at 11,111 plants per hectare, with a third of the site panted to chardonnay and the lion’s share to pinot noir.
“High-density enables the vines to be deep rooted,” says Mosele. “The vines compete, and the roots descend further rather than going laterally. Although there are more vines, there’s a much smaller yield – about the same as a conventional vineyard – and greater concentration of fruit and structure at a much earlier development in the vines’ life. You get more character and detail, and you get it much earlier. Plus, the stems lignify [go from green and sappy to woody] much earlier, potentially making them good candidates for whole bunch ferments.”
It’s early days for Mosele, but he is excited by the prospect of what those deep-rooted vines might express about his site, which is situated on the east side of the Peninsula in Balnarring. “We know these varieties work here, and that justifies us doing it – I wouldn’t do it anywhere else,” he says, noting that many wines on the Peninsula are more characterised by the climate, and are certainly distinctive, but the next step is to attempt to draw more character from the site itself.
“Some of the vineyards that are going in now that are of higher density will be the ones that we’ll be looking at to see if it elevates things,” says Flanders. “We’ll see if that density and new clones will make world class wine faster than what has been achieved so far with vine age. And I think they will.”
Although in regions like the Yarra Valley it is becoming harder and harder to find fruit at a reasonable price for young makers to start their own endeavour, Mornington has become near to impossible to source quality grapes, and certainly for pinot noir. “It’s very hard for a start-up,” says Flanders. “If we were to start now, it would be cost prohibitive. Even if you had the money, the availability of fruit is very tight. It is changing, but mainly with multi-generational businesses that can be passed onto family members.”
That generational change is often a collaborative one, with the hard-earned wisdom of the older but still very much active generation working alongside their often very much grown children to drive the quality ever higher. Good examples of this are at Paringa Estate with Jamie McCall as winemaker, alongside his father Lindsay McCall; Tom McCarthy at Quealy Winemakers with his Peninsula pioneer parents Kathleen Quealy and Kevin McCarthy (Tom also has his own label, Kerri Greens); Rollo Crittenden at Crittenden Estate; and Kate McIntyre MW who has a broad ranging role at Moorooduc Estate under the title of business development manager.
“I feel the Mornington Peninsula is sometimes viewed as being a little older and less exciting than some other pinot regions,” says McIntyre. “We are not seen as ‘cool’, and people sometimes miss the quality and originality of the wines, and the innovation happening here. Maybe we need to talk more loudly about our quest for quality and diversity in this region. I have heard from some that there is a sense the region is resting on our laurels – and I don’t agree with this assessment!”
A bright future
With a generally vaunted reputation, Mornington Peninsula pinot noir is already in an enviable position, even without the significant advantage of tourism that its idyllic location and surrounds encourage. The foundation was laid long ago, and the wines have found their place around the country and indeed around the world, with many estates exporting broadly, albeit often in small quantities.
“The Peninsula has gone from strength to strength over the past few decades as we and our vines mature,” says Black. “There is a greater understanding of our vineyards and a greater knowledge of how best to capture quality. There’s always room for improvement and growth. Thoughtful and innovative viticulture and winemaking to capture the personality of what you think is the best expression of your site is key to the future.”
Outtakes from the tasting
We gathered every Mornington Peninsula pinot noir we could find and set our expert panel the task of finding the wines that compelled the most. All wines were tasted blind.
Our panel: Dr Ray Nadeson, owner and winemaker Lethbridge Estate; William Downie, owner/winemaker William Downie Wines; Chris Ryan DipWSET, senior buyer Trader House restaurants; Amy Oliver, Head Sommelier Point Leo Estate; Christina Kaigg-Hoxley, sommelier Gimlet at Cavendish House; Simon Black, winemaker Motalto; Dan Buckle, chief winemaker Chandon, owner/winemaker Circe; Victoria Pun, sommelier Recreation Bistro & Bottleshop. All wines were tasted blind.
“This is the flagship variety for the Peninsula, and they’ve done very well to claim that for the region, and I think this tasting really confirms that,” said Buckle as he opened the discussion. “You could pick holes in some of the wines, if you want to go that way, but there’s a lot of joy there. I think there’s some restraint, which is really nice to see; they’re not heavy wines.”
“Not knowing the vintages is tricky,” added Black. “There’s quite a diverse range of wines in there. Some I looked at had a more fragile framework, delicate, but with lovely composure and balance that were fantastic, then you move into some riper, seemingly forward wines that look like they’re from hot vintages. Then you throw in things like whole bunch and winemaking work, and it’s a pretty diverse bracket.”
“For me the better wines showed a homogeneity of fruit, where the fruit ripeness is very precise,” noted Buckle. “Some were playing with whole bunches, and some funkier stuff, with some very successful, and some less so. But it’s good to see people giving it a go and trying to stretch what they’re doing with it.”
“I found a really strong deliciousness factor across the board, regardless of oak use, bunch work, or more lo-fi approaches.”
