Winter family pushes south to Mount Gambier

Australian wine makers continue pushing into every likely corner of the continent in search of the perfect wine grape. Vineyards flourish across southern Victoria, south to the bottom of the Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas, westo Drumborg, and even to Portland. Real money is pouring into Tasmania, too, setting the apple isle up as a great future source of cutting-edge wines.

In the West perhaps the most promising new grape growing area is at Pemberton, south east of Margaret River. Influenced by Dr John Gladstones, John Horgan, brother of Leeuwin Estate’s Denis Horgan, established Salitage Winery and a 52-hectare vineyard. He and others now demonstrate with extraordinary wines that selection of vineyard sites using climatic and geological data can be fruitful.

In South Australia, the push for the sunny but cool ripening conditions that produces the best wine grapes has been both upwards and southwards. Those opting for altitude straddle the Mount Lofty Ranges from the foothills behind McLaren Vale in the south, spreading north through Piccadilly, Lenswood, Eden Valley and Clare Valley.

South Australian vignerons seeking a lower latitude, had no choice but to head towards the Limestone Coast, south of the Murray River. Coonawarra was the first and most prominent development, joined later by Padthaway, and in recent years by many quite large developments in the general region of these two major plantings.

Some of these, at Mount Benson, Robe, and Cape Jaffa, add a maritime influence to the growing environment and, over time, we will see how wines from these areas differ from those further inland around Coonawarra and Padthaway.

Within Coonawarra, it was accepted wisdom a few decades back that grapes would not ripen south of V and A Lane — a point well north of many subsequent and successful vineyard developments.

Still, the town of Penola marked the southern end of Coonawarra until Peter Rymill Riddoch, a descendent of pioneer John Riddoch, planted a vineyard on an outcrop of terra rossa soil several kilometres south of Penola this year — a sign of great confidence from an experienced grape grower. Rymill believes grapes ought to ripen this far south.

Sixty kilometres further south, well beyond Coonawarra’s boundaries, Martin and Merrilee Winter made a bold but considered move in 1988, planting 6 hectares of grapes just south of Mount Gambier.

They not only ventured further south than anyone in memory but planted on volcanic soil instead of the terra rossa sought by other growers.

They wanted a growing climate slightly cooler than Coonawarra’s, believing that the slower, cooler ripening would produce an extra intensity of grape flavour. They were also aware of some risk that an early autumn might shut down the vines before the grapes ripened.

Martin, a geologist by training, with Coonawarra viticulturist Ian Hollick as mentor, selected a site that ought to minimise frost exposure and maximise ripening potential.

He believes ‘terra rossa’ soil is not the real issue in selecting vineyard sites in the area. He says climatic issues are the most important and that good drainage and soils producing little vine vigour are important. Martin and Merrilee’s vines sit on a shallow layer of volcanic loam (10-12 centimetres) over 1.5 – 2 metres of calcareous sand, over limestone

Under these comparatively austere conditions vines are healthy but not well enough nourished to produce large amounts of foliage. Instead, they concentrate on producing berries. Here the Winter’s have a parallel with the better vineyards in Coonawarra: invariably the best fruit there comes from non-vigorous vines on shallow soil on well-drained sites. These vines, too, focus on ripening grapes rather than creating foliage.

Merrilee studied viticulture and now manages the vineyard, planted about 70 per cent to Cabernet Sauvignon, the balance being mainly chardonnay, with a little pinot noir and cabernet franc.

Yields have been very low but of high enough quality for pinot noir and chardonnay to find their way into premium sparkling blends at Seppelts Great Western Winery to the east, over the border in Victoria.

The Winter’s send cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay to Brands Winery, Coonawarra, for vinification under Bruce Gregory and Jim Brand. Early vintages suggest a good future for the vineyard, although we’ll have to form a judgement over the next decade or so as the vines mature.

From what I’ve seen the Winter’s cabernet has the area’s very deep colour and sweet berry aroma but lacks the fleshy depth of Coonawarra. But that probably has more to do with the age of the vines. The one and only Winters Chardonnay I’ve tasted (1994) shows an unusual concentration of flavour and a high, gripping natural acidity that suggests an outstanding future for that variety at Mount Gambier. Both wines are worth trying now and it will be interesting to see how things develop over the next few years.