Mornington Peninsula Wine Region in Victoria

By Jeni Port
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Pinot Week, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria

Pinot Week, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria [©Visions of Victoria]

Dominant White Grapes: chardonnay, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc
Dominant Red Grapes: pinot noir, shiraz
Principal Wine Styles: delicate, citrussy chardonnay; fragrant, intense pinot noir

Any wine lover's consideration of a Top 10 Aussie chardonnay or pinot noir must include one or more Mornington Peninsula wines. Not bad for a region that essentially was born in the 1970s!

Grapes were probably grown on the Peninsula on-and-off going back to the 19th Century but there was no serious, concerted effort made until Baillieu Myer established Elgee Park at Merricks in 1972. The fact that the Peninsula happened to be Melbourne's leading summer playground, which in turn forced land prices to soar, stalled vineyard development for some time. There was also the early problem of people growing grapes at their holiday homes on land that wasn't necessarily suited to good grape growing. And then there was the climate to conquer. And that's when vignerons discovered what a cool, windy place the Mornington Peninsula can be.

Situated on a long finger of land, surrounded by water on three sides, the Peninsula is highly maritime influenced, winds either from Port Phillip Bay or Bass Strait providing a very cooling effect on viticulture. This might explain why the two major grape varieties of Burgundy - chardonnay and pinot noir - were to become the most suited to the region rather than the usual maritime climate specialists belonging to the cabernet sauvignon family. Many producers bravely persisted with cabernet sauvignon over the past 20 years but most have now hoisted the white flag of defeat.

This is one of the coolest wine growing regions in Victoria but producers can work with nature by cleverly sourcing fruit from individual vineyard sites that give them the best ripening conditions and through modern viticultural techniques that open their vines up to the sun. They're certainly a clever lot down this way, which explains their inclusion into the Top 10 category of Aussie chardonnay and pinot noir in such a short time.

The region produces a range of styles of chardonnay from delicate, citrussy through to richer wines but the common thread remains a firm and brisk acidity. It is the enduring hallmark of Peninsula chardonnay. The Mornington Peninsula chardonnay profile is finely nuanced: melon, citrus, peach, pear and nectarine. The acidity is pronounced and lively. Many producers make both a standard and a reserve model. The standard wine generally lets the fruit do all the talking. The reserve usually serves up a far more complex wine showing some pretty sophisticated (and expensive!) French oak handling. Here, you will see attractive buttery, oamealy flavours and the wine is far more textural and elegant.

There isn't one style of pinot noir on the Peninsula. There are many! Like its Burgundy sister grape, chardonnay, pinot noir responds in subtle and interesting ways depending on where it is planted. On the well-drained clays of Dromana it can be rich and flavorsome. On the deep and fertile volcanic soils of Red Hill and Main Ridge, the style is more delicate, finely-structured and perfumed. At Merricks, on brown duplex soils, its spicy and savory, while the sandier soils of Moorooduc can produce real power and elegance.

With pinot gris/pinot grigio you get one grape variety but two distinct wine styles. How confusing! In Italy it's called pinot grigio and is crisp and zesty. That is the inspiration behind the Mornington Peninsula's pinot grigio. It's picked early, sees no oak and once it's bottled it's ready to be drunk. The variety's salty, rock pool or sea breeze aroma immediately identifies the style which is largely neutral in flavor except for hay and subtle honeysuckle. In Alsace, France, the grape is called pinot gris and the style is rich and unctuous. You'll see a similarity with Mornington Peninsula pinot gris. Left out to ripen longer than many white grapes, pinot gris gains great complexity with cloves, honeysuckle and spiced cumquats and an almost oily texture. All that richness is partnered by some clean and brisk (and typically cool climate) acidity.

The Mornington Peninsula was an early pioneer of the charismatic white Rhone Valley variety viognier in Australia. Elgee Park, under the ownership of Baillieu Myer, was experimenting with the grape in the 1970s. The style is floral and delicate but sadly only a few have taken up the viognier challenge. However, Darling Park at Red Hill, does make a highly drinkable and idiosyncratic 'griognier' (a blend of pinot gris and viognier!).

It took just one believer to show the way with Italian grape varieties on the Peninsula and that believer was Garry Crittenden. Obsessive isn't too strong a word to describe this man's research and experiments into both Italian red and white grape varieties first at Dromana Estate and now under the labels Crittenden at Dromana and Geppetto. There's arneis, originally from Piedmont, a lightly aromatic white wine with almond, spice, blossom and marked acidity. In reds, Garry's work with barbera, another Piedmont grape, has delivered a charming lighter, herby style.

Tuscany's famous sangiovese is especially suited to parts of the Peninsula producing signature cherry, chocolate and savory characters. Piedmont's dolcetto means "little sweet one" but the style here is not particularly sweet (thank goodness) but is fleshy and pippy on the finish. Nebbiolo (yet another Piedmont import) is a tough customer (literally) with hard, tough tannic structure requiring some bottle time. Not for the faint hearted.

© Jeni Port 2006

(excerpt from The Age, July 22, 2006)

Regions

  • Melbourne Surrounds (VIC)
  • Mornington Peninsula (VIC)

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