We’d hazard that there are relatively few Brisbane 14-year-olds that dream of being winemakers, but this was the solid ambition of a young Luke Lambert in the 1990s. That passion burnt strong, taking him to Europe to be immersed in travel, food and wine, before returning to study and slog towards the end goal of fashioning the finest nebbiolo he possibly could. In time, that will become a singular pursuit, but along the way Lambert has been hand-crafting some of the most engagingly perfumed, textured and elegant wines to come out of the Yarra Valley. Lambert was a Young Gun of Wine finalist in 2008.
Over the last decade and a bit, Luke Lambert has been making some of the finest syrah, nebbiolo and chardonnay that this country has seen. But you won’t hear that assessment from him. In fact, aside from his general affability and a charm only exuded by genuine souls, Lambert is a wine marketer’s nightmare, being one of the most ruthlessly self-critical makers in the land. Ask him a question and he’ll tell you the unvarnished truth, and in minutiae. He’ll tell you everything he thinks he did wrong, and he’ll let you know exactly what disappoints him about the beautifully detailed and thoughtful wine that shimmers in the glass in front of you. And that’s him. He’s just a bit of a perfectionist.
It’s probably unusual for a city-bound Brisbane teenager to have aspirations to be a winemaker. But although Lambert didn’t grow up on a vineyard, his parents were passionate wine lovers, instilling in him a fascination for the mutable mysteries of the grape. Extensive post-school travels through Italy and France evolved that appreciation into a love for finer styles, for wines of detail and nuance, with the wines of Piedmont captivating him like no other. That interest crystallised to the point that lambert enrolled in a Wine Science degree at Charles Sturt University while still in Europe. A generally peripatetic real-world apprenticeship followed, with the Yarra Valley first luring him, though he has also worked in the Hunter Valley and in Italy.
From the first wines he made in his garage, Lambert has evolved his winemaking to be as simple as possible, with the primacy of site and fruit to the fore. He’s not one to tweak, prod and poke a wine to fit a type. His is the way of least resistance, with natural ferments, no temperature control, no new oak and no fining or filtration. It’s seriously transparent making, with no attempt to airbrush or graft over. And this is where his perfectionism has its own spin. You get the sense that he feels genuinely subordinate to the fruit, that his harshness on himself is a genuine humility about what that fruit could be.
In addition to his own wines – straddling the crunchy and juicy drink-now Crudo bottlings and the more seriously wrought though always elegant eponymous range – Lambert makes the wines for John and Simon Denton from their singularly individual View Hill vineyard. That site is composed of sandy granitic soils over granite boulders, a composition not seen elsewhere in the Yarra, which has a predominant mix of grey and red volcanic soils. Chardonnay, pinot noir and nebbiolo are produced with the same Lambert ethos and rigour. The vineyard is also the fruit source for Lambert’s own nebbiolo.
Lambert’s abiding passion is nebbiolo. It is the grape that has seen him move grape sources from Heathcote to the Yarra Valley, and ultimately to his own piece of land in Yea, to the north of the Yarra proper. That 15-hectare site will be planted across a steep north-east-facing slope solely to nebbiolo. Lambert will only plant what he thinks he can manage himself, about 2.5 hectares across a brace of clones. And he’ll plant and manage the property with no concessions, and no compromises. And we’d expect no less.