Funk: it’s not the first thing you might think of when it comes to Australian wine, but for some it’s a vital part of a wine’s makeup. Now for some, the funk has never left. For a few million music geeks around the world the musical stylings of George Clinton, James Brown, Sly Stone and The Meters have never gone out of fashion. But for the general music listening public these artists and their music are relics of a bygone era. Old fashioned and unsophisticated. Kind of like whole bunch fermentation in wine. But just as artists like Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson and Kendrick Lamar are bringing back to the funk to modern music, a self-proclaimed ‘German farmer’ in the Yarra Valley has been bringing back the funk to Australian wine.
So, ladies and gentleman, it is a great pleasure to present to you at this particular time, nationally and internationally known as one of the funkiest men in the wine game… Mr. Timo Mayer and his famous whole bunch.
Timo Mayer – From Württemberg to the Yarra Valley
Timo Mayer grew up in Germany, surrounded by all things grape and wine. His family have been making wine for more than four hundred years near Stuttgart in the Württemberg region. This is a highly traditional wine region, filled with many small growers. Four-in-five of these growers look after less than one hectare of vines. As a result, around 80% of the harvest is processed in the region’s cooperative cellars.
It is region renowned as one of Germany’s finest for producing red wines, with Trollinger and Spätburgunder (aka our old friend Pinot Noir) leading the charge. As may be expected in Germany, Riesling is the king of the white grapes in Württemberg and can make some exceptional wines. But most of the wines made in the region aren’t particularly exciting or complex and the clear majority wines are made for local consumption, ‘light, fruity and easy to enjoy’ but nothing too serious. The easy road for Timo would have been to stay here, learn his trade and eventually take the reins of the family winery. But young Timo was restless. He didn’t want to be a farmer and follow in others footsteps. So, in 1987 he left Württemberg and headed out to explore the world.
After a few years of knocking around the world working in hospitality, Timo ended up in Australia. Along the way he met his wife Rhonda in Florida and they spent a few more years ‘bumming around’ in tropical climes like Cairns in far north Queensland. An idyllic lifestyle, working and diving, would have lasted longer but a significant life event in 1993 meant that it was time to get a little more serious about life. Rhonda and Timo’s first child forced them to think about what they were going to do with their lives long-term. First step was to move closer to Rhonda’s family and friends in Melbourne, ensuring they could be part of their children’s lives. Second step was to think about what to do for work. While Timo had run away from a life in wine in Germany he was still interested in the vine and making wine. Moving to Melbourne meant that Timo had the choice of two amazing wine regions to call home, the Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley. Timo visited both but fell hard for the Yarra Valley, beginning a love affair that is still going strong to this day.
The apprentice finds a master
With a need for formal education to ensure his employment prospects, in 1995 Timo enrolled in an oenology degree at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga. From Württemberg to Wagga Wagga, now that is a journey that very few have taken! So now Timo was working on his formal qualifications, the next thing was to get some solid work experience.
At the time the Yarra Valley had a growing reputation as a great Australian wine region but it was a reputation built mostly on conservative, trophy-chasing wineries. High alcohol and lashings of new oak were de riguer, producing wines that belied the region’s cooler climate. Timo Mayer didn’t drink these styles of wine, so why would he want to make them? Innovation and true understanding of the Yarra Valley’s strengths was limited; with just a few names flying the flag for thoughtful, elegant wines. Names like Dr. Bailey Carrodus at Yarra Yering and Dr. John Middleton at Mount Mary are still celebrated as pioneers today, but at the time they were outliers. Steve Webber was another carving a reputation at De Bortoli for wines that bucked the trend. Wines that weren’t perfectly clean and clinical. Wines that were interesting, wines that were thought provoking, wines that had a little funk. In 1996 Timo Mayer started working at De Bortoli Wines, under the guidance of Steve Webber, a fellow disciple of the funk who would help revolutionize winemaking in the Yarra Valley.
Timo Mayer – From disciple to wine funk evangelist
In his time spent with Steve Webber at De Bortoli, Timo learnt a lot about the funk of wine. He learnt about wines that stank like a poorly cleaned barnyard when first opened that blossomed into wonderfully detailed expressions of site and region when given the chance to open up. Soon though it was time for Timo to do his own thing, to stretch out in a rubber band, to use the funk parlance. So, Timo began his eponymous wine label in 2000, and the circle was complete. He had run away from the life of a farmer in Germany but ended up living the life of a farmer in Australia. With the help and support of wife Rhonda and family and friends, Timo planted a vineyard on the slopes of Mount Toolebewong, just eight kilometres south of Healesville. Timo’s time in Australia had clearly had an influence, as he named the vineyard Bloody Hill in reference to the effort required to work on such a steep hillside.
Things were going along nicely for Timo with his new wine label and his day job as winemaker at Gembrook Hill. In 2004 Timo decided to take things up a notch. He wanted to take a winemaking technique, whole bunch fermentation, that was little used in Australia and apply it to one of his Pinot Noir wines.
Timo has been described by some as a little eccentric, so it may come as no surprise that rather than ease into the new technique he decided to turn it all the way up to eleven with 100% whole bunch Yarra Valley Pinot Noir. For winemakers in the Yarra Valley and around Australia the experience of tasting this wine must have been like seeing George Clinton’s P-Funk Mothership descend from the sky… What the funk is this?!
Some recoiled in horror, but many were intrigued. They were fascinated by the increased complexity, the silkier tannins and the freshness of the wine. And while few ever push the boundaries as far as Timo, the influence he has had on wines across Australia cannot be underestimated. A technique that was rarely used in Australia is now back and becoming the rule rather than the exception. And the wines being made are helping to shatter perceptions of Australian wine around the world. Not bad going for a runaway farmer from Germany, eh?
The future is bright… The future’s getting funkier
There was a decade or two when we tried to make wines that didn't suit the region. Now we've gone back to what we are... Lower alcohol, medium bodied, aromatic wines... That's what we try to do.
Just because he has helped to influence a generation of young winemakers doesn’t mean Timo Mayer is resting on his considerable laurels. He has made a name making deliciously elegant and innovative Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but in recent years he has begun to branch out with new varieties. Nebbiolo and Gamay are just two of the varieties that Timo is working with; vines that many believe have an exciting future in the Yarra Valley. And don’t worry, Timo hasn’t got lazy. He’s still leading the charge, not following anyone else with these wines. Both of these wines are getting the trade mark Timo treatment, pushing the boundaries of whole bunch funk as far as it will go.
So there’s nothing left to do but strap yourselves into that Whole Bunch Love Rollercoaster, folks. It’s going to be one hell of a funking good ride.