New & Exclusive: We welcome Topper’s Mountain to the UK
In conversation with Mark Kirkby &
Jan Taborsky of Topper’s Mountain
Vigneron Mark and Winery Manager Jan share their experience of forging new paths outside of their comfort zone, working with several alternative grape varieties… Although we discuss the serious topics of climate change and the importance of sustainability, Mark and Jan also bring us great insights into day-to-day life while working in tranquil surroundings.
Topper’s will be the first winery from New England that we have worked with. Can you tell us about the region? Can you make us super envious as we race towards winter in the UK, by describing the view you can see over your coffee in the morning?
Mark: New England is an old wine region from the 1860s to the 1920s that was reborn on receiving its GI status in 2008. The defining characteristic of New England is its high elevation resulting in excellent cool-climate growing conditions. Summer days vary from about 10-15°C at night to 28-33°C during the day. Topper’s has never recorded a 40°C day.
The normal morning view over a cuppa is a beautiful clear, cloudless morning, sometimes with a little fog, a gentle breeze from the west rustling the vines with a chill in the air that has one’s sleeves rolled down until about 10am.
Jan: I can see lots of work… in a beautiful tranquil place.
Your strategy at Topper’s Mountain of planting fifteen rows of each of innumerable varieties and clones is something we have never come across before with our other Australian producers, but it is something which excites us hugely! We’re hoping to try something similar with our vineyard in Kent and we’d love to hear any tips you have or lessons you have learnt!
Your 28 original varieties are now down to 19 as you have been grafting over those which are proving unsuitable, to enable you to focus on these which are showing the most promise. Can you tell us about your planting plans and what inspired you to attempt this strategy?
Jan: Although wine used to be made in our region more than 150 years ago the production stopped a long time ago, unfortunately leaving us with no viticultural experience when the vineyard was planted in 2002. Moreover, our climate is moderate to cool (at least in an Australian context) but also relatively humid. That´s not really common in other Australian regions. So, we really couldn’t adopt existing successful trends – experimentation was the only way to go. In general, we were looking for either early or late ripening grapes with thicker skins and open bunches.
Mark: Records of the varieties grown by the pioneers of the region like George Wyndham (of Wyndham Estate in The Hunter Valley) were very poor – the only variety we know they grew was Malbec.
We approached Dr. Richard Smart for help to select varieties to plant initially. He compared a number of what he believes are the most important viticultural variables of our climate such as Heat Degree Days, diurnal range, harvest period rain and humidity. He then compared these with long established viticultural regions of the world to find the closest climate matches. He then takes note of what varieties are grown in these regions. After some more winnowing based on other attributes of these varieties, a final list of varieties to plant was arrived at.
Once the vines were producing, we focused on those that produced the best wines with the least viticultural intervention – these are the ones that revel in our terroir! Simple really, you just need plenty of time!
You’ve mentioned experimenting with varieties which might be more successful for a hotter and drier future. How is this experiment working?
Jan: The logic behind our experimentation is fairly simple. We don´t believe that the ‘classic’ portfolio of Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon is sustainable for many Australian regions. To prepare for the future we need to take a very close look at grape varieties which have long-term positive results in warmer regions. We also need to focus on varieties with high natural acid. We definitely took inspiration from the Douro valley and grafted a few rows of Touriga Nacional and Tinto Cão to use in a blend with Tempranillo. We were surprised how balanced and elegant the resulting wines have been so far. From the whites, Verdejo and Chenin Blanc are currently in our focus as they have proved to make fresh high-quality wines from warmer conditions than we currently have.
Mark: We are lucky that water is not an issue for Topper’s as it has plenty of underground water. However, we prefer not to irrigate unless conditions are very tough at critical stages of the vintage. Thus, our focus is now also on varieties that ripen relatively late so that harvest is late as possible in Autumn to maximise aromatics in the wines.
Any surprising successes or failures from the varieties you have planted?
