Started as a hobby farm in the late 70s, Stonier Wines has endured and evolved into one of Australia’s greatest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producers. London in the mid-1990s was a honeypot for young Australians. You couldn’t walk down the street, go to a pub, or even take the Tube without hearing an Australian accent. For those interested in wine, this rite of passage meant exposure to the great wines of the world, and as very limited imports of European wines made it to Australia, it was generally a wondrous, horizon-expanding experience. In 1995, one such Australian was doing his time as a fine wine consultant at an Oddbins bottleshop when another Australian walked in and asked what he thought was the best Australian Chardonnay in stock.
At this time, Australian Chardonnay was only really a few decades old, and the style was big and bold. In the UK, the fine end of the market was dominated by WA’s best: Mosswood, Leeuwin Estate, Cape Mentelle, etc. But instead of going for one of these WA names, the consultant picked up a bottle of Stonier Reserve Chardonnay and indicated his preference for the undiscovered drop from Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. Little did the consultant know that the enquirer was, in fact, Brian Stonier whose hands planted the very vines that produced the wine the consultant was holding.
Brian told the consultant he had great taste and went on to explain his relationship with Stonier. The consultant’s response was classic Australian – “No…bullsh&$!” – but Brian produced a business card and rewarded the bewildered consultant with a couple of fresh bottles of Stonier Reserve Chardonnay. Suffice to say, the bottles didn’t stay unopened for long. That consultant was Wine Selectors’ head of wine Matthew White, who recounted this story after joining us for a tasting of Stonier wines stretching back to the late 1990s.
PIONEERING THE PENINSULA
Stonier began in the late 1970s as a hobby farm situated in the Merricks area of the Mornington Peninsula. Along with Baillieu Myer at Elgee Park and Nat and Rosalie White from Main Ridge, Stonier formed the nucleus of wine-passionate farmers. Names like Crittenden, Moorooduc, Paringa soon followed and the Mornington became known for more than just colourful beach sheds. Fast forward to today and there are now more than 150 vineyards sustaining 40+ wineries and cellar doors serving a bustling tourism trade fed by the Mornington Peninsula’s convenient proximity to Melbourne.
Despite knowing little about growing grapes and winemaking, Brian hired great winemakers in Mike Dexter and then Geraldine McFaul. Awards would follow – Decanter magazine’s prestigious ‘Best New World Red Wine’ award for the 1997 Reserve Pinot Noir, then London’s International Wine Challenge trophy for ‘Best Chardonnay’ and ‘Best White Wine’ for its 1999 Reserve Chardonnay in 2001. Now aged 85, Brian is retired, however he maintains a close eye and a keen interest in the winery
“It’s fair to say that while Brian is not here day to day, his spirit never leaves us,” said general manager/winemaker Mike Symons, who has been custodian of Stonier since 2008. “But, if there’s something going on that Brian doesn’t like, we get to hear about it,” he adds. Mike carries on on Brian’s legacy, ensuring the wines continue to drive forward Stonier’s reputation as a high quality producer of cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Mike’s focus is to guide the essential fruit expression from the vineyard, allowing it into the wine with as little intervention as possible. His preference for a light touch on the wines has been gained through years of experience making wine in Bordeaux, Italy and in the Adelaide Hills at Petaluma. Mike’s right hand at Stonier is winemaker Will Byron, and they work closely together to get the best out of the fruit. Like Mike, Will has made wine overseas in Burgundy, in the Yarra Valley and the Hunter Valley with Brokenwood and Thomas Wines.
THE WINES OF STONIER
In looking at a special selection of Stonier’s finest, it’s clear that Mike’s and Will’s skills and experience dovetail nicely. The wines they build together are wonderfully pure expressions of their varieties and are a respectful extension of their predecessor’s work. The Stonier Chardonnay line-up spanned a 15-year spread and illustrated that at entry level, the wines represent fantastic value. Stylistically, these wines are not old school, that is big, juicy and with noticeable oak, nor are they the flinty, skinny, high acid styled versions that characterise new school versions.
The ‘05, while seasoned with some toasty stone fruits and citrus, was fresh and youthful despite its 15 years. The 14, 15, 17 and 18 too showed that they are long term prospects with all showing a fresh balance of stone fruit, citrus and a creamy nutty mouthfeel. The Reserve Chardonnay line-up was beautiful, and held a similar flavour profile to the estate range, but with greater detail, depth and complexity. The 96 was still alive and although considerably advanced, showed that the Reserve range can hold the extra weight and depth, yet still age gracefully.The standouts were the 05 for its youth and concentration, the 15 for its savoury fruits and creamy balance, the 16 for its juicy, salty mouthfeel and the 18 for its ageing potential.
Stonier’s estate Pinots followed, displaying classic Mornington Pinot characters of sweet, dark and savoury fruit flavours laced with strawberry and red fruited aromatics. These wines, like their Chardonnay cousins, showed awesome value for money and great ageing potential. The standouts were the 09 for its grace and complexity, the 17 for its fine and earthy fruit expression, and the 18 for its generosity. The Reserve range was next and showed incredible consistency of quality across the range of vintages. Expressive, generous and detailed, these wines set a very high standard and deliver a lovely balance of elegance, power and charm. The 07 was a favourite for its sweet, smokey black fruits, the 12 for its creamy mouthfeel, the 14 for its earthy fruit tension and the 18 for its generosity. Next followed four wines from a vineyard that was planted in 1996.
These top tiered Windmill wines are a single vineyard expression of Pinot, but with two different winemaking styles defining different flavours and textures. The Windmill is made with 15-50% whole bunch fermentation and the resulting wines are defined by an earthy and powerful fruit core with highly perfumed aromatics. The ‘W-WB’ is the same vineyard, but fermented with 100% whole bunches expressing sweeter aromatics, wider tannins and a balance of sweet sour fruits. Both wines, spanning ten years and nine years of winemaking respectively, reinforced how special the Stonier vineyards are, how much love Brian and his teams have put into them, and how beautifully suited Pinot and Chardonnay are to the Mornington Peninsula.