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Postcard from Australia 5: Magic and medals

Emily O Hare from the River Cafe is the winner of the James Busby Travel and Imbibe Sommelier 'Blog your way Down Under" competition

Our first taste of Mornington Peninsula wines was in the hotter Heathcote at Yabby Lake’s cellar door. Perhaps it was best this way: we could feel the drop in temperature and sense the sea breeze before we’d even arrived, in the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs we tasted.  The Yabby Lake wines had a freshness about them, the Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 seemed so immediate to me, so alive, that it felt like, beneath the berry fruit aromas and flavours, it breathed.

Just days after we left, their Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 won three trophies at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show, including best Victorian table wine. I looked over my notes, and I did love that wine, but I loved their Block 6 Chard even more. Made from grapes born from heavier, clay soils, I liked the way it felt in the mouth, it had this hold, that wouldn’t let me go to scribble adjectives in my notepad.

The Mornington Peninsula is surrounded on three sides by water. The climate, is unsurprisingly Maritime, but there is much diversity between sites – differences in aspect, elevation, soils and microclimates. Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Shiraz are the key varieties.  But, we were all asking as we drove to Ocean Eight on the bus, what would work best with Pizza?

Winemaker and co-founder of the Ocean Eight label, Mike Aylward had set the group a challenge. We were to put forward some recipes for a pizza topping to match his range of wines.  Before the competition commenced, we were poured a glass of traditionally made sparkling wine made from 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Meunier, It did what all great sparklies do – lifted the palate, lifted the spirits and cleared the mind to enable us to think mozzarella. Only a small amount of this wine is made, and most of it is sold directly to the restaurants in Melbourne. Rather uniquely, the wine is sold to these restaurants unfinished – it is up to the wine team within the restaurant to decide on the dosage, and then it is topped up to the recipe required and bottled and then labelled under the restaurant's own name.

The Ocean Eight Pinot Gris 2010 was luscious and ripe – more Alsatian than Italian, with a long, sweet peach blossomy finish. We later found out that while Mike was waiting for the first crop of PG, Chard and PN to be picked, he travelled through Europe to learn about styles and winemaking techniques in Champagne, Alsace and Burgundy. The Chardonnay ‘10’ was delicate and not over worked - 'uncluttered' as Yabby Lake’s Tom Carson might put it. Yet, despite its subtlety, it matched beautifully with Jerusha’s lemon and chicken pizza. The people’s choice award went to Aigars and Senthil’s “Mornington Star” a piquant and juicy chorizo and calamari pizza matched with the Ocean Eight Aylward Reserve Pinot Noir 09.  It was an intense match, there was a lot going on in the wine and on top of the tomato based pizza. The sweet salty spicy chorizo picked up the sweet ripe raspberry fruit flavours of the wine, the calamari rings rang out the mineral notes of the red. The wine was supple and firm, as was the pizza base. (There was some talk of dirty tactics however, another contestant's pizza was 'accidentally' dropped en route to the oven. Ali and Jan - I pray there may one day be a re-match…in Sicily?)

Kooyong was our next visit. Kooyong lies South of Yabby Lake, and North of the Ocean Eight vineyards, pretty much bang in the middle of the peninsula.

The soils are mainly granite and basalt. “We have our own stories to tell here,” said winemaker Tessa Brown, “and they don’t originate in limestone”. I heard the term Mod Oz mentioned for the first time on the trip – Tessa tells us that modern Australian wine is not about chasing a style or imitating the Old World. It is about working the vine - hand pruning, hand harvesting - and not the wine. More wild fermentation, less new oak to produce a wine that is individual and original, that can speak for itself.

The 2 single site Chardonnnays from Kooyong, the Faultline and the Farrago 09 could certainly tell a story, with soundtrack.  Tessa asked us if we could pick up a potter’s clay note on the Faultline? The vineyard has predominantly clay soils. I picked up the glass and sniffed and tasted. The flavours were warm and ripe and fleshy, and suddenly there in my head was Patrick Swayze at the potter’s wheel, all taut biceps and warm flesh, in the background I could hear the Righteous Brothers. This is my kind of story…ive never gotten Patrick out of a Puligny.

The Farrago was more delicate, leaner, it seemed to have more noticeable acidity and citrus character. This site sits on more quartz than clay, and ripens earlier than the Faultline.

The reds were as fine as the whites. We compared the three single site Pinot Noirs, the Meres, Haven and Ferrous ‘09’, each under 3 hectares in size.

The ‘Meres’ is the most exposed to the N.W winds, and the earliest to ripen, Tessa tells us this wine usually has the most feminine expression of the three, and were she forced to compare it to Burgundy she would suggest Chambolle as its closest match.

It was the lightest in colour and certainly the most delicate, ‘Haven’ on loam/sandstone soils, surrounded by trees has a darker colour, and a blacker fruit profile, there is a mulchy, porcini note to this wine, it feels weightier than the Meres and more intense. The Ferrous, a single site on the meanest soil riddled with iron stones, is almost terrifying. It was a little dumb on the nose, but on the palate it had such depth of flavour, and such strength, it seemed to be biding its time, inherently powerful and perfectly able to overthrow any wine in its way when the time is right.

We left Mornington to head back up to Melbourne. Tonight was The Night. We were going out on the town, to eat in the city’s best spots and to down as many margaritas and martinis as humanely possible. Tomorrow we fly to Adelaide, if all of us make it back…

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