While visible from the outskirts of Robe, at a height of 77 metres above sea level, Mount Benson, to be frank, is more hillock than monolith. For the past couple of decades, the wine region that takes its name has also been keeping a similarly low profile. But not anymore.
“We have tended to fly under the radar,” admits Alice Baker, who is senior winemaker at Norfolk Rise, one of the handful of wineries that populate the Mount Benson region. Part of the reason for this relative obscurity is youth: with its first vines planted at the end of the 1980s and its official Geographical Indication declared in 1997, Mount Benson is among the newest of the Limestone Coast’s constituent regions.
Baker and Norfolk Rise are helping to alter the modest status quo – the 2015 Norfolk Rise Shiraz came eighth in the last Hot 100 Wines competition and won a trophy in Queensland, while the 2016 version recently picked up a string of medals in the major eastern states wine shows. The Hot 100 judges called the 2015 Shiraz “captivating”, spotting tomato leaves and blueberries in the aromatics, as well as “a mentholated coolness on the palate and a whole lot of funkiness”.
The Mount Benson region hugs the shoreline between Kingston and Robe, and Baker says that recognition of the benefits conferred by its unique terroir is growing. Maritime influence is the key: proximity to the coast means that the geology tends to be undulating slopes of sandy loam over sedimentary rock, while the prevailing cold winds that derive from the Southern Ocean leave no doubt about the region’s claim to be cool climate.
“The wind is so cold that it has a huge effect on our vineyards, our grapes, our vines and our whole growing season all the year round,” Baker says. “It basically means there is no disease pressure because everything is kept cold and aerated, and means that our wines have a really strong acid retention, which gives them this freshness and vibrancy, and makes for a style that winemakers and consumers are moving more towards these days, especially in something like Shiraz.”
A strong regional character doesn’t stop variations between individual vineyards, Baker says, and after three years at Norfolk Rise she can pick the differences between the winery’s eight Shiraz vineyards. The winery has a single vineyard project that puts fruit from the best performing vineyard of each vintage into an individual wine, with the estate Shiraz comprised of fruit blended from the rest. Keeping the wines in separate batches and monitoring their development before picking “the Golden Child” is fascinating, Baker says. “It’s really interesting to see how it moves around according to the season.”
Baker, who has degrees in geology and oenology, came to Norfolk Rise, just in time to help blend the 2015 Shiraz with winemaker Dan Berrigan. Berrigan has recently moved on to do his own thing, but, significantly, is still making wine in the Mount Benson area.
Norfolk Rise is at the northern end of the region, and sits a couple of kilometres inland from the coast alongside the pioneering wineries of Ralph Fowler and Cape Jaffa. Although a latecomer (its first major plantings were in 2000), it is now Mount Benson’s largest producer, with 180 hectares of vineyard surrounding a schmick and shiny winery. The enterprise is funded by Kreglinger Australia, an outpost of the Belgian-based beverage-maker. Present in Australia since the 19th century, Kreglinger also owns Tasmanian winery Piper’s Brook.
As well as its benign influence on grape-growing, maritime influence promises long-term benefits for both wineries: a new report by the Australian Wine Research Institute identifies Tasmania and Mount Benson as the two Australian winegrowing regions most resistant to the depredations of climate change.
If Shiraz is the hero variety of the Norfolk Rise reds, Baker urges wine drinkers to look at their Pinot Grigio too.
“The Pinot Grigio, like the Shiraz, benefits from the cool breezes and hangs on to its acid. With the cool climate, it doesn’t get overripe or overcooked; it retains really nice, crisp, Pink Lady apple-type characters and florals.”
Mount Benson – no Sherpas required, just an adventurous palate.
Norfolk Rise Vineyard 2015 Mount Benson Shiraz Coonawarra