Tillie Johnston’s path to making wine started in the Yarra Valley, then widened into a busy global arc, but was always tracking back to where she started. With experience at some of the finest wineries across Australia and overseas – focused on regions that echoed the Yarra’s climate – Johnston now tends her own block of pinot noir vines at the Yarraloch Vineyard, currently making a lone pinot noir, crafted from the ground up to be bright, fruit forward and handled lightly in the winery.
A Yarra Valley native, Johnston’s wine interest was first sparked after working casually at a few cellar doors in the region. In 2012, she completed her first harvest in the winery, working in the lab at Coldstream Hills. She “loved the culture straight away,” which cemented her resolve to pursue a career in wine. Postgraduate studies in winemaking and viticulture at the University of Melbourne followed, as did vintages far and wide.
Those roles included stints at such icons as the Yarra’s Yarra Yering, Leeuwin Estate in Margaret River and Brokenwood in the Hunter Valley. Along with seasons in New Zealand and Canada, Johnston also worked at Cristom in Oregon, USA, and the hugely respected Keller in Rheinhessen, Germany. With her wanderlust somewhat sated, Johnston returned to the Yarra to take up a role with Giant Steps as a trainee viticulturist.
“I have always dreamed of returning home to the Yarra Valley and starting my own wine label,” says Johnston. “Throughout my travels I have always found myself working in regions of similar climate, so that I might one day return home and apply all the wonderful skills I have learned. The stars aligned in 2019, and when I returned, I was accepted into the inaugural Young Winemakers Program at No.7 Healesville… This was the launching platform for Tillie J Wines, and the brand has been thriving and gathering momentum ever since.”
Things have moved quickly for Johnston, albeit on a small scale. Offered the opportunity to manage an acre of pinot noir at the Yarraloch Vineyard in Gruyere, she is now in the enviable position for a young maker to be able to control her wine from soil to bottle, though naturally the learning curve is steep. “Up until this point, my experience has been mostly in the winery, so this has created the perfect setting to learn more about viticulture, which was largely an unknown for me.”
Although the role at Giant Steps and her studies informs her process, Johnston was particular about starting with a clean slate and to work at improving her knowledge of basic vineyard practices, such as pruning, shoot thinning and lifting wires. “The vines are grown on a steep east-facing slope with close, unilateral plantings. These conditions have their challenges for novice farmers but the experience to date has been super rewarding.”
With a focus on organics, Johnston has been targeting revitalising the soil health by boosting the microbial activity and mineral content. “I have been making a huge effort to introduce beneficial micro-organisms (mycorrhizae and trichoderma) and biological fertigation to help the vines unlock all the goodies they need to perform over the growing season. Into the future, I hope to explore different pruning techniques to improve vigour, alternative under-vine weed management and veer away from non-organic sprays. I hope this experience will provide a sound understanding for managing my own vineyards one day.”
At present, Tillie J Wines has a singular focus, one wine from one site, and all managed at every stage by Johnston. “I have chosen to work with a classic variety to the Yarra Valley, a pinot noir,” she says. “The wine reflects a wine I like to drink, and pinot noir is a variety I am so passionate about.”
And while that focus is laser sharp right now, Johnston stresses that it’s not an end point, always wanting to test and refine her process with anything she does. “To put it simply, I am really into crafting and creating. Whether it’s making a meal from scratch or planting a new garden bed in the backyard, I like to put my skills to the test.”
“I am interested in expanding my range of wine soon to include varieties which will show longevity growing in the Yarra Valley, that are adaptable and able to flourish within an unpredictable climate. I am exploring and experimenting with different organic crop and canopy management strategies that help to mitigate climatic extremes.”
In the winery, Johnston describes herself as a “minimalist when it comes to additions throughout the wine’s journey from vineyard to bottle.” She focuses on being “gentle in all stages, using gravity where possible and being oxidative only when necessary,” which results in “an expressive wine that unfolds and evolves over time. I do use sulphur but in small amounts and choose not to fine or filter my pinot noir because I release my wine in time for spring and I want it to be tasting its best soon after it goes to bottle – fresh and fruit forward in style.”
“Flavour can only be created out in the vineyard, and this comes down to choosing the right time to harvest,” Johnston stresses. This vineyard-first approach is something that she keeps circling back to, with winemaking detail taking a distant backseat to talking about weather patterns, vine health and tasting the grapes as they ripen to snatch them at the ideal time. With just two vintages of her own label in bottle, it’s the sign of an already mature maker.