Eruptions on the Mornington Peninsula 


Visitors to Melbourne, on Australia’s south-eastern coast, are spoiled for choice. The state capital is not only a mecca for sport, nightlife and fine dining; it is also surrounded by wine regions. No less than four, with their unique climate and terroir, sit less than an hour’s drive from the Central Business District, from almost seaside locations to inland at altitudes of 800 meters.

Melbourne’s vibrant ethnic community, primarily Southern Europeans who immigrated after the Second World War, was a vital, if not the most important, driver of modern Australian wine culture. Victoria had already seen the local populace gorge on the finest produce worldwide thanks to the discovery of vast gold quantities in the nineteenth century. The Grand Vins of Bordeaux, Champagne and Sauternes were in particularly high demand.

There were also early aspirations for vignerons, with the first vineyards planted around Melbourne in the 1830s, but phylloxera, which arrived forty years later, ended that. It would take almost a century for them to return. As the nation’s unofficial food and wine capital, a crown that is only recently being challenged, it was inevitable that Melbourne’s pulsing culture would also be the chrysalis for a fine wine industry. The Yarra Valley was the natural choice for the first tentative steps back into winemaking, where vineyards had been first planted in the nineteenth century. I will explore the Yarra Valley in more detail in an upcoming report. There is another region also worth a deep exploration: the small but mighty Mornington Peninsula.

Main Ridge Estate's Half Acre Pinot Noir block was planted in 1975.

Wine Gardens

Mornington is not a place where you will find a sea of vines, rolling landscapes or hectare after hectare of neat rows. It is much more common to find isolated plots that optimize what can be pretty complex geography. It is a reasonably large GI of over 700 square kilometers, but there are fewer than 1,000 hectares under vine, around one-fifth the size of Chablis. But that should not be seen as a lack of confidence or intent. Mornington is a relatively young wine region, with strong competition for land and low yields that are attractive only to the most quality-conscious vignerons. In addition, the geography is far from uniform, which makes parts of the Peninsula unsuitable for fine wine production. This is not the place for broad-scale agriculture. It is quite the opposite, made up of 200 vineyards, mainly small plots, farmed by 60 wineries.

The Mornington Peninsula is almost postage stamp size in an Australian context, dwarfed by the also relatively small Margaret River, at 6,000 hectares. Yet despite its size, it is also one of the nation's leading homes of sophisticated and stylish Chardonnay and, particularly, Pinot Noir. This is due to a highly unique range of factors coming together, including climate and soil, as well as the caliber of practitioners drawn to its location. The stunning beauty and the breezy seaside lifestyle are also strong motivators.

For Australian vignerons with hopes of crafting great Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir, a location close to the country’s southern coast is almost obligatory. The cooling Great Southern Ocean is necessary to provide relief during the summer depths. The Mornington Peninsula is blessed with significant bodies of water on three sides as it juts out into the ocean, bordered by Port Phillip Bay on its western flank, Western Port to the east and Bass Strait, which reaches across to Tasmania. Humidity plays a part in reducing water stress. It’s a rare trifecta that helps retain the flavor and perfume delicacies of Pinot Noir. But that exposure is also a double-edged sword. Spring can be a time of unsettled weather as warmer influences from the continental land mass meet the cool ocean currents. It can make for a difficult flowering. In 2020, overall yields dropped to under two tonnes per hectare. The average is close to five, similar to what is typically found in Grand Cru Burgundy.

Rollo Crittenden with compost stacks at Crittenden Wines.

Yet complex geography and soils make the Mornington Peninsula such a fascinating region, despite its relatively small size. The crucial part of the region’s geography is a granite dome rising up on its western flank to an altitude of 300 meters. From this high point, the land falls away in every direction, quickly to the west down to Port Phillip Bay and more slowly down to the north, east and south. Volcanoes erupted on the peninsula twenty to forty million years ago, which have degraded, leaving rich, red soils in the Red Hill and Main Ridge zones and wines with distinct savory tones. It is one of the very few regions in Australia where volcanic influences come to bear in a significant way. It has also left complex geography as the various creek lines have, over time, crafted folds in the landscape with every conceivable aspect. The age of this volcanic activity and its accompanying degradation have shaped mainly gentle slopes, the north and northeast facing the most advantageous, with sites having some protection from the westerly sun also at a distinct advantage. Altitude also plays a significant part, with vineyards planted between 25 and 250 meters. Adding the impact of cooler versus warmer aspects, picking dates within the region for the same variety can vary up to four weeks between the cooler and warmer zones, respectively known by laconic locals as “up the hill” and “down the hill”.

