We have moved south from Bendigo, which was our first destination on this Australian adventure, to the Macedon Ranges. If you drive north out of Melbourne the first wine region you hit is Sunbury. North of that you come to this extremely cool climate region. Most of the well known vineyards lie north of Mount Macedon – Cobaw Ridge, Hanging Rock and Curly Flat sit northeast of Kyneton, with Virgin Hills just to its west. Bindi lies in the far south of this region, just fifty kilometres from Victoria’s capital, closer to Sunbury and Craiglee Vineyard than the Kyneton crowd, but it is still pretty chilly down there, and notably windy too.
Most of the vineyards are hidden away in sheltered spots, yet Bindi stands out on a hillside. Ordovician mudstone, clay, sandstone and a generous layer of quartz at the bottom, some of it washed down from the Great Dividing Range in epochs long past, giving way to volcanic soils over a lava flow at the top. The terroir changes every several metres, and in this respect at least, it is not dissimilar in degree to the changes we see on the Côte d’Or in Burgundy.
This patch of land produces what I think are some of the very finest renditions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the whole of Australia. In a couple of hours spent looking round and tasting with Michael Dhillon, one of the most perceptive and thoughtful winemakers I’ve had the pleasure to meet, I was completely blown away by the wines in cask, and again by the bottles I bought and drank during the rest of our time in Australia.
It’s almost no wonder that Michael farms here, although it was his father, “Bill” who originally bought the land and converted it to viticulture. Bill, by the way, was his local nickname, they found “Darshan” a little novel for rural Victoria, perhaps. He had emigrated from the Punjab in 1958.
It’s a fairly solitary existence for a man who seems wholly focused on his task, which is to make the best wines he can without compromise. He is assisted by the fact that he appears to do so with humility and without ego. Whilst the farm employs effectively three-and-a-half people, it’s mostly just Michael and his beautiful Golden Retriever, Saffie, who have the place to themselves when outdoors. There is emphatically no cellar door here, no spur of the moment visits, and I sense that the name plaque on the gate is deliberately unreadable…nearly (we drove past first time around before Google saved us), but Michael seemed more than happy to give me some of his precious time with an appointment.
This is another fairly small vineyard, not more than seven hectares of vines on a 170ha farm. Around 15ha more are planted to high grade eucalypts for furniture making and the remainder is left as managed bush, though this native grassland does attract the kangaroos so the vineyards need to be well fenced. What makes it special, aside from the geology? The gentle slope rises 500 metres on a north-facing ridge. It gets the sun, and although it can be bracingly cold here, especially when the north wind blows in winter, it’s just that little bit warmer than the vineyards to the north.
The vines now average thirty or so years of age, but whilst Michael would assert that it’s all down to the vineyard, I doubt it’s as simple as that. He’s worked extensively in Europe, which has given him an eye for the changes in terroir in his own vines, most evident through the rows where there is more quartz under foot.
I think Europe also gave Michael a different perspective on farming methods, one that might be enhanced by a philosophical point of view which may also derive in part, perhaps, by osmosis, from his family’s heritage. Michael does seem a very thoughtful guy, calm too. He refuses to say he is “biodynamic”, although this does form a major part of his viticultural practices. What he does proclaim is a desire to manage his vines through sustainable agriculture, or as he once said to Australian journalist and author Max Allen, he asked himself “what will happen if we promote life instead of inflicting death?”.
It is remarkably difficult to claim to prefer any of the Bindi wines over others, and this is irrespective of price. Australia makes plenty of remarkable wines, and I have been lucky to sample a good few of them over the years. The wines I have listed below are wines of which I can say they have as much personality and striking purity as anything I’ve had before. Those tutored in Australian cliché will be surprised by how genuinely European in style they seem, superficially. Of course they are, in reality, wholly Australian, the product of this unique terroir up in the Macedon Ranges.
It’s just a shame that the wines are not currently available (as far as I am aware) in the UK, although some were imported by Les Caves de Pyrene at one time. The following wines were tasted from barrel with Michael in early November.
Chardonnay 2019 – This is a sample from the lower part of the volcanic soils, due to be bottled in February next year. The grapes are destemmed and the juice fills each barrel one by one, where it remains on lees, post-fermentation. It’s a bright wine with a fine backbone. It signals the Bindi purity.
Kostas Rind Chardonnay 2019 – Kostas Rind was a Lithuanian “sage” (Michael’s description), and the man who introduced Michael’s father to the culture of fine wine. This cuvée comes off a mix of Ordovician and volcanic soils, from vines a little over 30 years old. Fermentation is in French oak, typically 20% new, and it remains on lees over the winter. There’s more nuttiness here, but that streak of fine acidity sets it apart.
Quartz Chardonnay 2019 – I apologise for having first stated that I had no favourites, and now going back on that. This could be the finest Australian Chardonnay I’ve tasted, when placing this sample with the bottle of 2017 below. It’s a wine that has a massive presence yet is far from being a massive wine, if you know what I mean. It’s mineral, so much so that you just have to use that term with authority even if some shun it as a wine descriptor. Lemon zest thrusts through the wine and the mouthfeel has that gentle chalky texture on the middle of the tongue. The 2019 shows real concentration, and it is still tightly wound…but shockingly impressive.
