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First taste: Bird on A Wire – the highly accomplished wines of Caroline Mooney

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A bird may feature in the name and on the labels but Caroline Mooney’s distinctly un-worked, terroir-driven wines could not be further from the critter label stereo-type.  I met Mooney and tasted her Yarra Valley Bird On A Wire range for the first time yesterday.  It was my last tasting of the year and, it transpired, a wonderful end to the tasting season.  

Born and bred in the Yarra Valley, Mooney was raised on a dairy farm and inherited her father’s love of wine.  A lucky young Mooney was brought up on local wines of pedigree such as Mount Mary, Yeringberg and Warramate.

Having learned her craft at Yering Station (and snuck in a vintage at JL Chave), Mooney struck out on her own establishing Bird On A Wire in 2008.  Her philosophy resonates with those wines to which she was exposed in her childhood.  In her own words “it’s about expressing the pedigree of the single vineyards with which she works and the specificity of each season.”  Qualities which shone through in a series of vertical flights.  Here are my notes:

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Mooney’s Chardonnays are cool customers

Bird On A Wire Chardonnay 2013 (Yarra Valley)

From the warmer of the three vintages this is a little deeper in hue and a little fuller and funkier on the sourdough nuanced finish, but like her other Chardonnays (indeed all her wines) it is a cool customer, very precise of delivery with exceptional poise.  A flinty nose has a gentle hint of “sexy sulphides” reduction (I don’t chase it, if it happens, it happens” she says).  The limpid palate reveals grapefruit, zestier fresh grated lime peel and subtle smoked hazelnut nuances, which steal over the palate going through (she’s a big fan of Mercury “Special Toast” barrels).  Lovely.  £35.99 at Naked Wines (£24.99 for Angels)

I remark on a chalky textural quality to the finish which Mooney says is a hallmark of the vineyard, Willlow Lake Vineyard in Gladysdale in the Upper Yarra Valley to the south west.  A vineyard she first came to know when working at Yering Station.  (In fact, on reflection, I recall tasting an austere (11% abv) Yering Station, Willow Lake Old Vine Chardonnay 2007 some years back when Australia’s cool climate Chardonnay revolution had just begun).  I’d say this wine is a little more fleshed out and better balanced for it – more about the vineyard, less about the Chablis stylisation. She is clearly very proud of her vineyard sourcing. From this cool, elevated site (c 300m) she takes just the old vine fruit (now 37 years old) and cannot emphasise enough how important it is for small producers like her to build solid relationships with growers when there is “huge pressure from the big companies who can throw cash at growers” and huge competition for Upper Yarra Chardonnay.

Bird On A Wire Chardonnay 2012 (Yarra Valley)

The 2012 is the more reserved of the three but it’s chalky from nose to tail.  Like the 2013, it assumes a weight in the mouth – like a cool round pebble – without feeling in the least bit heavy.  It just takes up space, so her wines are not focused on acid drive.  It’s limpid, rather than racy.  But with lovely fresh, cool acidity, even a hint of greeness (Mooney whole bunch presses and does no pressings cut, pressing until she gets a touch of phenolic grip).  When I go back at the end of the tasting the chalkiness of texture really stands out.  A loud and bell clear voice of the vineyard. (And since we’ve touched on winemaking the dairy farmer’s daughter ferments on “the fluffy, creamy top layer of lees” and ferments and ages the wines in French oak 225l barrels, for these vintages – there are no recipes – using 15-20% new oak.

Bird On A Wire Chardonnay 2011 (Yarra Valley)

In this very cool year the last grapes were picked on 3 April (mid-March is typical).  You’d never guess that this wine underwent 100% malo (the others had much lower percentages of malo which, like the first alcoholic ferment, is all natural – no inoculation).  The 2011 is in the zone – really drinking well – very precise and well-focused but highly expressive too with Chablis-like hints of honey, white blossom, lemon, saline and (of course) chalk going through; even a hint of green olive.  Terrific. (Incidentally, given the very cool vintage, Mooney made a zero dosage Blanc de Blanc bubbly, a sample of which she shared.  With just 150 litres of base wine, a sizeable half bottle sample! The rest is still on the lees.  Very firm, tight and focused, with an ultra-persistent fine bead it looks very promising).

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Bird On A Wire Marsanne 2013 (Yarra Valley)

As you’d expect, the Marsanne (from vines now 17 years old) is located in warmer, drier climes of the Yarra Valley from a west-facing vineyard on grey yellow clay with lots of handily water retentive mudstone.  It’s a good 40 minutes north of Gladysdale.  Once again Yering Station used to take the fruit for its MVR (Marsanne, Viognier, Roussanne blend) but, when it dropped MVR, Mooney jumped on the fruit which the grower was on the point of grubbing up.  She says she’s always wanted to make a single varietal Marsanne.  I can see why, despite the fact Marsanne is apparently a tricky customer “with a will of its own…you pick it when it tastes ripe – maybe at 12.3 baume but then the alcohol increases significantly and it might finish up at 14.”  Which is why Mooney says making Marsanne is “an exercise in creating balance and working on the phenolic, alcohol bitterness to create structure.”  To that end, she foot stomps the fruit and leaves the juice on skins before a fairly worked (with spins and high pressure) press routine, just 40 minutes long – “like a red,” she says.  The wine is barrel fermented in old wood with no lees (sometimes with a small percentage of tank ferment if more freshness is required).  It does 100% malo.