While volcanic soils are vital to the style of some wines, their prevalence and, in turn, impact steadily reduce as vineyards move further away from their epicenter. To the north, in low-lying areas near Moorooduc, the soils take on a more sandy complexion while tending toward clays near Dromana. To the east, near the coast around Balnarring and Merricks, brown duplex loams become more prevalent. This diversity, combined with a multitude of aspects, creates a kaleidoscopic variation with few definitive rules as to sub-regional variations and wine styles. Altitude, though, is a different story and, along with aspect, is probably the leading influence on wine style.

Independent of geology and geography, the Mornington Peninsula has always been a region that has focused on quality. The economy has been the key driver. It is a convenient and beautiful tourist playground for Melbourne, which makes property, particularly now, highly expensive while keeping average landholdings low for new developments. Small yields have also pushed wineries to pursue quality over quantity, combining with Melbourne’s overarching food and wine culture and a strong local market. That lack of broad-scale agriculture and limiting plantings to the most advantageous sites has also helped retain the natural environment, bushland and reserves, accompanied by impressive biodiversity. Natural corridors of native trees, wetlands and plants still crisscross the Mornington Peninsula and small vineyards are occasionally tucked in behind, some good sites no doubt yet to be planted. Increasing biodiversity is a catch cry for wine regions around the world, but Mornington is lucky in that there is little change to practices required thanks to the vibrant regional ecosystems already in place. That said, there is also constant work in many vineyards to improve soil health.

Pinot Pioneers

While Australia as a whole does have quite a long history with Pinot Noir, with the first seeds and cuttings imported in the early nineteenth century, it is really only over the last thirty years that Pinot has become a critical fine wine variety driven by a handful of regions primarily clustered around Melbourne. During that time, extraordinary resources and effort have been deployed to master this most difficult of grapes. There has been an almost obsessive attention that shadows similar efforts around the world. The Mornington Peninsula has been one of the leaders. Like other global events, their bi-annual Pinot Noir Celebration brings together winemakers and connoisseurs to showcase and examine the state of play and future directions coupled with an exploration of international styles and a technical focus. A strong regional camaraderie is always on display, with leading winemakers and wineries sharing information and trialing various vintages with the ultimate aim of improving regional quality.

The Mornington Peninsula’s modern Pinot Noir story had very humble origins, with 400 vines planted on a lower site at Elgee Park in 1972. The first winery, Main Ridge, was built by engineer Nat White and his wife Rose after purchasing an old lemon orchard in 1975. It was so isolated that it even lacked road access, which brought its own challenges. At the time, the Whites had no qualifications, merely their dreams of owning a vineyard. Seven grape varieties were planted with the first vintage in 1979. Whether by luck or foresight, their choice of a gently north-east facing vineyard at 240m altitude on rich red basalt soils was inspired. Combined with Elgee Park and the resulting early releases, this would set off a rush to identify the best sites and spur dozens of winemakers to follow suit over the next almost five decades. Pinot Noir has always been and continues to be the local focus, with over 50% of vineyards planted with the variety.

Ten Minutes by Tractor's Lake Pinot Noir Block in the McCutcheon Vineyard.

Unsurprisingly, clonal availability was highly limited in the early days, with vineyards planted to a clone unique in Australia, MV6. This was one of the first clones imported into the country almost two hundred years ago, which was apparently sourced from Clos de Vougeot. It has proven highly successful, having adapted well to local conditions, and remains the local workhorse. However, the desire to search for greater finesse and detail has seen Mornington’s winemakers continually experiment with alternatives in search of a winning edge. This has included plantings with the Pommard clone, first imported in the 1960s, the original Dijon clones 114 and 115, with 667 and 777 also more recently showing promise. Abel is another clone with fans. It’s sourced from New Zealand and allegedly comes from Romanée-Conti.

I gauged the opinions of several local winemakers as to the standout clones for the region. Both Rollo Crittenden from Crittenden Wines, Tim Perrin at Kooyong and Port Phillip Estate, plus Simon Black at Montalto all highlighted the outstanding quality of MV6, while Perrin and Crittenden also championed the Pommard clone. All three also noted that the 114/115 clones delivered excellent aromatics and, in warmer years, can trump Pommard and MV6.