“I found something to enjoy in all the styles,” Oliver added, “from the tightly furled that had green tea floral characters to the riper styles that were more opulent and fleshy… really impressive. I found some possibly a bit too far towards the edge of bitterness, then other bunchy ones that trod the line quite nicely. A really great bracket.”
“I think the warm vintages stood out, but It’s also site,” said Black. “If you go up towards Main Ridge or Red Hill, you’re going to see more red fruit, perfume, things like raspberries and strawberries and more pepper and florals. As you move down the hill you see bluer fruit and the profile changes a bit.”
“I found myself more engaged with the more restrained approach, the ones that showed that more Red Hill elegance, the more floral expressions,” Kaigg-Hoxley added. “But then I was also drawn to some of those gamier, meaty expressions that I always associate with areas like Balnarring. The ones I really like embraced that darker fruit and darker spice without being astringent.”
“When I taste wines from Mornington, I really feel like I’m near the coast; I can feel the influence of the water. I know that’s not a very good tasting note, but that’s how I feel – like I’ve been transported to the Peninsula. And that’s exciting. That’s what we should be trying to do in Australia, to have a distinctive thread through the wines of a region, even across a range of styles.”
“I was genuinely delighted,” declared Nadeson. “It was interesting for me to look across to Mornington from the long telescope from Geelong; they have a feel. Yes, I can see the vintage variation, and I can see the winemaker options – I can see all that. But there is a cohesiveness about these wines when you look at them from a distance. And I think that’s pretty cool. Some very nice wines in here. And, surprisingly for me, across a range of styles, from the lighter and crunchier to the wines that perhaps I more drift towards generally myself. Very, very good – I enjoyed it.”
“The quality across the board was very good,” agreed Ryan. “You’d usually expect a few more rogue ones. The standard was high… A criticism might be that some were too plush and open, but from a punter’s point of view, just delicious. I was drawn to the fresher ones, and it was rattling in my head, is it too simple? Because it’s just delicious, bright crunchy red fruit, florals and things… Possibly simple, but just delicious. I rewarded a lot of those styles that were easy to like.”
“If you’d done this line-up 20 or even ten years ago, you’d see much more variation in quality,” chimed in Downie. “Whereas today, almost all the wines you’d sit down and have a glass of, and there was no mistaking where the wines were from. If you didn’t tell us the region, we’d all have instantly known. It’s those classic redcurrant, raspberry, cranberry fruit characters that you don’t see so much outside of Mornington. There’s also an evenness and approachability to the wines… It’s kind of aerie faerie, but when I taste wines from Mornington, I really feel like I’m near the coast; I can feel the influence of the water. I know that’s not a very good tasting note, but that’s how I feel – like I’ve been transported to the Peninsula. And that’s exciting. That’s what we should be trying to do in Australia, to have a distinctive thread through the wines of a region, even across a range of styles.”
“Ten years ago, I was probably throwing 35–40 per cent new oak at a wine, but now I’m down to high 20s. I’d rather see no oak than the first thing I see when I pick up a wine is oak. Maybe the fruit 10 years or so ago just didn’t have the same intensity, and people were trying to bulk it up with oak sweetness and extra tannin to carry it, and I don’t think that’s needed anymore.”
“I definitely agree that there’s a theme that’s tying some of the wines, a sense of place with sea spray and a savouriness,” added Pun. “I kept thinking about what I would pair with these, as many were very good food wines.”
“Perhaps my prior criticism of Mornington pinot was always there was a little too much oak sitting on top,” said Kaigg-Hoxley. “It always tasted expensive, and the wines were expensive as well, and you needed to wait a little while to really enjoy them. And there was a wonderful restraint in so many of the wines here today.”
“Sometimes the oak sat a little heavy, with a sappy resinous character, and that was my major criticism,” added Black.
“There were surprisingly few of those wine, though.,” countered Downie. “20 years ago, you would have seen a lot more.”
“That was my biggest criticism, but there were few of them,” agreed Black. “Ten years ago, I was probably throwing 35–40 per cent new oak at a wine, but now I’m down to high 20s. I’d rather see no oak than the first thing I see when I pick up a wine is oak. Maybe the fruit 10 years or so ago just didn’t have the same intensity, and people were trying to bulk it up with oak sweetness and extra tannin to carry it, and I don’t think that’s needed anymore.”
“There’s a different generation of winemakers down there as well now,” added Downie. “20 years ago, they were makers from that first wave of development who had a key influence over what was going on, and that has subsided over time. The majority of the wine that’s made there is being made by people who are much younger.”
Nadeson suggested that even though he very much enjoyed the line-up, and he found wines that interested him on a deeper level, you could argue that there weren’t as many “profound” wines as you might expect from a fully mature region, and that it was a work in progress. That while the Mornington character was strong, perhaps there was a little sameness at times. Black countered that recent vintages would likely play a part in that, and several of the wines were likely made to be consumed more readily – that even though there was a decently sized selection, it was still a limited survey.
