Who would have thought that a wine trip to Australia would end up being a Pinot Noir trip? Sure, we knew that there were a few outliers making stellar wine, but to find the level so high was a surprise, and the very best wines were in a class that can compete with truly great Burgundy. I know it may sound improbable to many of you and I really hope we will be able to put together some fun blindtastings to try this thesis.
Of course there was great Shiraz (especially Jasper Hill and Craiglee stood out), tremendous old Sémillon (Yarra Yering), elegant Cabernet (Mount Langhi Ghiran and Yarra Yering) but the Pinots have really made the deepest impression. Below is a light profile of two of the visits that affected me the most. Common to them both is the location in Victoria state, close to Melbourne and the windswept coastline.
By Farr (Geelong, Victoria State)
We were a bit nervous driving up to meet with Gary Farr. Everyone we had met with before that had warned us that he was a ”grumpy old bastard” and it was a wise move to get the first verbal crack in to get him off balance right away, or he would run you over. This prooved to be unneccessary. Retirement (at least in practice) seemed to be working well for him. Today, his son Nick takes care of the vineyards and winery.
Moorabool Valley in Geelong was the most prominent wine region in Australia at the turn of the last century. Swiss immigrants were the first to plant grapes here, and they brought their beloved Pinot Noir with them. Sadly enough, phylloxera ruined everything and as opposed to in South Australia, no old vineyards from that period remain. Gary Farr was the first to make great wine here again, at Bannockburn Winery, in 1978. When the owner died, Gary left and started his own winery, aptly named By Farr. Gary worked thirteen vintages at the famous Domaine Dujac in Burgundy, and his style of winemaking was always very influenced by the great Jacques Seysses (although many would say that the Dujac style has changed lately). The wines are elegant and floral but with a serious edge to them, imparted by a high proportion of whole clusters in the fermentation. Most producers today choose to destem and vinify only with the grapes, but at By Farr anywhere between 30% and 100% whole clusters go into the wine. This is a tricky technique that requires perfectly ripe bunches. When done right, the result is a herbal, floral style of wine with lighter color but great intensity of structure. The wines demand air and time to open up. All the wines here, from Chardonnay to Shiraz and Viognier are recommended, but the Pinot Noirs stand out. The top cuvée 2011 Tout Près (single vineyard of densely planted vines, 100% whole cluster and 100% new oak) was perhaps the best wine tasted on the whole trip, but it also took 12 hours to really open up and shed some of the initial austerity and blossom into a hauntingly beautiful floral and herbal masterpiece. This, I believe is on the level with the very best Burgundy Grand Cru, and in that light it is really exceptionally good value. I can’t want to surprise this to my francophile friends and guests with this, and I will certainly put away a case or two for myself as well.
Bass Phillip (Gippsland, Victoria)
The visit at Bass Phillip is one of the most surprising ones I’ve ever undertaken. I had never tasted the wines before, and truth, the only thing I knew was that they are some of the most coveted in Australia, and fairly expensive. The way I had had the whole thing explained to me, I was expecting a luxury project with a fancy designer winery and unlimited resources. I was also told that Phillip Jones was an eccentric with a bad temper. In all honesty, on this beautiful Saturday, I was more in the mood for shopping in Melbourne. But all right, let’s go out and taste the wines really quick and get back I though. I ended up staying the whole day tasting (I should say drinking) wines with Phillip and his wife (and her fantastic homemade chicken noodles) in the rather messy office/kitchen whilst spitting into a chipped coffee cup.
The landscape in Gippsland is at this time of year green and lush. The rolling hills and dotted with sheep and cows. This is dairy country. Not a whole lot of wine around here. Actually we didn’t see any other vineyards except Jones’.
I might have gotten ahead of the story, but when we got there it was obvious that there was nothing luxurious about this place. I have rarely seen such a small and frankly, quite messy little winery. It’s not Henri Bonneau, but it’s up like a down under version! Old tractors, broken vats and even a couple of old caravans lined the outside. Inside there was barely enough room for the barrels, that were covered in blankets to keep malolactic fermentation going. Bottles (in cases or just standing around; closed open or broken) are everywhere. Jones himself is almost the caricature of a wine grower, and I could easily see him heading up a radicalist Roussillon cooperative instead. We taste a huge array of wine, and the choice is either to swallow or just spit on the concrete floor in the winery. Is there a toilet? Just go in the vineyards, boy. There is crisp Chardonnay, restrained Gewurtztraminer (it was misspelled on the label of the first vintage, but Jones liked it so he kept it), serious Gamay and a line-up of Pinot Noirs that manage to shake my understanding of wine. How is it possible to make such delicate yet intense Pinot Noir out here, in the outback? Talent might be part of it, but hard work probably makes up the lion’s share. Everything here is handmade. Nothing else works in vineyards where the density tops out at 17000 vines per hectare. 17000! Usually when you talk about dense plantings in the new world, 8000 is the norm, and I only know of a handful of French vineyards that can topple the density at Bass Phillip. This can yield as little as 150 grams per vine, just enough to make a little under 20000 bottles in all. Sure, the wines are not cheap, but in terms of production costs they are a bargain, especially when measured against the competition from the rest of the world.
The style here is a bit more juicy than at By Farr (100% destemming is the norm here), but still very elegant and structured. The alcohol level sits comfortably between 12% and 13%, remarkably low these days. These are wines that will hold for a long time, and the better cuvées certainly demand it. We taste wines all the way back to 1992 (in halfbottle at that) that are stunning and actually feel like they need even more time to show the full potential.
It doesn’t seem like there are many visitors here, which is perhaps why we’re treated with such great hospitality and honesty. The reputation is probably enough to scare most people away, and if not that then the looks of the place. This is nothing for the faint of heart. But the wines are absolutely world class. Don't be afraid of the price tag!