Jan: The Petit Manseng is definitely the most successful result from our experimentation block - the ´fruit salad´. At the beginning of this year CSIRO published DNA research concluding that all Petit Manseng in Australia is actually Gros Manseng but it doesn´t change the fact that it’s a fantastic grape. With its open bunches, tiny berries and thick skins it is almost bullet proof in humid vintages. On top of that, the wine is unique, delicious and age-worthy. For the same reason (high humidity) grapes with compact bunches and thin skins like Grenache showed no future. Originally, there was also Riesling planted at Topper´s vineyard. We still have a few bottles from 2005 and 2006 and the wine looks absolutely fantastic. We grafted over it because of issues with botrytis but we’re still hoping we can bring it back one day.
Mark: Grenache, Malbec, Primitivo, Pinot Gris and Arneis all didn’t work for us for various reasons, although I suspect I was a little hasty with grafting the Arneis over as the 2005 wines have aged magnificently. Manseng, Tannat and Nebbiolo would have to be the standouts in those that have migrated from our Fruit Salad experimental block to become the backbone of our portfolio along with Gewürz.
We were all so saddened to hear that your 2019 vintage was terribly affected by bushfires with the death of over 3,000 vines, including a huge percentage of your Gewürztraminer . How are you recovering from this? Were you insured for this damage? You’ve implemented a program; ‘adopt-a-vine’ to aid the recovery, is this proving successful?
Mark: As I type, we are beginning re-grafting of about 1,700 vines that were ringbarked at ground level by the fire but have re-shot from their roots last season and are now big enough to graft. Next month we will replant about 2,500 vines that were killed by the fire in addition to about 2,500 that we replanted last vintage. The process of recovering from the bushfire will take us about six years in my estimation.
Insurance covered the damage to infrastructure like trellis posts, dropline etc but not the vines themselves. The biggest cost is the labour to look after the damaged vines as they re-shoot or are replanted.
Jan: The Adopt a Vine initiative which resulted in the My Vine Club was a great success. Next to the cash aid, we experienced incredible support and generosity which gave us tons of motivation and determination to go on.
The 2019 Hill of Dreams was the only wine produced from the 2019 harvest as the week after the grapes were picked, the vineyard was engulfed by bushfire. Surely this must be a very special wine to you. What can we all expect from this wine?
Jan: The Hill of Dreams is our cherished micro-terroir with poor, stony soil and rows rising steep from both the south and north side. The Hill always gets picked first hence it escaped the fire. It’s planted only with white varieties – predominantly Sauvignon Blanc with experimental blocks of Verdejo, Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. The idea is to make a terroir driven field blend. However, the 2019 is 100% Sauvignon Blanc spontaneously fermented on skins and then pressed off to old oak barrel. It’s a fragrant, floral, textural expression of the variety with low alcohol but perfect flavour ripeness – the power of the Hill of Dreams.
Mark: We always knew the Hill of Dreams was special because of the excellent barrel fermented Sauv Blancs it has been producing since 2010. When we tried the more natural expressions with lower intervention winemaking, skin contact etc. at Jan’s suggestion with the 2019 vintage, a whole vista of possibilities opened for the Hill of Dreams.
Can you provide (a hopefully more positive) update on the 2020 vintage? How was the winter for you guys and how did you survive the initial wave of the pandemic? Did it take much adjusting? How is spring looking - is the weather favourable so far?
Jan: Particularly challenging vintage to say the least. Second half of 2019 was affected by a massive drought and numerous bushfires across the east coast. We received 110mm of rain from July to December which is 490mm(!) below long-term average. On the other hand, we were ‘blessed’ with a whopping 430mm during the harvest period. The overall crop was down to 25% but unlike many other vintners we were lucky to escape smoke taint issues.
Saying all of that, some exciting wines are coming out of this vintage, if only in small volumes. After many years we made straight Viognier and it looks great, so does Gewürz. Nebbiolo is very pale, light and very elegant but extremely approachable. The Touriga and Tintas is still in kvevri with the skins, looking terrific. We also launched The Submarines - a new range of early drinking low-intervention blends (white, rosé and red). These are beautiful, honest, low preservative wines with lots of immediate charm.
Mark: Putting it succinctly (and hopefully you’ll excuse the vernacular) – Shit vintage, pretty good wines! Severe drought (lowest rainfall on record for June-Dec 2019) followed by bucketing storms from mid Jan to the end of vintage. All in all – a year to put behind us (but not forget – we learnt a lot about the vines’ response severe drought).
"Our Gewürz is the classic example of a variety finding its home terroir. From the very earliest years it produced excellent wines repeatedly with little viticultural and winemaking intervention – voilà, there it is!"
