Image of vineyard in Mornington Peninsula

Mornington Peninsula

Piecing together one of Australia's exciting wine regions
Image of vineyard in Mornington Peninsula

Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula region is situated just over an hour’s drive south of Melbourne. It’s famous locally for its rolling green hills, lush soils, pretty beaches, fine food and – of course – very fine wine. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for the purists ... a whole range of exciting varieties for the adventurous!

Holidaymakers love the Mornington Peninsula for its easy accessibility, gourmet experiences, and combination of idyllic bucolic charm and relaxed beachside feel. But for the people who live and work there – especially those making wine – the region is a lifelong infatuation, home to purists, perfectionists and passionate individualists of the highest order. The result? Some truly thrilling wines – both the classics, and the excitingly new.

The beginning of the Mornington Peninsula

It is impossible to separate Victoria’s early winemaking endeavours from the rush of excitement that came with the gold rush in the 1800s. The small, emerging colony was forever changed, with a huge increase in overall wealth matched by a population explosion. The market for wine grew and grew. Existing wine regions like the Yarra Valley and Geelong were expanded while new regions were explored and planted to the vine.

Grapes were first planted in the Mornington Peninsula in the late 1800s and it wasn’t long before the region was a rising star. In 1886, wine made with fruit from the region was exhibited at the Intercontinental Exhibition in London, receiving an honourable mention. By 1891, there were six registered vineyards in the region. Unfortunately though, this rising star was soon to fade. A perfect storm lead to the demise of the nascent wine region. The end of the gold rush lead to a severe economic downturn in Victoria. Combine this with drinkers’ preference for fortified wines over table wines and the rise and ride of warmer climate regions and it’s no surprise that this cool climate gem halted grape-growing and winemaking for nearly 80 years.

It wasn’t until the mid 1970s that the Peninsula enjoyed a grape-growing revival thanks to a small band of pioneers, including Baillieu Myer in 1972, who established Elgee Park vineyard in Merricks North, and Nat and Rose White, who launched the first commercial winery in the region, Main Ridge Estate, in 1975. The Whites had been working in the UK in the 60s, and visited Château Pommard in Burgundy. This visit that inspired dreams of a vineyard of their own. They decided to live the dream and, seeing climactic similarities to Burgundy in the Peninsula, planted an experimental vineyard of seven grape varieties in an old lemon orchard in Red Hill.

Their first vintage was pressed through a kitchen moulis in 1979, the first commercial vintage a year later at the newly built Main Ridge Estate Winery in 1980.

Pioneering perfectionists on the Peninsula

The ‘second wave’ of pioneers included Richard and Jill McIntyre, who established Moorooduc Estate in 1982, a small, family-run winery that now has a big name in complex, textural Mornington Peninsula wines. 'Natural, with a touch of quality control' is how Richard McIntyre describes Moorooduc’s winemaking philosophy, a method that allows their wines to express their site specificity and unique character. This includes intensive, hands-on care in the vineyard, but minimal intervention in the winery, using techniques like whole bunch pressing and wild yeast ferments to create the signature award-winning Moorooduc Estate style.

Paringa Estate was another second wave pioneer that now enjoys a cult-like following. The winery was established in 1984 by Lindsay McCall and his wife, who bought a derelict orchard in Red Hill. Lindsay spent 10 years juggling life as a school teacher and part-time vigneron before embracing the wine life full-time. Haunting Pinot Noir and deeply complex Shiraz are the star turns here but the scintillating Chardonnay and pristine Pinot Gris also enjoy great acclaim.

The climate and soils of Mornington Peninsula

These pioneering vignerons have clearly found themselves in a happy place. Conditions are ideal for winemaking in the region. The peninsula is surrounded by three bodies of water – Port Philip Bay on the west side, Western Port Bay on the east, and Bass Strait at the bottom, making for a maritime climate with crisp, cool breezes and a long growing season. The soils vary across the region, including rich red volcanic soil, sandy soil, brown loam and clay.

There are no official subregions in the Peninsula, but there are subregional distinctions nevertheless. There is a clear distinction between elevations – there is an ‘up the hill’ down south, and ‘down the hill’ up north, with ripening happening weeks later ‘up the hill’. Indeed, differences in climate, altitude, topography, land, and soil structure have created such varied micro-climates that distinctions are not made on a regional level or sub-regional or even ‘up the hill/ down the hill’ level but often on a vineyard (even row-by-row) level.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir’s rightful ‘place’

Wine regions everywhere are home to passionate individuals in pursuit of perfection... the Mornington Peninsula is no exception. And for many in Mornington, perfection is Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that speaks not just of place, but ‘its place’.

Tom Carson at Yabby Lake in Tuerong is a well-travelled winemaker, having worked vintages in Burgundy, as well as at Chardonnay and Pinot Noir specialists like Coldstream Hills and Yarra Yering. Under Carson’s watch, wines at Yabby Lake are made not only with a sense of place and purity, but a sense of season as well. Again, terroir is key – Carson can identify distinct characteristics of individual parcels from each tiny plot on their site. Their Block 1 and 2 Pinot Noir, for example, is “less than 10 metres apart, planted to the same clone of pinot noir (MV6) - and yet remarkably different in character.”

And a few other varieties, too...

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have excelled in the Mornington to such an extent that many wineries are content to concentrate purely on these two varieties. However, there are always those who are willing to push the boundaries. Lindsay McCall planted Shiraz at Paringa Estate, a bold move that paid huge dividends. No mention of the Mornington Peninsula would be complete without also mentioning Kathleen Quealy, the ‘Queen of Pinot Grigio’ and Garry Crittenden, a ‘living legend’ and undoubted King of Italian varietals.

The Queen of Pinot Grigio

Kathleen Quealy was the driving force behind the introduction of Pinot Grigio to Australian wine lovers. Her T’Gallant Pinot Gris and Grigio (or Pinot G as they are also known) were phenomenally successful. She hasn’t stopped there. Now, at Quealy Wines, using fruit from her Balnarring Vineyard, Quealy offers the classics – Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – but also indulges in an eclectic selection of exciting styles and varieties. “All of us at Quealy make wine in the vineyard,” says Kathleen. “The best ingredients in wine are sunshine, fresh air, intellect and time; all of Quealy wines capture these ingredients.” 

The King of Italian Varietals

Garry Crittenden is another Mornington Peninsula talent who perfected the classics and then indulged in his love for something different. The ‘something different’ in his case was, most famously, Italian varietals. These days, Crittenden Wines is headed up by Garry’s son Rollo. Rollo has indulged his own love of something different as well, introducing a series of sultry Spanish varieties in the lovely Los Hermanos range and Oggi – a blend of three textural traditional Italian white grapes fermented on skins, made in a red wine style.

Mornington Peninsula: A home to fine Australian wine

The Mornington Peninsula has established itself as a premier region for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir of all shapes, sizes, expressions and styles. It offers endless opportunities for winemakers who want to showcase the terroir of the region, and those who want to experiment with technique and style.  But it is also home to ambitious and innovative winemakers willing to push the envelope to create something deliciously different. For wine drinkers, the Mornington Peninsula offers the best of both worlds. The classic and the innovative. The old and the new. Vive la difference… and enjoy!

Disclaimer

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