Bernice Ong & Julian Forwood Ministry of Clouds

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When the needle dropped on Bernice Ong and Julian Forwood’s Ministry of Clouds label they knew exactly what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it. With a focus on McLaren Vale but a reach that takes in the Clare Valley and Tasmania, the pair crafted wines that pitched towards mid-weight, loaded with subtle detail that were both fruit-bright and savoury, and always made with food in mind. Ong and Forwood were Young Gun finalists in 2014.

Ong and Forwood had already had strong careers in the wine industry before they went it alone, launching their McLaren Vale operation in 2012. Those careers were on the brand/sales/marketing side of things, though, working with such iconic names as Wirra Wirra, Woodstock, Mountadam, Yalumba and Moët Hennessy.

Forwood spent eight years at Wirra Wirra, finishing there as the General Manager of Sales. His interest always ran deeper than the end product, though, and certainly much deeper than simply selling boxes. Forwood was always intimately across the winemaking processes, and perhaps most importantly, he was also deeply connected to the vineyards, mentally mapping the Vale and its distinguished sites, some of which were underappreciated at the time.

Ong was similarly connected to the Vale, with a stint at the Eden Valley’s Mountadam followed by six years at McLaren Vale stalwart Woodstock. After Forwood left Wirra Wirra to make their wine alongside Tim Geddes, Ong kept her day job for another year, with both focused full time on Ministry of Clouds from 2013, just when the first wines started to hit the shelves.

Although the pair had put down firm roots in the Vale, and the range was always going to be at its core a celebration of what the region does best, their desire to also work with chardonnay and riesling necessitated a broadening of scope.

Tasmania proved the right place for them for chardonnay, with the more recent releases being made up of both Derwent Valley and Coal River fruit, combining power with elegance. The Clare Valley was a logical place for their riesling, and they have focused on a classic style, though one which favours delicacy and subtle, mineral-shot texture.

In McLaren Vale, the pair make grenache, shiraz and mataro, as you may expect, but they also work with tempranillo, carignan and mencía. Theirs is a style built around a very European sensibility of wines that pitch more to mid-weight with the thought of food not far away. The hand in the winery is a light one, with layers added complexity through selective picking dates, fermenting techniques and blending of varieties and sites, rather than pushing for ripeness and wrapping all in new oak. In keeping with this, their pinnacle wine is a blend named ‘Kintsugi’ after the Japanese art of visible mending of pottery with gold-laced bonds. A straight shiraz would be an easier sell, but that’s not the point, with their wine free to flow with what the season offers, making the most engaging sum of the given parts.

In 2016, Ong and Forwood plunged a little deeper, buying an 11-hectare vineyard in the Seaview subregion above the Onkaparinga Gorge, planted primarily to shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. That vineyard has begun to inform a portion of their regional shiraz, with a single site offering coming soon. In time, with replanting and restructuring, this vineyard will occupy more of the Ministry of Clouds range, but it’s hard to imagine the exploration of compelling sites, in the Vale or otherwise, will ever be off the roster for the pair.

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