One of the brightest lights in the current crop of Australian winemakers, Mac Forbes, has spent most of his life in the Yarra Valley. He was born and raised in the region, so it probably comes as no surprise that he has become one of its greatest champions in his adult life. He has done more than pretty much anyone to shine a light on the Yarra Valley’s unique and distinctive sub regions, and it’s thanks to Mac that places like Woori Yallock, Wesburn and Hoddles Creek are slowly but surely becoming known throughout the world. His efforts are typical of the increasingly wide discussions on the diversity and quality of fine Australian wine that are helping to shape the modern perception of the industry.
…deliberately eschewing conventional alcohol levels, new oak minimal, clarity, finesse and tension born of philosophy and of place.
James Halliday on Mac’s wines
Gaining experience. And bringing it home
But let’s take a few steps back… Even though he grew up in one of Australia’s great cool climate regions, Mac didn’t grow up with a passion for vines and wines. While his parents helped pick grapes for the legendary John Middleton at Mount Mary, Mac first walked the vines and rolled up his sleeves to make wine while in the south of France. It was in 1993 and Mac, like many other young Australians, was keen to leave the comfortable life he knew in Australia and spread his wings. So, he jumped on a plane a travelled to Europe to see the sights. Everything was going splendidly… until the money ran out.
Now if you are ever going to run out of money and need work quickly, you could do a lot worse than finding yourself in the south of France during the vintage and Mac easily found work helping in the vineyard and winery. Well, I say ‘helping’, but to be more accurate Mac would often be the one in need of help as he was prone to hurting himself. He electrocuted himself twice and nearly died of carbon dioxide poisoning in underground concrete tanks, a rather inauspicious start to what has become a highly-regarded winemaking career!
If you have ever had the good fortune of working a vintage in a winery you will know how hard it can be; long, long hours of back-breaking and often monotonous work. Physically draining, it can take its toll on the body, mind and soul and it was understandable that Mac didn’t fall in love with this side of the wine game. No, it was all of the other things around harvest and winemaking that Mac fell for; the rich fabric of people sharing in the harvest, people drawn from around the world in order to pick grapes and be a part of the excitement of the vintage. And while at the time Mac wasn’t aware of the impact that this experience in France would have on him, to this day it is still something that he cherishes and loves to talk about.
Home. Now what?
Upon his return from Europe, Mac wasn’t sure what to do with his life. He started a Science and Commerce degree at Melbourne University but was quickly bored out of his brains. So, after some gentle prodding from his parents, Mac explored the possibility of completing a winemaking degree. Rather than seeing this as a short-cut to becoming a winemaker though, he viewed the degree as a starting point to enter the wine industry. It didn’t matter where he ended up; be it marketing or viticulture or winemaking. The degree would be a springboard into a world that intrigued him. From there until he returned home in 2004, Mac spent his time collecting experiences around the world. He worked in everything from marketing and PR to wine education. From a winemaking role in the UK to wine consulting in Austria and working at Australia’s famed Mount Mary estate. Each piece of knowledge he gathered helped develop Mac’s wine philosophy. He could have continued gathering experiences for many years but something had started to gnaw away at him…
The search for truth in the Yarra Valley
In 2004 the Australian wine community was right in the middle of the Great Australian Wine Boom. Big and bold Australian wines were the flavour-of-the-month in markets like the U.S., with critics heaping praise on rich and heavily extracted wines. On his travels through Europe though, Mac found that the locals had a very different view of Australian wines to those of U.S. critics. Australian wines was lambasted for making generic, boring wines and people told Mac that Australia didn’t have any terroir.
Sure, we had the sunshine needed to grow grapes but our soils were too old to truly tell a story. While no one could argue with the age of our soils, Mac was ready to show the world that Australian terroir wasn’t a myth. Terroir wasn’t some mythical creature like the Yeti, the Bunyip or the Loch Ness monster. It wasn’t something to be talked about in hushed tones, somewhat embarrassed tones, rather it was something real, something that needed to be explored and something that we could all be proud of. In his own words, ‘Just because we can’t see the picture doesn’t mean that it’s not there…’
Back then there were few Australian winemakers talking in detail about terroir, and even fewer were undertaking detailed explorations of the concept. When he first returned to the Yarra Valley even Mac was sceptical that the region was capable of producing wines with the freshness and personality he was seeking. At times, he even thought his future might lie elsewhere.
His passion for his home turf remained unbidden, but then Mac noticed something that could put his hopes of exploring the Yarra Valley terroir under threat: the climate in the Yarra Valley was changing. What were once cool sites, ones that were ideal for exceptional Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, were now warmer. The grapes were ripening earlier which was reducing complexity and elegance in the resulting wines. The wines that were being made from these sites were not the wines that Mac wanted to make. Rather than seeing this as a negative Mac was inspired to search for cooler sites in the region, eschewing the more familiar parts of the Yarra Valley for sites that might enable him to make the wines he wanted to make. And despite the loneliness that is attendant with ploughing your own furrow, Mac persisted.
‘When I came back (to the Yarra Valley) I was quite concerned by how early the seasons were getting in the old dress circle of still table wines. And so began the journey that I’ve been on for twelve or so years.’
Walking the line…
Despite the challenges, Mac was determined to explore the Yarra Valley in new and innovative ways. He wanted to push the boundaries, to walk the fine line of exploration in order to understand the sites, the soils, the sub regions and seasons that make the Yarra Valley unique. And it’s a zeal for experimentation that drives him to this day.
Mac constantly challenges received wisdom, producing experimental batches of wine every year under the Mac Forbes EB label that help increase his understanding of his varieties and the different places in which they are grown. Sometimes these experiments work to provide guidance on techniques that can be used to improve processes in the vineyard and in the winery. Sometimes these experiments improve Mac’s understanding of the sub regions he is working with. But other times these experiments, as is the nature of experiments, fail. When you think about it though if Mac wasn’t pushing the boundaries too far at times how would he know that he was walking that fine line between magnificence and madness…?
We’ve been trying to find cooler sites, revisiting what we’ve previously understood good viticulture to be. We’ve done an about face, looking for sites that are away from the sun. Realising how destructive our winds can be, looking at soil temperature and moisture, revisiting our basic farming methods. Now we are working in much more protected and tucked away higher sites. As a result, the Yarra Valley is one hundred times more exciting for me than it was twelve years ago.
A bright future for the Yarra Valley. A bright future for Mac Forbes
In the last twelve or so years since he started his eponymous wine label, Mac has managed to extend the conversation on Australian terroir from a few lone voices to a chorus. From his home in the Yarra Valley he has helped to drive this discussion with his determined, obsessive exploration of the sub regions and the vineyards and with his superb wines.
It’s his obsession with capturing the nuance; the difference between this row and that row or this vineyard and that vineyard, that has helped push forward the conversation on terroir in the Yarra and across Australia. It has inspired others to leave behind the idea of pure, clean and homogenous wines to pursue honest wines that reflect the site, the season and the care that has gone into making them – from the vineyard to winery to glass.
And what’s 12 years in the scheme of things? What Mac has embarked upon is surely just the start of an exciting journey that will help reshape perceptions of Australian wine around the world. Come along. It’s going to be one hell of a fun ride…
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