It is not only Pinot of the Noir variety that has found a happy home on the peninsula. Pinot Gris has also had a substantial success, mainly attributable to the pioneering work of Kathleen Quealy and Kevin McCarthy. Their planting of Pinot Gris for a grigio style in the late 1980s, before Italian white wines had any presence in the local market, was ahead of the curve. The winery they founded, T’Gallant, was purchased by what is now known as Treasury Wine Estates, with Kathleen going on to launch her own Quealy winery with a focus on Italian white wines, which have now stretched to Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia Istriana and Moscato Giallo. Today, their son Tom McCarthy has taken the winemaking reins and is continuing to evolve the style, particularly in relation to skin contact, with greater effort also with Pinot Noir. It is quite early days for some of these varieties, but the trajectory is worth following.

While Pinot Noir is by far the major focus, it would be remiss of me not to mention the local Chardonnay, which can be equally stunning. I do not doubt that in a world without Pinot Noir, Chardonnay would be the brightest Mornington star, and it is only the rarity of great Pinot regions in Australia that has seen it relegated to second place. In fact, Mornington Peninsula would be not dissimilar to Margaret River as a Chardonnay powerhouse.

Stylistically, the Mornington Peninsula is home to the classic modern Australian style, powerful yet composed with a Burgundian delicacy thanks to that cooling oceanic influence. They are the antithesis of the rich, bold, more traditional Australian style. Oak now almost always plays the role of bridesmaid with a greater proportion of old and larger formats and from a variety of coopers equally at home in the leading Chardonnay houses in Burgundy and California. The only tragedy with Mornington Chardonnay, which could be said for the peninsula as a whole, is that it will always be a minnow in terms of production.

A Final Word

It is fair to say that Australian Pinot Noir is an unknown quantity for many fans of this hallowed grape variety. The country has made its name with wines that deliver herculean power and lavish, ripe fruit rather than Fred Astaire finesse. Yet its sheer size provides climatic variation from snow-covered peaks to extreme desert conditions. It, therefore, should come as no surprise that a region such as Mornington Peninsula exists, which can craft fine and detailed examples of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at surprising price points. So much so that, pound for pound, Mornington Peninsula must be one of the leading regions for sheer value for these varieties in Australia and worldwide.

Tom McCarthy and Kathleen Quealy at Quealy Winemakers.

Recent Vintages

Two thousand twenty-two was another low-yielding vintage thanks to a significant wind and storm event in October 2021 that reduced yields of key varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir by 41% from the previous year, which was also low cropping. There was not only poor fruit set, but the bruising of shoots and lateralling of canes created congestion in the canopies and disease risk. Luckily, the remainder of the season was relatively settled with a cool La Niña season producing intense and vibrant wines, making for a strong, although small, vintage, the third in succession.

Two thousand twenty-one was a welcome return to regular programming after the historically low yields of 2020 but also without significant heat spikes, which has produced a beautifully even and vibrant vintage thanks to the more temperate La Niña season. Thankfully, the wind held off during flowering, which helped to foster good budburst and potential yields. The rest of the season remained uneventful, with moderate temperatures and occasional bursts of rainfall to keep vines and fruit in optimal condition with no time pressure when picking—a classic vintage with excellent all-around balance across all varieties.

Two thousand twenty was an unusual vintage in Mornington Peninsula in that while much of the rest of the country was hot and dry with wildfires, the region was the polar opposite, cool and wet. It started with a challenging fruit set, strong westerly winds buffeting vineyards and hitting the yields hard, with some vineyards exposed to the elements down over 70%. There was a little smoke in the vineyard pre-veraison, but timing meant that there was no detectable taint, and that remains the case. The weather was actually a bit of a gift, as the cool summer and autumn would have made ripening a full crop load on many sites almost impossible. A challenging flowering also led to plenty of ripeness variation at the picking time, so sorting was essential. Still, the vintage has given some intense, focused wines with notable acidity.

I tasted most wines for this report in Mornington Peninsula in May 2023, with follow-up tastings in Sydney.

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

You Might Also Enjoy

Penfolds Collection 2023, Angus Hughson, July 2023

Changing Gears in Barossa, Angus Hughson, June 2023

Henschke’s Hill of Grace - The Garden of Eden, Angus Hughson, April 2023