“Wine should taste good, and the great thing about today was that you could take almost any of the wines today and chuck it on the dinner table, and people will say, ‘This tastes alright!’ What more do we really want,” declared Downie.
“Well, I think we want a bit more than that, Bill,” laughed Nadeson.
“Sure, but in the context of a snapshot of a region that shows wines that people mostly want to drink, then that’s a pretty good result. If you want profound wines, you have to be deeply invested in regenerative agriculture, otherwise those wines won’t exist. Full stop, end of story,” added Downie.
“For me wine needs personality,” said Nadeson. “And we’re talking about elevated wines. I’m with Bill, viticulture is the way forward to unlock the special nature of a place. It cannot be done any other way. It cannot be done in the winery. Today did show really good winemaking, though . There was less than one handful of wines that I didn’t enjoy, and the rest I would happily drink.”
“I found a really strong deliciousness factor across the board, regardless of oak use, bunch work, or more lo-fi approaches,” said Kaigg-Hoxley. “I think the strength … is its approachability, and the fact that so many people find the generosity of red fruit profiles … so appealing. If I’m browsing for a crowd-pleasing pinot, I know that this region has a lot to offer a broad range of people who are looking for a glass of something enjoyable, and I think that’s ultimately what we saw in this line-up.”
Dan Buckle is the chief winemaker at Yarra Valley’s Chandon, as well as running his own Circe brand, which is based on Hilcrest Road, near Paringa Estate. His roots are in the Mornington Peninsula, having grown up the family vineyard there and having helped his father plant the first vines at Chandon as a teenager in 1986. Stints at Coldstream Hills under James Halliday, as well as working in France led him to Yering Station, then a celebrated stint at Mount Langi Ghiran, before settling at what was then Domaine Chandon in 2012.
Dr Ray Nadeson is the winemaker and owner of Lethbridge Wines. During a career researching and teaching neuroscience at Monash University, Nadeson founded Lethbridge Estate with his partner Maree Collis. He also managed to squeeze in a winemaking degree in his spare time. Since 2003, Nadeson has been focused solely on the estate, farming with biodynamic principles and making wine from home vines, select local vineyards and as far afield as Heathcote, the Pyrenees and Henty.
Amy Oliver completed a business degree in her early 20s, with a working holiday to the UK developing a love for hospitality and the wines of the world. A corporate career followed, but wine never left her thinking, completing her WSET 3 qualification while working as a project manager. That immersion saw her permanently spin off into wine, with stints working as an assistant sommelier at Andrew McConnell’s Cutler & Co, as well as the role of head sommelier at Neil Perry’s Rockpool Dining. Today, she is the head sommelier at the acclaimed Pt. Leo Estate.
William Downie has become somewhat of a legendary winemaking figure over the last decade or so, with a specialty in pinot noir. Just don’t call him a winemaker or ask him to talk about making wine. His approach is relentlessly vineyard first, best exemplified by his home vineyard, which is run organically, with the heaviest equipment being a horse. He has worked extensively in Burgundy, as well as more locally in the Yarra Valley, Mornington and Gippsland. Downie makes wine under his eponymous label, under the Guendulain Farm imprint, from his home farm and vineyard, and with Jason Searle under the SOS label.
Chris Ryan is a senior wine buyer with Trader House restaurants, which encompasses Andrew McConnell’s suite of venues, including Gimlet, Cutler & Co., Supernormal and Marion. Ryan holds diplomas from WSET and the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale, is a French Wine Scholar and also Court of Master Sommeliers certified. He was crowned the Best Sommelier of Australia in 2021. Ryan also makes wine in the Yarra Valley under his Honky Chateau label.
Simon Black is the winemaker at Red Hill’s Montalto, setting up the winery in 2009 and having run it ever since. Previously the Charles Sturt graduate started as his career as the winemaker at Willow Creek and has had winemaking roles at Heathcote Estate, Yabby Lake and Clyde Park. At Montalto, Black’s wines have been received with much critical claim and have garnered numerous awards.
Christina Kaigg-Hoxley is currently working as a sommelier at Gimlet at Cavendish House. She is a French Wine Scholar Educator and a freelance writer contributing to The Wine Magazine (formerly Gourmet Traveller WINE) and Vine & Bubble. Kaigg-Hoxley previously worked as an assistant wine buyer at Atlas Vinifera and a brand ambassador for Burch Family Wines. She is a recipient of the Sommeliers Australia Education Scholarship, has a WSET 3 qualification and has worked Vintages in the Yarra Valley and Margaret River.
Victoria Pun began her career as a speech pathologist, but she was diverted following a tasting in the Yarra Valley. After being offered a casual job opportunity as a cellar door assistant in 2019, her interest in wine deepened, beginning a first role in hospitality that was disrupted by the pandemic. Pun passed the Advanced Sommelier exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2022 while working at Vue de Monde. She is the recipient of the Sommelier Australia Education Scholarship in 2022 and is currently pouring at The Recreation Bistro & Bottleshop.
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