Unorthodox winemaker

PINOTAGE  (the name’s an amalgam of pinot noir and hermitage) is a red variety created in South Africa and rarely seen in Australian vineyards.

Mark Kirkby and his Queensland Granite Belt-based contract winemaker Mike Hayes, however, are men who challenge orthodoxy in the wines they produce from the Kirkby Topper’s Mountain vineyard at Tingha, in the New England wine region.

Mark Kirkby, an engineer by profession who worked for a time in the Middle East and has also been involved in cotton growing, citrus juice production, olive oil and beef cattle grazing, dared to be different when he established wine grapes on the Topper’s Mountain property.

Between 1998 and 2002 he planted 28 varieties, but since then he has cut back the varietal mix in the 10-hectare vineyard to 15 – including the more familiar barbera, nebbiolo, tempranillo, gewürztraminer, viognier and sauvignon blanc vines and the offbeat petit manseng, tannat, tinta cao, petit verdot, touriga and pinotage grapes.

Pinotage is a hardy variety that is often scorned as being coarse with ‘‘a flamboyantly sweetish, paint-like pungency’’ and ‘‘either South Africa’s signature red or its worst vinous ambassador’’.

Mark Kirkby, however, believes such criticisms can be blamed on overcropping. He has high regard for his pinotage, saying the bigger bunches and tougher skins suit his location at 900metres above sea level. 

And he avoids overcropping by vigorous thinning of berries.

He produced a straight pinotage in 2006 and, finding a middle palate ‘‘hole’’, countered it in 2009 by adding viognier.

That formula is now fixed and is on display in the newly released $32 Topper’s Mountain 2012 Wild Ferment Pinotage-Viognier, a distinctive, zingy red that is reviewed in today’s Wine List.

The pinotage and the aromatic white viognier grapes were fermented together, using only the wild yeast from the berries.

Pinotage has a fascinating history. It was created in the 1920s by Abraham Perold, the then professor of viticulture at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University. 

A crossbreed of pinot noir and cinsaut, it is now widely planted in South Africa and big Australian liquor chains have numerous imported pinotages on their shelves. The pinot in the name is clearly linked to pinot noir’s role in the cross. The -age link is obscure, however, and relates to the fact that cinsaut was then widely called hermitage in South Africa.

Mountain name from brothers

TOPPER’S Mountain gets its name from brothers Edward and William Topper, who in the 1870s were employees on New Valley Station, owned by George Junior and Alwyn Wyndham, the sons of Hunter wine pioneer George Wyndham.

George Wyndham Senior and his family were also pioneers of New England winegrowing, taking up the Bukkula Station near Inverell in 1838 and establishing a vineyard and winery there in the 1850s.

The present-day 650-hectare Topper’s Mountain property was part of New Valley Station and was bought in 1998 by a partnership that included Mark Kirkby and two of his brothers.

In 2010 Mark, his wife Stephanie and their three daughters took sole ownership.

Mark grew up in a cotton farming family in Moree and he and his brothers were partners in cotton growing and later a 100-hectare citrus juicing venture.  He was involved in the Moree-based Gwydir Grove olive oil production operation. He now lives in Sydney and divides his time between winegrowing and cattle raising activities at Topper’s Mountain and, with his brother, acting as directors of their Sydney engineering business.

More Barons of the Barossa

PENFOLDS chief winemaker Peter Gago, wine writer Tyson Stelzer and wine executive-turned-restaurateur Grant Dickson have become Barons of the Barossa.

They were inducted as Barons last month  at the annual Barossa Grand Cellar Dinner.

The Barons’ Grand Master Stephen Henschke said the awards recognised the three men’s significant contributions to the Barossa wine region. The Barons is a wine fraternity founded in 1974 by a group of influential Barossa wine industry figures.

Peter Gago is the man responsible for Penfolds flagship Grange shiraz reds and Grant Dickson was wholesale manager for Rockford Wines before becoming co-owner of the fermentAsian Restaurant at Tanunda.

Tyson Stelzer is a sixth-generation descendant of early Barossa Valley settlers and recently won the 2015 International Wine and Spirit Communicator of the Year award.