The Mornington Peninsula wine region   
Exploring Australia's premier Pinot Noir region, part 1, introducing Mornington


In February 2017 I visited Australia's Mornington Peninsula wine region. This region has established itself as Australia's most important for Pinot Noir (Tasmania may challenge this statement), although it also makes excellent Chardonnay and very good Pinot Gris

In this two-part film and series of articles, I'm introducing some of the leading producers, and quizzing them about what's special about Mornington.


The peninsula is a narrow strip of land, south of Melbourne, jutting out into the Bass Strait, and the maritime influence is probably the key factor in the success of this region. No vineyard is further than 7 km from the coast, and the sea moderates temperatures, keeping the afternoons cool and the nights warmer than they might otherwise be. 'The cool maritime climate is the key to our wines,' says Mike Aylward of Ocean Eight. 'It makes pure wines with really amazing acidity. That's our strength, and I think we are all playing with our strengths pretty well.'

stonier tennis court 

The history of a wine region is often difficult to trace, because many people tend to start at a similar time, on a small scale, and early wines are often non-commercial releases. The first vineyard of the modern era planted here was in 1972, by Baillieu Myer at Elgee Park. But widely cited as the pioneer is Main Ridge, planted by Nat and Rosalie White in 1975. The Whites had been inspired by a trip overseas in the mid-1960s, when they visited Burgundy. Nat was a civil engineer and Rosalie a teacher, and they bought a 3 hectare block on the peninsula which they planted with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. They got lucky, choosing the site because of its easy access to the city, rather than having access to detailed climatic information. They ended up building a winery and in 1980 released their first commercial wine. One of the main figures in the early days of the region was Gary Crittenden, of Crittended Estate and for a long time Dromana Estate. 'In September 1982, in one weekend we planted 5 acres of vines on this property,' says Crittenden. 'This doubled the entire Mornington Peninsula plantings. If you added Nat White at Main Ridge, Brian Stonier at Stoniers, George Kefford at Merricks and Baillieu Myer at Elgee Park their plantings came up to 5 acres.' Crittenden had initially been attracted to Tasmania, because of its cool climate, but realised that the peninsula offered similar possibilities.

The short-hand of heat summation isn't a great way to assess a region's climate, but the range for Mornington is cited as 1080-1570, which is quite a wide one. Somewhere in the middle of this is pretty much ideal for Pinot and Chardonnay. This is a cool climate region.

There is vintage variation here, and it's quite significant. 2015 is the latest release for most producers, and it is an excellent one, considered by some to be one of the very best ever. But it followed on from a very difficult 2014 where there were tiny yields. 2016 looks very promising, and many of the baby 2016s I tried were really good, if not to the stellar standards of 2015. 2017 is looking short on volume because of difficulties with flowering, but quality should be pretty good if the last stages of ripening go OK. Prior to this, 2011 was another very difficult, cool vintage, although it did make some smart Chardonnays.

pinot noirPinot Noir, Mornington 

The other key detail about this region is that it is small scale. There are some 950 hectares of vines, spread out around 200 vineyards, with just over 50 cellar doors (roughly equating to wineries or labels). Nothing is very big here, and the micro nature of operations is good for Pinot Noir. There are no big companies operating in the area. More than half of plantings are Pinot Noir, with Chardonnay next largest at just over a quarter.

morningtonLyre trellising 

There's an interesting influence of terroir in the peninsula, and the Pinot Noir vineyards can be split into two broad categories, up the hill and down the hill. The hill in question is the the red area on the map, around Red Hill and including Main Ridge. Here there's the influence of altitude (up to 250 m) and soil: the soils here are a distinctive, deep layer of decomposed red basalt-derived clays of volcanic origin. Down the hill refers to the lower regions to the north, and also east and west, which include Dromana, Merricks, Tuerong and Moorooduc. Down the hill, at lower altitude, the soils transition to more of a sedimentary brown/grey loam that's free draining. These sites are a little warmer. Up the hill Pinots tend to be more aromatic and have higher acidity, with bright, floral red cherry flavours, with the vines much more vigorous because of the water-retaining properties of the red clay soils. Down the hill the wines are often more structured with darker fruit characters, and irrigation is necessary here in most cases.

 mornington willow

What are the challenges working here? Surprisingly, one of the main problems is birds. They are voracious grape eaters, and so every vineyard has to be netted, just after veraison starts. Nets are expensive, adding around A$1000 to the cost of vineyard management each year: they have to be purchased ($14 000 for a 7 ha vineyard, for example), stored, and applied. They last 10-15 years. Related to this, viticulture is expensive here, with management costs of $16-20 000 per hectare per hear, and $25-30 000 if the lyre split canopy system is used. Labour costs are high here with a minumum wage of $26 per hour, and $50 at weekends.


Weather is a problem, too. Poor conditions during flowering can really decimate yields, as occurred in 2014 and to a lesser extent in 2017. Then there's also the threat of harvest rain. Yields are rarely high. 'Back in the 1980s some thought we'd make heaps of amazing Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot from 5 ton/acre crops,' says Geraldine McFaul, winemaker at Willow Creek. 'This was the theory: we could have a trellis system that was sufficiently bountiful and somehow get enough sunshine into that canopy that you could have amazing fruit and lots of it.' Now, though, pretty much everyone realises that crops need to be limited to achieve any quality. And most of the Cabernet has gone.

I was impressed by the Mornington Peninsula. The Pinot Noirs are pretty serious. Many new world regions deliver Pinots with lovely fruit, but they often struggle to achieve non-fruit complexity and mid-palate weight. This is something that the Peninsula can do, with its combination of climate, soils and vine age (many of the best vineyards are 20-30 years old now). The Chardonnays can also be exceptional. Over the next few weeks I'll be adding my producer profiles and tasting notes.


Part 1 - in order of appearance

0:27 Mike Aylward, Ocean Eight
2:53 Lindsay and Jamie McCall, Paringa Estate
4:58 Simon Black, Montalto
6:48 Glen Hayley, Kooyong
8:39 Geraldine McFaul, Willow Creek

Part 2 - in order of appearance

0:28 Gary Crittenden
2:39 Sandro Mosele
3:32 Martin Spedding, Ten Minutes By Tractor
8:48 David Lloyd, Eldridge Estate of Red Hill
10:25 Hugh Robinson
12:49 Tom Carson, Yabby Lake
15:29 Mike Symons, Stonier
17:34 Kathleen Quealy, Quealy

1 Introduction
2 Paringa Estate
3 Montalto
4 Ocean Eight
5 Stonier
6 Ten Minutes By Tractor
7 Kooyong
8 Willow Creek
9 Crittenden Estate
10 Yabby Lake
11 Quealy
12 Mooroduc
13 Eldridge Estate of Red Hill 

See also:

The wines of Jamsheed

Wines tasted as indicated  
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