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The wines of Stonier, Mornington Peninsula, with Geraldine McFaul, winemaker

I’ve been a fan of the Stonier wines for a while. They’re pretty serious. Unlike many Australian producers that grow a zillion different varieties and make one of each, Stonier concentrate on what they can do well, which in this case is Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Stonier is now part of the huge Lion Nathan wine group, which includes amongst the jewels in its crown Brian Croser’s Petaluma and St Hallett from the Barossa. I met with winemaker Geraldine McFaul when she was visiting London, together with PR guy David Lindsay. The three of us chatted, I asked far too many questions, and we had some lunch and tasted her wines.

The Mornington Peninsula has a climate that is cool: it’s even milder than neighbouring Melbourne’s. However, the good news is that they don’t get frost early in the season. Weather usually breaks during Autumn here, so it’s no good trying to grow Cabernet. Instead, the region as a whole specializes in Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. The first vines were planted in the Mornington Peninsula in the early 1970s. Stonier came along and planted Pinot Noir in 1978: they never expected to make red wine from it – the intention was to use it as a base wine for sparkling. But soon they realised they’d hit upon a winner.

‘The development of vineyards here was a bit of a steep learning curve’, says McFaul. ‘Pinot is so site sensitive, and we’ve had it in the wrong place before. We’re at a stage now where we are happy with what is planted where’. So it’s only taken 25 years or so!

Stonier have a full-time viticulturalist and four full time winemaking staff. The disease pressure is a big viticultural issue here, with occasional cool, wet, windy conditions. The damp spring brings a risk of powdery and downy mildew. Also, netting against birds is essential close to harvest. Harvest here is done by hand: McFaul points out that one of the disadvantages with machine harvesting is that the petioles (the bits that attach the grapes to the vine) add bitterness to the wine.

McFaul did the vintage 2002 at Domaine de L’Arlot in Burgundy. ‘It was a spectacular vintage’, she recalls: ‘The first time ever that they haven’t chaptalized any of their crop.’ It’s reassuring to encounter winemakers who have broadened their horizons in this way.

Since then, she has experimented with some whole-bunch ferments, using reserve quality fruit. This is only done with top vineyards in Burgundy. From 2003 the Reserve has about 5% whole-bunch fermented wine, and a little (50 cases) was bottled separately. The idea with whole bunch ferments is that the presence of the stems – when these are ripe – adds something to the wine. In many cases this is a fine, spicy structure which can sometimes be confused with oak in young wines.

The Reserve Pinot Noir wines spend 10–14 days on their skins, hand punched. The regular Pinot has 5 days on skins, and is mainly fruit from quite young vines. Small open fermenters are used for the reserve, but some larger fermenters are used for the regular Pinot.

Like many young winemakers, McFaul isn’t afraid of modern technology in the winery, Reverse osmosis, for example, has been tried. However, this was a slightly unconventional use: it was used to remove water from a batch of Cabernet that got rained on, quite literally in this case. Rather than the water being removed prior to fermentation (the typical use of reverse osmosis in cool climates is to concentrate musts from otherwise ripe grapes that have been rained on), in this case there were 9 inches of rain in 24 hours and it got into one of the open fermenters, so the water was taken from the finished wine. McFaul isn’t keen on the technique, though: she thinks the pressures used in the filtration process alter the wine.

She thinks that the high alcohol levels can be a bit of a problem with Chardonnay. Her response though is to wait until the vines are a bit older when they’ll get better flavour into the grapes at lower brix. 

The 2003 wines are universally impressive, with the basic Pinot Noir being somewhat of a bargain at £9.99 in selected branches of Sainsbury. The Reserve Pinot Noir could justifiably claim to be Australia's best effort yet with this grape - if there's a better one, let me know. For availability details contact UK agents www.bibendum-wine.co.uk.

Stonier Chardonnay 2003
Quite an impressive minerally, creamy, herby nose with a pungent smokiness. The palate has nice balance between the rich fruit and a lovely weight. There’s a lot of complexity here, with delicious herby fruit overlaying the slightly toasty character. Very good/excellent 92/100

Stonier Reserve Chardonnay 2003
Intense, toasty, complex herby nose. Very bold with some minerally richness. Lots of weight and richness on the palate, which has a lovely texture and herby, toasty notes. It’s a well integrated, powerful wine. It’s made in a forward style, but there’s a lovely lemony, minerally freshness too. Very good/excellent 94/100

Stonier Pinot Noir 2003
Smooth, sweet cherry and black fruit nose with nice purity. The palate has lovely weight and freshness, showing elegant, pure fresh cherry and berry fruit with nice spicy acidity on the finish. A really lovely wine. Very good/excellent 93/100 (now in Sainsbury at £9.99)

Stonier Reserve Pinot Noir 2003
Bright complex nose of dark spicy cherries and red fruits. The palate is concentrated yet elegant with wonderful fine spicy structure. Great balance between the fruit and the spicy structure. Great balance – a brilliant interpretation of Pinot Noir. Excellent 96/100

Wines tasted Sept 2004
Older notes from November 2001:

Stonier Reserve Chardonnay 1999
Brilliant stuff. The intense nose displays rich toasty and pronounced bready characters, yet retains plenty of freshness. Good balance on the palate with lovely crisp, bready citrus fruit and subtle oaking. Apparently this went through a natural malolactic fermentation, and only some of the barrels used were new. One of the very best Aussie Chardonnays I have had. Excellent (£20 Classic & Rare Wines, tel: 01293 525111; 1998 is available from Hailsham Cellars)

Stonier Reserve Pinot Noir 1999
A pale red/pink colour this has an intense nose of sweet herbal and cherry fruit, with a touch of mint. The bright palate with good acidity and some tannin. Quite tight but shows great potential. Very good/excellent (1998 is available from Portland Wine at £19.99)

See a more recent review of these wines (Jan 2011)

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