Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk |

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly

A handcrafted, well-made Pinot Noir is, for many, the best of wines. Made properly, the grape is the epitome of elegance, finesse and balance. It is a wine that tastes of the vineyard, a wine that is best when it is true to the garden.

On my recent trip to Australia I visited a sweet spot for Pinot Noir, a place called the Mornington Peninsula, where the grape flourishes in a cool coastal climate and is made with passion by an ever-growing collection of vintners.

Jutting into the Bay of Port Phillip just to the east of Melbourne, the Mornington has historically been a vacation haven for Melbourne’s privileged. Extravagant beach homes run the length of the calmer bayside.

Above these oh-so-posh properties is a range of incredibly beautiful hills that have hosted fruit orchards and cattle ranches since the area was first settled in the early 1800s. In the 1970s, a few enterprising pioneers decided that the climate and the soils could support vines and they leapt in to explore the potential for creating a world-class winemaking region. In just 40 years, the dream has mushroomed and today the Mornington boasts more than 200 vineyards and 60 cellar door wineries with just about all of them specializing in the production of cool-climate Pinot Noir.

One of the pioneers is a former engineer named Nat White. Along with his wife, Rosalie, he started the first winery on the Peninsula, setting up shop in 1975. In the ensuing years the pair have toiled to produce wines that are stunning in their subtlety. A contradiction it would seem, until one drops a nose in a glass holding the iconic Main Ridge Estate “Half Acre” Pinot Noir. This is a wine that, as Nat modestly points out, is made in the field. That is to say he believes that the work done early in the year, months before harvest, when the hard slog is about pruning and managing the canopy (the way the leaves and the vines shade and support the grapes) and is the most important part of making great wine.

Not that the winemaker doesn’t play a role. The selection of a harvest date, the gentle hand in the picking process, and the management of acid levels and tannins are all part of the job. But Nat is one of those winemakers who believes that the best Pinot Noir wines are those that allow the grapes to express themselves fully, and that the best way to screw it up is to get in their way.

This philosophy is seen on the small, north-facing (in the Southern Hemisphere, cool-climate Pinot Noir is ideally set on hills that face toward the equator allowing them to capture as much light as possible) 8-acre vineyard that produces just 1,000 cases of Main Ridge wine each vintage.

While the wines reflect the elegance, finesse and balance mentioned above, I was perhaps even more charmed by the simplicity and the beauty of the vineyard and the lifestyle that Nat and Rosalie have created at their small cellar door.

We arrived at Nat and Rosalie’s tasting room at the end of what had been a busy Sunday. They were putting the day’s final sales in boxes and the last thing they needed was a couple from Colorado (clearly not cash-paying customers, as we can’t carry much wine back home) coming around late. But with open arms, Nat took us out back to see the vineyards and introduce us to the dog. Then it was inside to taste, first the current releases and then down to the cellar for a barrel tasting. The wines were magnificent and Nat talked quietly, but passionately about his journey to making the very best wines his vines could produce.

As we tasted and talked, I heard voices above. A group of neighbors, all Main Ridge residents, began to arrive. There was David and Wendy Lloyd, who produce beautiful single-vineyard Pinots just down the hill. John and Julie Trueman brought bottles of their Myrtaceae wines. George and Ruth Mihaly showed us some Paradigm Hills wines that are finding their way on to some of Melbourne’s smartest wine lists (Maze, the new Gordon Ramsey spot, is pouring them proudly). The cheesemakers from Red Hill served amazing goat cheese and sheep’s milk Pecorino. There must have been 30 folks and double again as many wines.

As caps were unscrewed, my wife and I were deluged with smiles, samples and food. This was simply an end-of-weekend get-together for the artisans of the neighborhood. In a world of big wines, high-priced restaurants and overbearing wine folks, it was a stark reminder that wine and food are, after all is said and done, best when it is simplest.


See more