The soils are sandstone, mudstone and clay, but the cuvée hails from that part of the vineyard most dense in quartz. It sees a month or two longer in oak, and the proportion that is first fill goes up to around 35%, so it’s a wine to age (and at just shy of AUS$100 it deserves that respect).
Dixon Pinot Noir 2019 – This is perhaps the most fruit forward of the Bindi Pinots. It comes from “declassified” fruit from the original 1988 Block, plus fruit from Block K, planted in 2001. Winemaking doesn’t differ essentially with all the Pinots. Fruit is mostly destemmed (save about 5%) and fermentation is in small open-topped vats. Ageing begins in French oak (about 11 months), 10-15% of which is new. This is currently showing a pleasant 12.7% abv, and genuine delicacy.
The name? I think Henry Reed Dixon was Michael’s maternal great great grandfather, who moved to Gisborne as a railway paymaster in 1898, as the town was growing on the back of improved communications, before getting into farming and forestry.
Original Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019 – This is a three acre north sloping vineyard (planted 1988) with high density quartz in the soil. The treatment here is a little under a year and a half in oak, of which around 25% are new barrels. It has a more savoury profile than the Dixon, quite spicy, and certainly grippy right now. But the fruit purity is there. It appears that you could perhaps enjoy this soon, yet in truth you’d want to give it five years.
Block 5 Pinot Noir 2019 – We head up the ridge a bit to Block 5, which sits on the volcanic lava flow, which has been eroded on the top of the slope. The vineyard is just half of one hectare. The vines are a little younger (1992), but Michael stresses that this is a special site. Ageing is similar to the Original Vineyard Pinot, except that the new oak is up at 35%. Even now the wine doesn’t seem very oaky, and Michael says it just soaks it up. That said, I think the fruit is darker and it’s quite spicy. Ageing required.
Block 8 Pinot Noir 2019 – You won’t find this for sale. Block 8 is a sample from new vines planted in 2016 at a very high density, on just under two acres. The crop was very small, just four bunches per vine, but Michael is very happy with the results. From barrel it was slightly earthy, but fresh and with depth. As the vines age this will surely be another fine addition to the Bindi stable.
Darshan Pinot Noir 2019 – This cuvée, named of course after Michael’s father, is from the third crop off a plot of just 0.4 ha, planted at a density of 11,300 vines/ha. Michael has had to purchase a special small German “Niko” tractor for the high density plantings, but no synthetic herbicides nor pesticides are sprayed here. Michael says that each harvest from this plot has seen a big step up in the quality of the fruit. Even at such a young vine age, the wine tastes remarkably complete. Darshan and Block 8 are scheduled to see their first releases in 2022.
In addition, the three bottles I purchased were Pyrette Shiraz 2014 (made with fruit from Heathcote), Bindi Quartz Chardonnay 2017 and Bindi Kaye Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015.
Pyrette Syrah 2014 – I said Heathcote, but more specifically, this comes from Colbinabbin on the Mount Camel Range, the name interestingly translated from the Aborigine meaning “the meeting of the black and red soils”. This is the highest block on the famous Cambrian soils, from a cooler slope, facing east. Picking tends to be a couple of weeks earlier than is usual for the long hang time boys around Heathcote, so it won’t surprise you to know that this is one elegant Shiraz showing plum fruit with more tension than usual, some spice and pepper, but all under starters orders, nothing seeping out of the overall structure until loosened by the warming palate. It is no afterthought for this predominantly Pinot producer. We loved it.
Bindi Quartz Chardonnay 2017 – One of the pains of long haul travel is how hard it is to bring back wine when your bags, naturally for a six-or-seven week trip, are pushing your 30 kilo limit. So this wine was enjoyed about a week after our visit to Bindi, whilst staying on a farm in NSW. I don’t often say this as I count myself a generous person, but I wasn’t sorry that I shared the single bottle only with my wife. Packed with mineral purity, complexity, elegance, length…I won’t go on. Certainly my white wine of the trip, even this young, and almost certainly my white wine of the year for 2019. Glorious! Expensive, but worth every single cent.
Bindi Kaye Pinot Noir 2015 – In its way equally magical. Block K, running next to Block 5, produces the wine named after Kaye Dhillon, who passed away in 1985. The complex soils have, again, a tremendous concentration of fractured quartz, plus an extremely thin topsoil. The vineyard sits right below the lava flow, so the Ordovician mix is joined by washed down fine volcanic soil. The vines were planted in 2001, with clones 115 and MV6 if that is of any interest.
Kaye is a vat selection, so only seventy to one hundred and fifty cases are made depending on vintage. There are many things which struck me about this wine. First, I’d probably not be opening a fine Burgundy from 2015, but this wine didn’t seem a waste. The reason lies in its elegance. For me, the bouquet of a wine is at least as important as the palate, and perhaps more so with Pinot Noir. It was the nose of fine Burgundy which pulled me away from Bordeaux in my youth. The fragrance here is both haunting and ethereal. If the palate will develop further, no matter. The fine fruit rides out of the structure with the same poise. A truly lovely wine.
This was a spectacular tasting, and I shall not forget the wines, nor Michael Dhillon’s kind hospitality, for a long time to come.
Saffie, and a lurking wine we didn’t get to taste…Bindi bubbles, I can imagine it could be quite sensational!