When I first visited Mornington Peninsula about twelve years ago it was just gaining a bit of a name in the UK, where it was seen as very much a cool climate region, all the rage as they say. Located about an hour south of Melbourne, it’s a real peninsula, a hook of land which arches from southeast of Melbourne, following the Nepean and Moorooduc Highways, and the new M11 as they swing west around Port Phillip Bay. On the thin strip of land at it’s most westerly point you can catch a ferry, from Sorrento to Queenscliff, paying a visit to some of the vineyards of Gippsland on the way back to the city. It’s a good idea for a weekend away.
If you drew a loose circle around the towns and villages of Somerville, Hastings, Shoreham, Rosebud, Dromana and Mornington you would have captured most of the Peninsula’s main vineyards within it. The soils here are remarkably diverse, from volcanic soils on the ridges to clay lower down, with a host of different sediments in between, known as “duplex” (aka “texture contrast soils”). As we saw in Macedon in my previous article, where the soils are complex you have a chance to exploit such nuance to make complex wines. It is the potential complexity of Mornington wines which first excited wine lovers when the wines became more visible internationally in the 1990s.
The other major determinant of quality is the climate. The vineyards are proximate to the ocean, which brings winds more than it ameliorates temperatures. Often the vintage will be determined, especially in terms of picking dates, by the prevailing winds. Back in the day, I bought into the cool climate myth, but all views get modified over time. I’ve had shockingly alcoholic red wine from some producers here in warmer years, one Pinot Noir bought off the shelf in London showing 15% on the label (not forgetting allowances). Rather than say that Mornington Peninsula is a “cool climate” region full stop, I’m more inclined to say that it’s a region more prone to vintage variation. In that respect, but perhaps no more than this, it mirrors Bordeaux and her maritime influence.
There are currently just over 200 vineyards and fifty cellar doors on this strip of land, quite a lot. They tend to be small, partly because of land prices. Being just an hour from Melbourne, blessed with ocean surf on one side and safe bathing inside the bay, it has become a haven for Melbournites, and in fact our friends who we stayed with in the city used to have a weekend and holiday home here before they moved up-country. The region is therefore great for wine tourism with cellar doors, and many wineries, sporting excellent restaurants. The down side is that weekends in the height of summer can be busy, as can the normally quieter roads leading down here.
Polperro is up at Red Hill. in the heart of the vineyards, in fact about ten minutes by tractor from Kooyong, which has always been my favourite Mornington address. I think the name of the settlement lets us know the soil structure. We are also among the highest sites on the Peninsula, where hang time for the grapes tends to be longer, harvests later. The wines can be very different in character than those grown at lower altitudes on the sediments and clay.
Although I’ve drunk very good Pinot Gris from the region, the main course here as in all vineyards on Mornington is a choice of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It’s Pinot Noir in particular which has gained the world’s attention, and doubtless why every second year the region holds its famous International Pinot Celebration.
Polperro was founded by Sam Coverdale and his wife in 2006. Sam had started out as a Tyrells cellar rat, age 18 and then after a degree in business and wine science at Charles Sturt University he went to work for Hardy’s, a career which took him all over the country and to Europe. The name? When Sam visited his father-in-law to be he saw a print of the Cornish fishing village on the wall. His parents had the same print, both families originating from the same place. It’s somewhere I myself know pretty well too. The choice of a name seemed obvious.
I had been tasting Polperro’s wines through 2019 at any event where their UK agent, Graft Wine Company, had been showing them, and I was becoming more and more impressed. I’d received a promise of help in arranging a visit with Sam, but when I finally had a visit window my various emails went unanswered…until much later. The result was that I only had the opportunity for a cellar door visit, and suggestions that I might see the winery were stonewalled by the tasting room. Nevertheless, Erik was an entertaining host, we had a very nice, if off-and-on rainy, trip to the region, and I enjoyed the wines despite not getting to meet Sam.
Polperro’s viticulture and winemaking is, as you’d expect from almost all the wineries in the region, sustainable and with minimum intervention, using biodynamics as an aid rather than a religion. But what Sam seems very good at is teasing out the nuance of his different terroirs via single vineyard wines of some class. There are three main sites. Landaviddy Lane is up at about 160 metres asl at Shoreham, but in a mostly sheltered spot. Mill Hill Vineyard is at Arthur’s Seat on Red Hill, the great high point of the region, an exposed location at least 270 metres asl, with wind playing an important part in harvest date selection. Talland Hill is still on Red Hill, but by the cellar door at 170 metres, and is very well sheltered. It’s the warmest site and the first to pick. Other sites, such as “Bistro Block” and “Bassat” generally provide wines for the blends.
The tasting began with some of the wines under the secondary Even Keel label. All prices are cellar door in Aussie Dollars. Even Keel are wines made from fruit purchased outside, as well as on, the Mornington Peninsula, so that for example the Even Keel Chardonnay 2018 is made from fruit grown in the up-and-coming Tumbarumba Region, in the cool of the Australian Alps. As with all wines on this label, it is well made and exceptional value for daily drinking (Aus$35). There is structure, the fruit is grown on granite, but stone fruit, melon and citrus too. It gets eight months in used oak and goes through malo.
Even Keel Pinot Gris 2018 (Aus$29) is fresh, savoury, with a touch of depth. Although we are principally looking at the Burgundian varieties here, as I said, Pinot Gris has a bit of a history in the region. The first wine I drank here was T’Gallant’s PG, which had a very good reputation at the time. This is very popular.
