Before selling to a major player, Kathleen Quealy and Kevin McCarthy made their mark as icons of the Mornington Peninsula in the 1990s, generating a flurry of interest around pinot grigio/gris that has not abated. With a move to one of the Mornington Peninsula’s oldest Vineyards in Balnarring, the pair have continued with their exploration of that grape, along with the Peninsula standards of pinot noir and chardonnay, as well as delving into some key white grapes of north-eastern Italy. The site is responsible for some of the key Quealy bottlings, including their premium ‘Seventeen Rows’ Pinot Noir and skin-contact ‘Turbul’ Friulano. Today, the vineyard is managed by Lucas Blanck under organic certification to produce fruit for their classic and lo-fi expressions.
Blanck notes that when they eliminated herbicides some years ago that they had “real worries” that couch grass would dominate, which is particularly problematic given its ability to climb vine trunks. “It was always the dominant species, as it was the first repopulate the bare areas created by herbicide,” he says. “Initially it seemed our fears were well founded, but by managing the under-vine mechanically and with the introduction of diverse cover crops the couch grass subsided. We now have multiple plant species living within our vines and their management is easier than ever.”
The Quealy home vineyard was in official organic conversion for five years before being certified (ACO), along with the onsite winery, in 2019, but the organic methods stretch back longer than that. “Working the Quealy site organically for nearly a decade, and achieving certification was a proud moment,” says vineyard manager Lucas Blanck. “Doing it while also establishing a range of explorative varieties certainly added a degree of difficulty and further satisfaction. This has paid off by delivering us a vineyard that is more balanced than ever before.”
While Kathleen Quealy and Kevin McCarthy are responsible for the development of pinot gris/grigio on the Mornignton Peninsula – as well as sparking interest across the country – their interest in exploring the potential of other varieties – with many having an Italian lean – has never dimmed. In addition to pinot grigio and the regional stars of chardonnay and pinot noir, along with a smattering of riesling, the site now has plantings of friulano, muscat moscato giallo, malvasia istriana and ribolla gialla across a total of 6.75 hectares of land under vine. New plantings are on the horizon, too, with varieties such as refosco and sangiovese looking promising prospects on the site.
“Over the last decade or so, our viticulture has become more focused, and we feel we better understand the differences across the site. As a result, we are now producing more singular expressions of wines from different parts of the vineyard. We now make two separate pinot noirs and two separate friulanos that are reflective of where they grow.”
The original vineyard’s plantings of cabernet sauvignon and merlot gave way to the newer varieties, while the oldest pinot noir and riesling stayed. Planted in 1982, they are some of the Peninsula’s oldest vines. Although much of the chardonnay was grafted to friulano, there are still also original plantings, while the younger vine pinot noir was grafted to pinot grigio. Most of the newer plantings are on rootstock, as a phylloxera precaution, with a firm focus on later ripening varieties and those with thicker skins to mitigate disease issues.
“The biggest challenge is to work out how to manage our existing and future portfolio of grape varieties and sites in the face of a changing climate,” says Blanck. “Combating climate change and the range of complications it brings is a major factor in all our decision making. We are looking to mitigate its impacts through planting varieties suited to a warmer, drier Mornington Peninsula, as well as establishing vineyard methods that require less water, and to incorporate less offsite inputs and use what is already there.”
The vineyard is essentially dry grown, with minimal irrigation only used to support and nurture the newer plantings. “Our soil improvements have greatly increase water retention, allowing our vines to thrive rather than simply survive without irrigation,” says Blanck. “The vines are stronger and we think the resulting grapes and wines more intense.”
Midrow cover crops are planted biannually, which are rolled rather than slashed, slowing their composting, which in turn helps to retain soil moisture during the growing season, before returning their nutrients to the soil. Large worm farms process other organic waste, while all wastewater is treated onsite, then distributed clear of the dam to contribute to local waterways and groundwater resources.
Solar power accounts for most of the electricity used, but Blanck is also constantly trying to decrease diesel use to “find a better balance between machinery and manual labour when organically managing the soil and canopies.” This is as much about reducing fuel consumption as it is increasing connection. “It would be better to spend more time with my feet on the ground, not on the pedal,” he says.
A quarter of the property, on the gentle slope beneath the vines, has been planted out to native vegetation, and sections of the dam have been reworked to encourage – in coordination with local rangers – a local long-necked turtle population. Those turtles now nest there, with fox protection measures in place, as well as cameras installed to monitor activity. “The vineyard obviously has an impact on our surrounding land,” says Blanck, “so basically every decision you make must take into account the turtles in the dam. …Our dam and wetland system is thriving – the amount of natural life we see there now that wasn’t as prevalent a decade or so earlier is hugely satisfying.”
Blanck, who has worked at Quealy for near to a decade, has winemaking roots that stretch back centuries, with his father, Frederick, the winemaker and current custodian of the highly respected Alsace house of Domaine Paul Blanck. For Blanck, although he also makes wine with Quealy winemaker Tom McCarthy (Kevin and Kathleen’s son) for their own label, Kerri Greens, his place is amongst the vines, which is where he stresses winemaking ambitions must begin.
“The winemaking at Quealy is very specific, so the viticulture gets its own set of welcome challenges,” notes Blanck. “We are, possibly unfortunately, ideologically driven. The vineyard is focused on sustainable dry-land viticulture and organic management, while the winery is driven by minimal additions. Much of how we manage our vineyards is governed by the season, and we pride ourselves to produce grapes and wines that reflect the site and the season.”
Part of the winemaking process is the exploration of an interest developed by Kevin McCarthy after a visit to legendary Friulian producer Josko Gravner in 2006. As a result, an ongoing experimentation with skin-contact fermentation for white varieties and that underlying desire to make wines with nothing added or removed works in lock step with the viticultural program. “We work cohesively between vineyard and winery – all stylistic choices start in the vineyard,” says Blanck.
“It’s hard to know if your ‘terroir’ is suited to skin contact white wine, as it’s such a new game,” says Blanck. “But the wines are absolutely unique, brimming with the character of the vineyard. We all enjoy drinking them; they bring us a lot of joy and pride. All you can do is judge what we are growing, making and tasting. This means our viticulture has to deliver quality fruit without disease and as high in natural acid and nutrition as possible, all without irrigation or the use of conventional sprays.”