Time in a Bottle
STORY AND IMAGES BY RICHARD CORNISH
The ancient rock tors of Hanging Rock rise from the forest punching a rocky silhouette into the landscape. Ahead the old manna gums wrap their limbs around the rough gravel track. It is here, on the wrong side of an ancient volcano, that Hanging Rock Winery’s John Ellis decided to materialise his vision to make Champagne style sparkling wine in Victoria. He had been working as winemaker at Tisdall Wines in Echuca when he went on a trip to France to visit the Champagne houses in 1981. “I was in Montagne de Reims in the heart of Champagne “ says John as we wander through the winery hidden in the side of the hill. “There I saw cold climate wine making where the grapes were flavour ripe but very high in acidity,” he says. “I realised there and then that I really wanted to make quality sparkling wine.”
He scoured the Victorian landscape looking for cool climate locations to grow pinot noir and chardonnay grapes to make his wine. Kinglake wasn’t quite what he was looking for and the Mornington Peninsula was too expensive. “Then this farm came up for sale,” says John referring to the block of land at Newham, rising more than 600m above sea level. “It was facing south, (Australian vineyards normally have a northerly aspect), the soil was too acidic but there was something about this place.” In 1982 he bought the property and started planting vines on the slopes of a hill known to the local aboriginal people as Jim Jim. At its core is the deepest darkest green igneous rock, sculptures made from which dot the vineyard. His first wine was made in 1987 and showed powerful promise. “Winemaker Brett Crittenden tried it and said, ‘this tastes like Champagne!’. I knew we were onto something.”
But then John was confronted by an almost insurmountable challenge. The Australian climate. It threw everything it had at him. Drought. Flooding rains. The threat of bush fire. Wet years. Dry years. “I realised then that I wouldn’t be making vintage sparkling wine,” he says. John had something up his sleeve. Skill and experience. John’s first job had been working with fortified wine at Yalumba in South Australia where he learned the art of blending wine using the solera system of mixing older wine with younger wine to make the ports.
This is a skill he was able to apply to his NV sparkling. The wines from which he makes his sparkling spend years on lees in French oak before selected quantities from different vintages are blended together. “I love the French word ‘assemblage’,” says John. The ‘assemblage’ is then bottled and undergoes secondary fermentation, riddling, disgorging and finally stopping with a cork.
John stands in the cellar door looking out over the dormant vineyard to the summit of Hanging Rock. He pours a glass of Hanging Rock Winery NV Cuvee XVI, a blend of vintages from 2014 to 1987 inclusive. It holds very fine beads that rise through this rather golden coloured sparkling wine. The lees contact not only adds lovely nutty and honey-like flavours but also adds texture to the wine, increasing its joyous soft, creamy mouthfeel. It is a sparkling wine that is just as suited as a celebratory drink as a wine to be enjoyed with food. John Ellis smiles and gives up a little story, admitting he is a man who doesn’t like being played around with. “I told Dan Murphy to go to blazes a while back. Which is good because I like people coming here to the cellar door to buy their wine so they can share the view.”