And my tasting note.   A complex perfumed nose with talcy florals and hints of orange blossom and ginger entices.  And an even more complex palate – beeswaxy, slightly oily, with honey, calisson, aniseed, fennel and rose and lemon Turkish Delight.  It really took me back some 10 years or more to Oddbins Fine Wine and a particularly fine old vine Marsanne which we stocked, Jaboulet Old Vine Marsanne, Domaine Raymond Roure.  Though there’s some distracting warmth to finish (it was served too cool), when I go back at the end of the tasting I don’t pick it up and the honey and beeswax notes fly; crunchy perfumed pear too.  I suspect its firm structure (a certain stems/skins austerity) will make this an interesting keeper.  £33.99 at Naked Wines (£24.99 for Angels)

Bird On A Wire Marsanne 2012 (Yarra Valley)

For both whites, the 2012s seemed quite reserved,  Although this was fleshier and quite textural, it seemed a little shy on flavour which allowed the alcohol to poke through (and when I went back).

Bird On A Wire Marsanne 2011 (Yarra Valley)

Like the 2011 Chardonnay, the Marsanne is fine and expressive in 2011, with delicious florality to nose and palate and, compared with 2013, cooler grapefruit, lemon peel and aniseed notes – almost a pastis quality to the chalky, precise finish.  Very good.

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Bird On A Wire Syrah 2013 (Yarra Valley)

Mooney strikes me as a modest type but she’s happy – rightly so – to blow the trumpet of her vineyards.  From an east/north-east-facing very steep slope opposite the Marsanne (hence protected from the sun’s excesses) on incredibly lean soils (yielding no more than 2t/acre), Mooney reckons it is the Yarra’s best Shiraz/Syrah site.  Sure enough, the flight is a revelation – her Syrah is wonderfully concentrated yet precise, very firm.  It has great purity of fruit but the wines are most definitely dry of expression.  Not an ounce of fat or an inkling of jaminess.  Loved them.

The 2013 has a whiff of charcuterie to the nose but the overwhelming impression is of its wall of fruit,  firm, fabulously structured, pure and precise black currant and berry.  Gosh, you can taste those low yields and yet this wine is in no way dense.  Rather it’s intense, tense even – brooding is perhaps the better word.  Bristles with energy and brims with potential.  A wine of gravitas.  I’d love to review it in five years, ten years, 15 years….

Bird On A Wire Syrah 2012 (Yarra Valley)

While the 2012 whites were shy this Syrah is quite the extrovert – much more open-knit than the 2013 Syrah with lively riffs of black and green peppercorn and bayleaf to nose and palate.  It’s more savoury than the 2013 with a liquorice edge to its black fruit.  But it shares the 2013’s firm, precise structure – beautiful tannins, ripe but present.  Lots more to give.

Bird On A Wire Syrah 2011 (Yarra Valley)

Reflecting a much cooler year the 2011 seems less powerful – more developed in colour and flavour spectrum.  But there’s no shortage of intensity or freshness, depth or layer, to this super spicy  Syrah which is shot through with spices – bayleaf, pepper and liquorice.  A touch of savoury gaminess too.  Long, persistent, very dry.  Very good.  £33.99 at Naked Wines (£26.99 for Angels)

All three Syrah’s are aged in mostly old French oak.  Mooney’s “Sara Lee” approach to fermentation involves making (cake-like) layers of whole bunch, whole berry and de-stemmed crushed fruit.

Press Pinot Noir 2013 (Yarra Valley)

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The Press label is exclusive to Mooney’s UK importers Naked Wines.  So-called because Naked Wines’ crowd-funding Angels helped Mooney finance the purchase of the press which, up until this year has allowed her to work alone.  As she puts it, “it’s my cellar hand.”  So a well dserved discount for Angels then! From the northern end of the valley this lovely Pinot is velvety but reassuringly dry, very textural and savoury with beetroot and dark berry and currant fruit. Delicious and amazing value at £14.49 for Angels, £19.99 full price at Naked Wines)

Press Syrah 2013 (Yarra Valley)

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Fruit is sourced from different vineyards than Bird on a Wire and the 2013 and 2012 came from different vineyards too.  Vineyards evidently and appropriately suited to a fleshier, plummier style of Syrah – more easy-going.  The 2013 has attractive floral lift and plummy weight in the mouth.  Supple tannins make for an easy-going Syrah which will deliver seamless drinking pleasure now and into the mid-term.

Press Syrah 2012 (Yarra Valley)

In this cooler year and with a bit more whole bunch (around 5% more) this is a wilder, spicier Syrah than the 2013 with lovely peppery lift and complex Campari florals and bitter chocolate to its plummy fruit.  A touch of tannic grip too.  For lovers of savoury Syrah this is a nice price at Angels’ price and sound for the pound in devil’s money.  £19.99 at Naked Wines (£14.99 for Angels)

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