Gilli and Paul Lipsombe’s quest to make the finest new world pinot noir and chardonnay they possibly could led them to the extreme viticultural south of Tasmania, in the Huon Valley. Along the way, they won a Jimmy Watson at one of their day jobs and helped tune the viticulture at the vaunted Chatto at the other, while also rescuing their derelict vineyard to launch their Sailor Seeks Horse label. Their wines are effortlessly pure and classic expressions with a lightness of winemaking touch, an elegant foil to some of the more powerful Huon Valley expressions. Gilli and Paul were the Young Gun of Wine Winemaker’s Choice winners for 2018.
Meeting in London in 2004 – he from Essex, she from Brisbane – Gilli and Paul Lipscombe found a passionate common ground with wine, which took them to the Languedoc to work vintage in 2005. That trip, despite very strong and well-informed opinions not to (the pair proudly share this exchange with famed wine writer Robert Joseph: “Any tips for setting out on your own and planting a vineyard?” “Yes, don’t do it”), encouraged them to move to Australia to start the long haul to both educating themselves and establishing their own vineyard. The goal here was to craft the best pinot noir and chardonnay they could, and hopefully the best this country has seen.
Landing in Margaret River with oenology and viticulture course enrolments made, Gilli took on work at Xanadu with Glen Goodall, while Paul took up a position at Devil’s Lair. They fitted in vintages in Oregon and New Zealand amongst winemaking and study duties, but they knew that Tasmania would be the place to realise their dreams, so moved there permanently in 2010. The site that they had been looking for, one seemingly on the fringes of viability, but with enough warmth to ripen pinot noir, one that had enough rain, but not too much, presented itself shortly after landing. It was a 6.5-hectare vineyard in the Huon Valley that had been planted with a raft of ill-suited varieties alongside a good mix of pinot noir clones, but it had been abandoned not long after its foundation, in 2005, never having seen a vintage.
The vineyard was seriously dilapidated, and jokingly, but not so affectionately, dubbed the “blackberry farm”. Plenty of hard work over the years saw that dormant potential realised, with the first tentative vintage of non-commercial quantities of pinot noir being made in 2013. In the meantime, and to this day, the pair also manage the viticulture at the hugely esteemed Chatto vineyard, in nearby Glaziers Bay. They have also made the wines at the Huon Valley’s most prestigious and awarded producer, Home Hill, since the 2011 vintage, winning the Jimmy Watson Trophy in 2015.
The pair had named their own label, Sailor Seeks Horse, after a hand-written advertisement in a local café in nearby Cygnet, which was requesting use of a horse or other beast of burden to carry a US traveller across the Apple Isle – a ready metaphor, it seems, for the couple’s hard slog to their goal. Now producing both a chardonnay and pinot noir, the SSH wines are elegant expressions, light on new oak and with binding natural acidity. You won’t find any additions here, but for sulphur, and the wines are explicitly built to transfer something of site, of place.