Masters of the elements

Heathcote's talented winemakers prove their worth year after year.

TOM CARSON IS A COOL-CLIMATE winemaker whose great love is pinot noir. Chardonnay runs a close second. He's taken Mornington Peninsula vineyard Yabby Lake to a new level with both these Burgundy grape varieties. Earlier, he put Yarra Valley winery Yering Station on the map, with outstanding wines from several grape varieties. As part of the Yering gig, he made the Yarrabank sparkling wines. He worked vintages in Champagne and Burgundy to learn more about those styles.

At first glance, you might think having to make a Heathcote shiraz - one of his tasks with the Yabby Lake group - might be something of a chore. (Yabby Lake and Heathcote Estate are owned by Melbourne business couple Robert and Mem Kirby, of Village Roadshow.) Heathcote can be damned hot, and searingly dry, and has produced some very big and sometimes inelegant wines over the years.

But one of Carson's great successes at Yering Station was the creation of the Reserve Shiraz Viognier, which swept all before it in wine competitions in the early 2000s.

He's no stranger to shiraz. By the time he started at Heathcote Estate a new, more restrained and graceful style of Heathcote shiraz had appeared, from such winemakers as Sandro Mosele of Greenstone and Michael Dhillon of Bindi and Pyrette. These wines reveal the true character of the area, with its spice and gun-flint aromas. They make the chocolatey blockbusters of Heathcote's past, with their dominant oak and excessive alcohol, seem like dinosaurs.

All Kirby group wines are vinified at the Heathcote winery. Carson took over the winemaking at Heathcote and Yabby Lake from Tod Dexter in 2008. He recently conducted tastings of the first nine vintages of Heathcote Estate shiraz: 2002 to 2010. Perhaps he was prompted by the outstanding 2010 vintage ($45), which is being released now, along with a limited-quantity single-block wine, the 2009 Block F Shiraz ($80).

The tasting revealed that outstanding wine has been produced since the beginning, and all vintages have aged superbly - with the proviso that the 2005 is rather forward. The 2002 is a wonderful mature wine drinking at its peak today, while 2010 is a crackerjack wine from a great vintage, which should drink well for 25 years if cellared with care. Dexter can share the credit, but the remarkable thing is how consistently good the wines are, despite quite erratic variations in seasonal conditions.

Compare, for instance, the 2002 and '05 growing seasons with '09. In both '02 and '05 there were no days over 40 degrees and only two over 35 degrees. In '09, the vines had to contend with nine days over 35 degrees including seven over 40 degrees! The much-vaunted 2010 season was also quite hot, with seven days over 35 degrees and three over 40 degrees. Clearly, clever vineyard management and fruit selection enabled quality to be maintained, even though the flavour spectrum of the wines varies with the season. There's a touch more chocolate and black-fruit in the hotter or drier years, more spice and fragrance in the cool, but it's surprising how little the flavour varies.

Rainfall patterns are similarly erratic. Indeed, a booklet loaded with statistics, which Carson distributed as an accompaniment to the tasting, only served to ram home the point that the greatness of the region is its ability to produce consistently good grapes. No doubt its rare Cambrian soils are a contributing factor, with their great depth and water-holding capacity, which sustains vines even in drought years. That and skilled viticulture and winemaking, of course. In other hands, this vineyard might have produced porty, ''dead-fruit'' wines in the hotter years; weedy herbaceous ones in the colder and wetter years.

In fact, the hottest growing season - 2009 - has produced two outstanding wines, the regular wine and Block F, which I believe is the best Heathcote Estate wine yet released (we are yet to see what glories await in the single-block 2010s). Block F Shiraz 2009 is a stunning wine, with fragrant spice, red-fruit and smoky gun-flint characters of great complexity woven into a seamlessly textured, supremely elegant palate of great length. It's a 25-year wine, at least.

In contrast, the 2010 regular bottling - the Heathcote Estate Single Vineyard Shiraz - is a bold, opulent, pure-fruit style smelling of liquorice, star anise and other spices; concentrated and yet superbly elegant, with freshness, power and ageworthy structure.

Carson has already achieved an enormous amount in his 44 years: youngest chairman of a national wine show, winemaker of the year at the International Wine & Spirit Competition when he was at Yering Station, and so on. In 2005, I described him as one of the most gifted young winemakers in the country: a restless, high-energy, no-nonsense man with a whippet-like body and eyes that sparkle with intelligence. Nothing's changed.

For a Burgundy nut, he's a pretty handy shiraz maker.

In search of a new partner

The manager and winemaker at Escarpment, Larry McKenna, has had a tough time of late. Among other setbacks he lost one eye to cancer, and the ownership of Escarpment, in New Zealand's famed pinot noir region Martinborough, is up in the air following the Kirby family's decision to sell its majority share. McKenna has a minor share. The search is on for a new business partner. McKenna, who is known as Mr Pinot Noir in New Zealand, says the Kirbys are too busy with their other businesses (Yabby Lake, Heathcote Estate and Village Roadshow), and Martinborough is too far away for the Melbourne-based family. McKenna and the Kirbys established Escarpment in 1998. Before that, McKenna was the founding winemaker at Martinborough Vineyard, one of the region's originals. With Escarpment's vineyards on Te Muna Road, McKenna makes his uncompromisingly dark, rich, full-bodied style of pinot noir as well as excellent chardonnay and pinot gris.