A visit & vertical with Mornington Peninsula pioneer, Main Ridge Estate

Main Ridge Estate was founded in 1975 by Rosalie and Nat White. The Mornington Peninsula pioneers produced their maiden vintage in 1980 in a winery built by Nat, a civil engineer. He also made the wine and still does, though it’s a long time since he has practised civil engineering so successful are the wines. The day he stopped (nine years after founding the estate), he tells me, “I never thought about civil engineering again.” 

Officially designated the Peninsula’s “first commercial winery,” Nat’s winery could not contrast more starkly with the image of a factory-like operation that “commercial” brings to mind. The 3ha vineyard is seemingly an extension of the White’s garden and said winery occupies a pocket-sized corner of the cellar door and tasting room opposite their house. The operation is as modest as Nat (a gentle, softly spoken man) and as focused as the range (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – Burgundy’s finest).

He is passionate about these varieties, especially Pinot Noir and warmly recalls a visit to Chateau Pommard in 1966 during a year spent travelling around Europe’s wine regions. Describing it as “a special experience,” he reflects “we’d never heard of Pinot Noir and Chardonnnay!”  I wonder if the posh lady behind the desk and chef de cave in a leather jacket who gave the Whites “a great barrel tasting” have any idea they inspired the couple to plant a vineyard in Mornington Peninsula “because it looked similar to Burgundy.”

Main Ridge Estate is actually located in the Red Hill, not Main Ridge sub-region and, at 240m, is one of the region’s highest vineyards. Describing it as a warm site on a cool ridge, Nat explains that, because the vines are east/west facing, the grapes are in the sun all day. Still, when the vineyard was first planted, Nat’s viticulturist reckoned Mornington Peninsula was too cold and wet for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Advised that “the fall back is bubbly,”  Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were nonetheless planted, as well as Bordeaux varieties, Traminer and Riesling. Though initially successful when, Nat says, “Australians thought weedy, green Cabernets were ‘Bordeaux-like,'” it wasn’t long before he grafted it over to Pinot Noir and the vineyard is now exclusively planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Admitting “it took a while to work out what they were doing in Burgundy,” Nat contrasts the New World’s sweeter, fruitier clones with Burgundy’s clones (which he now has), also its younger, higher cropping vines (his vines now range between 32 to 37 years old and yields are very low, at less than 5 tonnes/ha). Leaving aside clones and vine age, he attributes a big leap in the quality of his Pinot Noir over the last decade to taking out all the small green bunches at veraison, which he learned from Burgundy. He explains “because they [the small green bunches] can never be as ripe, you get hard tannins” – these days, there’s no need for egg fining. However, the biggest single improvement was the introduction of bird nets, which increased hang times, facilitating ripening. Better trellising (“Scott Henry is essential”) has also played a role as has better weather (harvest has come forward by around a month since the 1980s when picking in mid-april onwards ran a higher risk of the weather breaking).

Having seen the fruits of his labour, Nat is a keen advocate for the Peninsula’s producers similarly to take their lead from Burgundy and “show belief and commitment” to these grapes – “it’s important to have an icon wine.”   He points out, “when you look at Pinot Noir, it’s Burgundy and Pinot Noir drives its fame – they don’t muck it up with other varieties” and questions “why would you play with other varieties which are not as good?”  Suffice to say he’s not a supporter of Pinot Gris (“the pickers’ wine” which, he observes, they never talk about in Burgundy), though it’s also successfully grown on the Peninsula.

Here are my notes on Nat’s classically proportioned wines (tasted at the winery, February 2012). I am extremely embarrassed to admit that I failed to note the cuvee of the 2007 and 2004 Pinot Noirs, for which I can only blushingly apologise.

Main Ridge Estate Chardonnay 2009

One hundred percent wild and barrel fermented in new French oak barriques, Main Ridge Estate Chardonnay is lees stirred without sulphur dioxide for 11 months and undergoes a complete malo–lactic conversion in the winery’s cool cellar.  A penetrating, citrus nose and palate shows great depth of flavour. The stone-fruited mid-palate has no shortage of fruit power and the pull of fruit – crystallised lemons – through the finish is terrific. Great muscularity and line. Youthful. 13.5%

Main Ridge Estate Chardonnay 2008

Once again, youthfully muscular and powerfully concentrated, the mid-palate a touch creamier with sweet honeydew lift to its crystallised citrus fruit; lovely balance and length. 13.5%

Main Ridge Estate Chardonnay 2006

With a few more years under its belt, this silky Chardonnay has loosened up a tad, its candied lemon notes more pronounced, the stone fruits (nectarine, apricot) shining bright. There’s a hint of sweet mandarin too. For Nat it’s just starting to sit in its comfort zone – he likes to open the wines 5-6 years on, but they last too – he says a honeyed 86 recently showed very well. 13.5%

Main Ridge Estate Chardonnay 2003

This was the first year of screwcap and Nat pronounces the closure “a great delight.”  In an extreme, very low cropping year there’s a Meursault-like generosity combined with the torrefaction of age to this golden, peachy wine with its dried mango hints, grilled nuts, lemon butter and toast. Delicious. 13.5%

Main Ridge Estate Pinot Noir Half Acre 2010

The grapes are 100% de-stemmed and whole berries slow down the warm, natural ferment in 2000 litre open vats, with gentle plunging by hand. Further maceration on skins precedes pressing. Ageing is for 18 months in French oak barriques. A bright hue signposts a firm, youthful palate. There’s plenty of suede-like texture within a firm (ripe) frame of tannins, dark berry, deep red cherry and plum skin too – Half Acre is from shallower soils, which produce smaller bunches and berries, resulting in a more intense and tannic wine which sees 20% new oak.  A floral note on the finish beckons, but this is for the long haul.

Main Ridge Estate Pinot Noir One Acre 2010

Aged in 40% new oak, One Acre is creamier and more expressive with a translucency to its red berry and cherry fruits. Skeins of fine tannins lightly thread the palate, making for a sleeker, more broachable wine, still within a drier spectrum. Lovely.

Main Ridge Estate Pinot Noir 2007

Showing more development with underbrush as well as ripe raspberry on the nose, which follow through on a spicy palate, together with juicy plum. There’s a lifted note to its subtle, earthy undertones – a hint of mint/pine needle, the latter of which I often find in Peninsula Pinot. Firm, grainy tannins lend good support, teasing out a long finish. Very good.

Main Ridge Estate Pinot Noir 2004

This beautifully balanced wine is really hitting its stride, with lovely intensity and saturation to its red cherry fruit and subtle hints of spice and earth. Fine tannins are seamlessly integrated, but its the fruit purity and precision which leaves a lasting impression – for both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the subtle use of oak is masterful. Terrific. 14%

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