Polperro Pinot Gris 2018 (Aus$45) is obviously a step up. It’s more terroir driven as it comes from those vines up at Arthur’s Seat. Whole bunch pressed with no additives, not even sulphur, nor cultured yeast, after ten months in oak and six months on lees it is spicy, with a bit of pear fruit, and 13.5% abv. Initially the pear is accompanied by a distinctive lemongrass note, but the spice (nutmeg?) comes in later. There’s a bit of residual sugar but it’s not at all like a richer Alsace version despite a bit of gras. In fact the French might rather use the term potelé – chubby or plump, and often used to refer to a baby, which this wine still is.
Polperro Chardonnay 2018 (Aus$50) is what Sam calls the classic peninsula style, elegant but fairly rich. It comes again from those highest sites, where three tries are performed at harvest to attain optimum ripeness. It has seen malolactic but is still incredibly fresh, which is what drew me to Sam’s wines in particular over the two or three times I’d tasted them in London. The fruit is in the peach spectrum with a bit of rich citrus. The malo in oak gives a touch of cream, and it finishes with a hint of nuts.
Polperro Talland Hill Chardonnay 2017 (Aus$65) comes from that cellar door vineyard. Although this is the first vineyard to be picked, the wines do manage to retain a mineral streak, very pebbly, which accentuates their freshness…or vice versa perhaps. The intensity is ratcheted up a notch in terms of nuttiness, rich lemon curd fruit, with a hint of vanilla from twelve months in oak. Yet this isn’t a big wine. On the contrary, despite my notes it is supple and subtle. Impressive, even now.
Polperro Fumé Blanc 2018 (Aus$) isn’t listed on the Polperro web site. Interestingly it was poured after chatting as a “then you might be interested in this” wine. It comes from the Shoreham vines at 160m on clay, Sauvignon Blanc looking out over the Bass Strait. The experiment was to give the must a month on skins. 2018 was a warm vintage. The wine has a richness, with spicy mandarin on the nose and a palate brimming with orange, pineapple and passion fruit, though it doesn’t have the depth of colour to call it truly an “orange” wine. The freshness of the exotic fruit makes a tingle of electricity on the tongue (not CO2). I was surprised, very pleasantly. You might not be, knowing my predilection for wine on skins.
We began the Pinot Noirs with the Even Keel Pinot Noir 2017 (Aus$35), which still had ten months in French oak (10% new). This is made from younger vines from a cooler vintage, fruit sourced from sites at Red Hill, Main Ridge and a site at just 50m asl at Teurong (just to the north, close to Yabby Lake). It begins a whole berry fermentation which leads to a fragrance of concentrated cherry and fruit freshness. Fairly simple yet pretty good, for around £18 at the cellar door.
Polperro Pinot Noir 2018 (Aus$55) is from a warmer vintage, blended from three of the higher hillside sites, including Mill Hill. Again, life begins as a whole berry fermentation in open topped vats, but the oak regime is sixteen months, 30% new, all tight grained staves of Tronçais and Allier wood. The fruit is red spectrum, with a floral and strawberry bouquet. Is that a hint of smokiness? The palate is a little richer and denser, a bit of cherry, and spice. It all suggests complexity to come, yet the wine remains approachable.
Polperro Talland Hill Pinot Noir 2017 (Aus$80) isn’t made by any vastly different method. We still get a whole berry ferment, but the fruit is left on skins for ten days after the sugars are fully fermented. The must is then racked into French oak (30% to 50% new). The fruit is still red berries, but it is a darker and denser wine, despite seeing the same 16 months in oak as the straight “Polperro”. There’s a good deal of spice, and some grip. It is approachable now but will get more complex, for sure. I’d say the oak isn’t too prominent and the wine, though not yet ready to drink, shows very good promise. It does reach 14% abv on the label, but if you give it the 8-to-10 years it deserves you should see a lovely wine come together.
Polperro tasting room and vines stretching down the hill
Our final taste was a very different red, Even Keel Syrah 2018 (Aus$35). The fruit is from Canberra District, from the Fisher & McKenzie Vineyard. As is the tradition up in Canberra, begun by Clonakilla, a little Viognier is co-fermented with the Syrah, 2% in this case. It always lifts the Syrah making it less typically Australian, if there is such a thing. It’s invariably labelled as Syrah, not Shiraz, too. It has a cool climate feel, gentle blueberry and violets dominating the bouquet. The fruit on the palate is made more interesting by clove and cinnamon spice. Entry level it may be, but this still has a tad of tannin to it. The Even Keel wines do show Sam Coverdale to be a very accomplished winemaker, even if his Polperro label is a good notch up.
Polperro does have one of those fine restaurants I mentioned above, which looked very nice, and indeed they have “luxury” accommodation as well. We didn’t dine here, having brought a picnic with us. We’d planned to eat it up at Arthur’s Seat, looking down over Port Phillip Bay, but the weather forced us to eat inside the car and then to grab a welcome hot coffee in the cafe at the top of the cable car. The up-side was having the roads more or less to ourselves, and a trip down here is always a pleasant day out, whatever the weather. In a country currently suffering terrible drought I am sure the winemakers were very glad of the showers.
Polperro really is a name to watch. The wines are impressive. Don’t take my word alone. Sam Coverdale’s Polperro along with Tom Carson’s Yabby Lake are name checked as “newer talent” by Jancis and team in the new (8th edn) World Wine Atlas out of a total of nine producers mentioned. Praise indeed.
Polperro Wines is at 150 Red Hill Road, Red Hill. All information can be found at their web site here. The cellar door is usually open daily from 11.00am to 4.00pm. At the restaurant, lunch is 12.00 until 3.00pm, dinner is six ’til late. Check opening in the winter season.
Graft Wine Company (formerly Red Squirrel and The Knotted Vine) imports Polperro Wines, currently listing three Even Keel cuvées plus the “Polperro” Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from 2017 on their web site here.
The other Polperro