Mornington Peninsula, Victoria: Wineries

By Michael Harden
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T'Gallant's cellar door wall of wine, Main Ridge, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria

T'Gallant's cellar door wall of wine, Main Ridge, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria [©Visions of Victoria]

Stillwater at Crittenden, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
Wine tasting al fresco at Stonier's, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria

For some people, the Mornington Peninsula begins and ends with the production of high quality, cool climate wines. There is much talk about the explosion of vineyards in the region in recent years (around 1000 hectares presently under vines, a figure that has doubled since 1996), the ever-increasing cluster of cellar doors (more than 60), the spectacle of big industry players swooping in and snapping up small wineries and a calendar increasingly filled with wine-related events. Hearing all this you might think that the wine industry on the Mornington Peninsula is some sort of out of control monster that is taking on all comers and devouring everything in its path. The true picture is less dramatic but more interesting.

Of the two million visitors to the Peninsula each year, only a small percent visit a winery. Even though this number has doubled in the last five years, it still shows that most tourists come for the views rather than the vines and most can spend an entire summer on the Peninsula, blissfully oblivious of all the chest beating, expansion and corporate manoeuvring happening in winemaking circles. But it also shows - given the amount of awards, accolades and column inches its wines receive - that the Mornington Peninsula wines is attracting a lot more attention than you might expect from a small, reasonably new and relatively untouristed wine making area. Put two and two together and you have to figure that something special is going on here.

The brief history of winemaking on the Mornington Peninsula is, like many other regions in Victoria, one of false starts, bad luck and disaffected city professionals with winemaking dreams and enough cash with which to bankroll them. Vines planted near Dromana in the nineteenth century were completely abandoned by the 1920’s and others that went in during the 1950’s were destroyed by bushfire a decade or so later. Nothing even remotely resembling an industry happened until the 1970’s.

The 1970’s were a turning point for wine in Australia generally. That decade marked the first time that sales of dry European-style table wine in Australia overtook those of fortified wine. This coincided with an increase in the numbers of Australians travelling to Europe, falling head over heals in love with the wine growing regions of France and wanting to emulate the vigneron lifestyle when they returned home. The Mornington Peninsula’s cool climate brought visions of Burgundy to more than one aspiring Europe-bedazzled winemaker.

The Myer family started the rush at Elgee Park, followed by Nat and Rosalie White at Main Ridge. There were many others that followed but only a few – Stonier, Dromana Estate, Moorooduc Estate amongst them – managed to negotiate what can be a tricky, even difficult climate in which to successfully grow grapes.

Being a maritime region, the Mornington Peninsula is blessed with mild temperatures for much of the year but it can also be wet and windy with vines prone to moulds and mildews. The topography changes dramatically from one end of the peninsula to the other resulting in a myriad of microclimates and a great diversity of soil types that can see one plot of land grow exceptional pinot noir grapes year after year while another just next door or over the hill might get one good year in five.

The decades since the1970’s have begun to reveal the Mornington Peninsula’s strengths. While there are plots of everything from riesling to tempranillo growing, it is pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot gris vines that are most commonly planted on the Peninsula and have produced the most successful and regionally specific wines.

Wife and husband winemaking team Kathleen Quealy and Kevin McCarthy of Main Ridge’s T’Gallant came to the Mornington Peninsula in the late 1980’s to make pinot gris and pinot grigio. Nobody else was doing it at the time but they believed the cooler climate and red volcanic soil in the Peninsula’s hilly parts were perfect for creating the more complex, voluptuous pinot gris while the warmer areas close to the coast with their lighter soil would suit the lighter more savoury pinot grigio. They were proved right and the Mornington Peninsula is now the largest producer of pinot gris in the Australia.

T’Gallant, an apple orchard until Kevin and Kathleen bought it in 1994, is one of the Mornington Peninsula’s most popular winery destinations. The combination of excellent, accessible wines with eye-catching unconventional labels, a lovely location and an excellent, rustic trattoria (La Baracca) and wood-fired pizzeria (Spuntino Bar) sees the place full to capacity for much of the year. Though the Fosters Group bought the winery two years ago, Kathleen and Kevin continue to make wines as before, proving their theory that the Mornington Peninsula is a great area to produce white wine.

As some of the vineyards on the Mornington Peninsula start to reach thirty years old, the next stage of Mornington Peninsula winemaking history is getting under way. Some winemakers are deliberately narrowing their focus to pinot noir and chardonnay believing that these grapes can best achieve the heights the region is capable of. Others are experimenting with different grape varieties, matching specific types with specific pockets of land. Either way, the winemakers here are increasingly looking at single vineyard wines, old world winemaking techniques and the whole concept of terroir which, on a land mass as diverse as the Mornington Peninsula, seems a mighty sensible approach.

Just around the corner from T’Gallant is Mantons Creek Vineyard. An enchanting place reached by a dirt driveway that disappears down a winding tree lined slope, Mantons Creek feels like another world entirely. In terms of the range of restrained, elegant and Old World-influenced wines made here, it is.

Owners Michael and Judy Ablett bought the property in 2000 inheriting nineteen-hectares of ten year old vines and a remarkable number of varietals – eight in all – that they, with much-awarded contract winemaker Alex White, continue to make into a surprising and well-received range of wine.

All of the grapes at Mantons Creek – chardonnay, pinto gris, sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer, pinot noir, pinot meunier, tempranillo and muscat – are handpicked (the slope on many of the vineyards prevents the successful use of machinery) and yield, in a good year, about three tons to the acre. This small, hands on approach and the carefully crafted wines – a lean and elegant chardonnay, a lovely rose made from three pinots, a robust tempranillo – buck the Peninsula’s trend towards a narrower focus and make Mantons Creek one of the most interesting wine destinations on the Mornington Peninsula.

There is little doubt that the winemaking industry on the Mornington Peninsula will continue to expand. Not only does it add $50 million to the Peninsula’s economy every year but the depth of winemaking talent – Gary Crittenden at Crittenden’s, Nat White at Main Ridge Estate, Sandro Mosele from Port Phillip Estate – ensures that the area’s winemaking potential is a given these days - more than enough incentive for new winemakers and their dreams to give it a go.

The rate of expansion will probably be at a slower, steadier and more considered rate rather than the break neck speed of the late 1990’s. As the local winemakers become increasingly fascinated with the idea of regionality, mixing it with the big boys in terms of volume is becoming less of a goal. The Burgundian dreams of the 1970’s might yet come true as the Mornington Peninsula winemakers increasingly look towards small scale, high quality, region specific wines to make their mark in the world.

© Michael Harden 2006

First printed in Food and Wine Lovers’ Guide to Melbourne and Surrounds (2006)

Regions

  • Mornington Peninsula (VIC)

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