Brian Gilbert is a throwback to a grand old Australian tradition that stretches back to the mid-19th century – think Penfold, Lindeman, Angove and Kelly – of the vigneron-doctor.
But rather than growing wine as a tonic for his tubercular patients, he cultivates a modest crop of pinot noir and chardonnay on the slopes of a vertiginous vineyard near Summertown, behind Mount Lofty, simply because he enjoys it. Having taken top spot in the latest Adelaide Review Hot 100 South Australian Wines with his 2012 Lofty Valley Single Vineyard Pinot Noir, there is also mounting evidence that he’s pretty good at it, even though his pinot vines only went in in 2007. The big accolade for what is effectively his second bottling of pinot – the 2011 crop was abandoned as a bad job – finds Dr Gilbert chuffed and bemused in equal parts. “I’m not sure what I’ll do next year, “he says. “I think I’ve set the bar a bit high.” It was yet another doctor, Sydney surgeon Max Lake, who is credited with getting the whole miniature winemaking movement started when, in the 1960s, he commuted to the Hunter to grow a patch of cabernet, against all advice. Gilbert’s vineyard too is suitably small, with his pinot occupying only two acres of hillside. “No-one’s got a smaller vineyard than me that’s got a label – that I know of,” Gilbert says. But whereas the two-hour trip to the Hunter made Lake a weekend winemaker, Gilbert can drive to his day job in less than half-an-hour: “That’s how it all started – it was my desire to have a wine label, and to be able to get to work.” The steepness of the site is no piece of cutesy copy-writing – the slope ratchets up from 25 to 45 degrees, and it isn’t at all unusual for Gilbert to lose his footing and take a tumble while working on the vines. “I should have killed myself several times, but I haven’t,” he says. He prunes the pinot on his own in the winter, a row per day before driving down to the Plains to work. His approach to pruning borders on the savage, since he has found that low yield, as little as a tonne per acre, repays him in flavour. Gilbert thinks the angles may have something to do with it too; the slope catches the sun late in the morning and the afternoon rays depart early, meaning the vines see as much as three hours less sunshine than a more exposed site. At the bottom of the vineyard where the creek runs, the temperature on a hot night can be 10 degrees cooler than on the Plains. While thrilled to be put on the map by the Hot 100 for the drinkability of his pinot, Gilbert was also pleased to see it win bronze medals at the Adelaide Hills and Melbourne wine shows. “They’re looking for different things, and to do so well is a very good sign for five-year-old pinot vines.” For those who track down some of the winning wine, Gilbert proffers some tasting advice straight from the three bears: “If it’s too warm, it’s not as good, and if it’s too cold it’s not as good. It really does change a remarkable amount with three or four degrees.” With his 2013 crop vinified by winemaker Brendon Keys and in the barrel, Gilbert says the wine is remarkably similar to its predecessor, “but maybe a bit better.” It seems that having the luxury of making wine without economic s as a driver is paying off. “It’s all about trying to make good wine; I‘m not thinking about the price-point or the budget. I don’t need to be a success – I just want good wine,” Gilbert says. But there’s no earthly reason you can’t do both at once.