The old saying goes that “it takes a lot of great beer to make great wine”. Well, for Sam Hambour and Duncan Gibson, they certainly have a consistent supply of the frothy stuff. Co-founders and owners of Hop Nation Brewing Co., Hambour and Gibson are winemakers by trade, and with the brewing side successful established, winemaking has come back into the frame. With five vintages under their belts, the pair make a range of wine from fresh glou-glou (smashable) styles to more mediative selections both from their base on the Mornington Peninsula and across Victoria.
“In 2014, we launched our beer brand, Hop Nation Brewing Co.,” says Hambour. “After it was well established and running, we were able to channel some energy back into winemaking and returned to our roots. In 2016, we decided to take the leap by creating Site Wine. We aim to make wines that are true to the vineyard, hands off, clean but also have intrigue – a balance between natural winemaking while still showcasing the fruit from the year. The project continues to evolve as we expand our practices to new styles.”
Hambour and Duncan both studied oenology, graduating in 2007 and 2006 and in Adelaide and Christchurch, respectively. With somewhat of a shared wanderlust, the pair devoured vintages around the world, taking advantage of the seasonal differences of the north and south hemispheres to accrue a huge amount of experience in short time. The tally is littered with notable regions, including Burgundy, Oregon, Sonoma, Mosel, Okanagan, Ontario, Napa Valley, Marlborough, Central Otago, Hawkes Bay, Clare Valley, McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley, Tuscany and Barolo.
Before launching Hop Nation in 2014, Gibson was working as a winemaker at Yering Station, while Hambour was a winemaker at Paringa Estate. “From 2014, we put our energy into Hop Nation, while still making wine on a smaller scale,” says Hambour. “We have worked with the fruit from the Duke Vineyard since 2014 and took over management in 2016. A few minor changes were made to bring the vineyard in line with our viticulture and winemaking goals.”
Hambour had already spent three years as a winemaker in Red Hill. From that, emerged a deep connection and love for the region,” he says. “The quality of wines made there speak for themselves. I was also drawn to the lifestyle, with pristine beaches and dramatic surf, to me it’s the perfect mix of coast and country. The red volcanic clay-loam allows for dry-grown vines, which allows the vineyard to express itself each season.”
The pair share that Red Hill South vineyard with Lucas Blanck and Tom McCarthy of Kerri Greens, with the two labels sharing the same winemaking facility next to the vineyard. Blanck oversees the viticulture across the site. “We now run a single arch cane in each direction, allowing light and wind to penetrate the canopy,” says Gibson. “Grapes are dry grown and produced using organic principles (not certified), no herbicide, no synthetics. Now 29 years old, the Duke Vineyard is consistently producing small, thick-skinned berries with complex ripe flavour profiles full of natural acidity.
The first Site wines were released from the 2016 vintage, and aptly for a brewer the next release of chardonnay and pinot noir pair were packaged in 375ml cans. “In 2017, we decided to move to canned wine and hit a bit of a brick wall when trying to sell premium wine in a can, in pursuit of a more sustainable packaging method,” says Hambour. “Maybe we were too early or just wrong, but after two years we moved back into lightweight bottles.”
In 2019, 750ml bottles were introduced, with a brand overhaul seeing artist Henrietta Harris’s labels adorn a range that now comes from three sites, including one in Benalla who also sells them cherries for making sour beers. “We work closely with the growers to create wines that best express each vineyard’s unique character, by using the site as the foundation,” says Gibson.
“The small-lot wines are grown and made using minimal intervention and sustainable practices. We use quite a bit of whole bunch across our reds, and all our wines are naturally fermented. We use minimal sulphur and only add pre-bottling. We aim to pick early to retain as much natural acidity as possible. We use lightweight recycled bottles and don’t fine or filter. We would like to eventually open a winery, cellar door, restaurant on the Mornington Peninsula and continue to evolve our pinot and chardonnay offering.”