With an adolescence and early adulthood spent working (while not studying) at his family’s game-changing Kooyong estate on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, Mike Aylward was only heading in one direction. A science degree had to get knocked off first, but his first vintage, a lone pinot gris, was released under the Ocean Eight banner a year after his parents sold Kooyong, in 2003. Today, Aylward has turned the lineage of that first gris into a peninsula benchmark, flirting with a fuller expression of varietal flavour in a typically thrilling and taut package. His pinot noirs are fragrant and autumnal, and the ‘Verve’ is one of the benchmarks for the racier style of chardonnay. Aylward was the Young Gun of Wine for 2011.
The Aylward family made a significant imprint on winemaking on the Mornington Peninsula with their establishment of the groundbreaking Kooyong Estate. They sold that in 2003, but by then their son Mike, then 25, had served somewhat of an apprenticeship on the family ‘farm’, latterly while completing his science degree with an eye to eventually making wine. Encouraging that passion more than a little, the Aylward’s invested in building a winery and increasing plantings at their Shoreham property, with the view to Mike taking the reins.
That first vintage followed a year after the sale of Kooyong, with a pinot gris release, which has become somewhat of a touchstone variety for Ocean Eight. The name, by the way, is not a rowing or cinematic reference, but rather a golfing one, an homage to the eighth hole at The National. They like golf, do the Aylwards. While he cut his teeth putting his experience at Kooyong alongside Sandro Mosele into place at the fledgling winery, Aylward also travelled to France to learn from the great classic makers, particularly in Burgundy and Champagne.
Alongside the celebrated gris, Aylward pinned back the ears on his chardonnay, helping to pioneer a style that has reshaped the perception of the grape, both here and abroad. Alongside such mavericks as David Bicknell, Aylward stripped away the artefact and pushed for a leaner, racier style, emphasising citrus and mineral notes. It is a style that was both celebrated and decried at the time, and still is, but there are few he handled it as deftly and understood the balance between flavour and tension. As testament to this, the style of Ocean Eight’s ‘Verve’ has persisted.
Today, Aylward makes a sparkling wine, inspired by a conversation with Remi Krug, that he ages for eight years on lees before release, that emblematic gris, a saignée rosé from pinot noir and two tiers of both chardonnay and pinot noir.