Stephen George made no secret of his intention to get out of the wine business. The day-to-day ritual of running a room where you give expensive wine away in order to encourage people to buy it retail had long decayed through droll necessity to annoying obligation; the constant repetition of selling wholesale on the road had become an insufferable grind; collecting money from the late payers was more droll an occupation, even further from Stephen’s gentle character.
Which is not to say he wanted out of grape growing: rather, he sought to take some of the business out of that, too. If he could, he preferred to stay on as the considered, patient and respected vine gardener that time has proven him to be.
The Ashton Hills vineyard and winery had been his life for nearly 35 years. More than most vignerons, he belonged in his bonnie three-hectare patch of Riesling and Pinot noir.
So it wasn’t exactly a takeover he sought. He preferred that rare position where someone would welcome him to stay on as viticulturer but take those niggling daily business duties away.
This writer, for one, was delighted to hear that Wirra Wirra was interested. Under the managing directorship of Andrew Kay, Greg Trott’s old wine company had taken a new vitality since Greg’s death in 2005. Andrew had collected a vibrant and talented staff and moved that McLaren Vale business into a fresh realm of growth and popularity without losing any of the direction, vision, or family/community atmosphere that Greg had nurtured there for decades.
To bolster its popular McLaren Vale reds, Wirra Wirra had also developed a few fine wines from the Adelaide Hills.
Given the sudden death of Stephen’s lifelong partner, Peta Van Rood, in 2009, the temptation to use a word like ‘marriage’ is at first distasteful, but it fits. While Wirra Wirra had a new management and direction, Stephen had found a new partner in love, and sought to devote more time to that happy relationship. In parallel, the Wirra-Ashton nuptials give him precisely the partner he wanted in wine.
The deal was negotiated carefully, gradually last year; this vintage, Stephen is assisting the new winemaking team, under Paul Smith, in learning how best to approach the exquisite fruit he grows while also helping Wirra Wirra viticulturer Anton Groffen get his head around the Ashton Hills vineyard on the slope beneath the summits of Mount Lofty and Mount Bonython.
Stephen was winemaker at his parents’ Skillogalee Winery in Clare when I first met him. Encouraged by his father-in-law, Peter Van Rood, he’d moved his attention to the cooler uplands of the Adelaide Hills, where together they established the vineyard in 1982, a decade after Greg Trott had released the first Wirra Wirra Church Block.
So Ashton didn’t happen suddenly. Stephen’s love of the wines of Burgundy and Champagne had him transfixed with Pinot noir, a variety very few Australians then understood. After growing and trialling 25 different clones of this tricky grape, all the way from cuttings through winery to maturation in bottle, he has finally settled at five, and the sparkling and still wines he has perfected from this will-o-the-wisp are an instant adornment to the Wirra Wirra household.
Or any other, for that matter.
His red has long been at the forefront of Australian Pinots, and is regularly the best of this variety South Australia produces; his sparkling wines are similarly outstanding.
So it was a delight to visit Ashton Hills with Paul Smith and Andrew Kay last week, to feel for the first time how smooth this amalgamation of driven minds has been. I have never seen Stephen look more satisfied, and it’s obvious that the new owners can’t believe their luck.
Vineyard and winery aside, the Wirra Wirra crew has commenced their side of the relationship with a refit of the tiny tasting room, which was also Stephen’s bottling ‘hall’. There’s a fine new recycled galvo bar that’s the right height for my elbow, and it was reassuring to hear Andrew suggest that they’d done a bit too much uncluttering and perhaps it’s now time to put some of that back.
The Ashton Hills sparklers are an accomplished, confident trio. In the record wet of 2011, Stephen could feel the moulds coming over the Hills, and was worried that at those altitudes he’d have trouble getting full ripeness in his still Pinot, so he picked early and used it all in his fizz.
The Blancs de Noir 2011 is fleshy, almost squishy in its gentility and form. It has the best strawberry pith flavours and just enough sweetness to provide reassurance and comfort without actually tasting sweet. It’s the ideal aperitif.
One sweetness step beyond that is the Salmon Brut. Since its conception this wine has generally lost its overt smoked salmon flesh pink: with the many vintages its colour has gradually paled to be more along the lines of the salmon’s bright scales. Stephen is very proud of this finesse. I can think of nothing better suited to drinking with smoked salmon, rye, chèvre and capers.
But being a crusty old bugger, I think the crunchy-dry Brut Sauvage 2011 is the triumph of the trio. Sweetness gives cushioning comfort; without any, the raw bones of the wine are starkly exposed, and if they have the racy design of this wondrous thing, such honesty can make the thirsty aficionado very happy indeed.
Over the decades, the Ashton Hills Rieslings have moved from the style that the high dry of Skillogalee determined towards the more accomplished, fleshier types of Germany. The 2014 – nearly sold out – is perhaps the best yet from those five meagre rows. It has creamy white peach adding softness to its stony carbide and cordite chassis, so it’s just tickety-boo, especially for those who find the austere Clare style a little confronting.
The 2015 Riesling, the first finished at Wirra Wirra, is more lemony and steely in this its infancy. I suspect it’ll head along the same track as the ’14 with another year or two of slumber.
Then there are the Pinots noir. My goodness. The standard 2014 has all the Burgundy traits: grilled cashew hints amongst ripe strawberry pith and blackberry, with handsome tea-tin tannins sitting there in its basement with lemony acid, guaranteeing a good long blooming in the cellar.
Ashton Hills Reserve Pinot Noir 2014 is another thing again: it has all that but in a more polished and concentrated form. It’s as good as Pinot has ever got in these southern parts. Yum.
When I asked Stephen how close his claimed alcohol levels – 13.5 per cent – were to the reality, the Wirra Wirra blokes looked a tad sheepish when he said “I’ve never checked an alcohol level in my life.”
He said this with the confidence of a wise winemaker who trusts implicitly the pristine nature of his wines; not for a moment questioning their elegant stature.
I imagine the new owners will be having a closer look at these vital statistics as they unravel the mystery all those decades of gastronomic intelligence have instilled into the dead honest but lofty wonders of Ashton Hills.
There’s no imagining needed, however, to measure the pleasure Stephen shows as he continues to tend that precious patch of Australian wine pioneering.
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