Our director (Stu) openly admits that your Gewürztraminer is the best Aussie example he has had in a long time. What do you think are the contributing factors to the success of Gewürztraminer in Topper’s Mountain vineyards?
Jan: The terroir. The diurnal temperature difference in summer can be as high as 20°C which helps us to achieve fully ripe flavours and preserve good natural acidity without potential alcohol going through the roof.
Mark: Our Gewürz is the classic example of a variety finding its home terroir. From the very earliest years it produced excellent wines repeatedly with little viticultural and winemaking intervention – voilà, there it is! Gewürz only challenge for us is that it has relatively tight bunches that can be susceptible to botrytis if it rains at the wrong time.
Unlike many other Aussie producers you keep a stock of older vintages, rather than selling all wines to be consumed when young. What inspired this decision and has it proved useful after the devastation of your 2019 vintage?
Jan: We like to offer our wines when they are ready to drink. Our Nebbiolo and especially Tannat, need lots of time to soften the edges. Current release of the Petit Manseng is 2017 and to me this is one of the best we have ever made. However, it looked a bit like an ugly duckling not even a year ago.
Having enough stock definitely helped us after losing the 2019 vintage. We could keep on supplying our wines to our clients as well as keep on running our club programs.
Mark: In the early days, for a couple of vintages we made too much wine, so the vintages lagged a little. This led us to the conclusion that these extra couple of years bottle age resulted in much more approachable and distinctive wines – so we kept doing it!
What can you tell us about your Wild Ferment Petit Manseng? It’s so unique! What inspired you to make this wine?
Jan: Once our newly planted or grafted variety start to yield fruit, we usually use it in a blend first and when we have enough to fill a barrel, we make an experimental batch. Petit (Gros) Manseng already showed us its potential in the second vintage of production – 2012. The wine is still delicious, going through fantastic and unique development stages. Otherwise wild fermentation is a standard in our winemaking and for the fermentation or aging we either use old oak or ceramic eggs. At the end, the credit should go to Mark and Mike Hayes (our former winemaker) for introducing Manseng to Topper´s vineyard.
Mark: Initially I was being entirely, selfishly, vineyard focussed – trying to make my life easier! Manseng comes from Jurançon in South West of France which is very wet – it thrives in this climate because it is tough, thick-skinned and with open bunches, I thought it would be easy to grow at Topper’s – and so it proved. The excellent wines it produces were just a bonus!
You seem to work in a completely different and inspiringly creative way. How would you describe your style of winemaking? Do you experiment as much in the winery as you do in the vineyard?
Jan: Our winemaking is fairly simple. We have only two principles – only wild fermentations and no additions of tartaric acid, nutrients or other artificial products. Otherwise we do experiment in the winery as much as in the vineyard. We are still looking for the most suitable grapes for our terroir, we also look for the best expression of the given variety or blend. We don’t use too much new oak and recently more and more wines ferment in ceramic vessels. We also play with skin maceration of both white and red grapes to better understand textural potential of each variety.
Mark: Basically, we are prepared to try some new and unusual things – life is pretty boring if we don’t get out of our comfort zones occasionally. The consequence of this attitude is that you have to be prepared to lose a wine here or there because something new didn’t work as hoped – the larger commercial wineries are generally not prepared to take this approach.
"Basically, we are prepared to try some new and unusual things – life is pretty boring if we don’t get out of our comfort zones occasionally"
Does the entire family muck in with the vineyard work? Do you see the younger generation taking over the reins in the future or are your daughters looking to escape from vineyard life?
Mark: My wife and I have three girls, now all in their mid-20s. Until the kids grew up it was “all hands-on deck” when things needed to be done. Now they’re pursuing their own careers, two of them in marketing and PR, and the other in Sustainability, all of which are coming in handy. However, they all still take an interest in the vineyard – time will tell eventually! At this stage of their lives I’m glad they are pursuing their own paths.
You’re obviously hugely passionate about climate change and the affect that this will have on wine production in Australia. As a winemaker who lost a substantial part of your vineyard, you must be concerned about what the future in your vineyard will look like for the younger generations of your family? What steps are you taking to ensure Topper’s Mountain will continue to produce fantastic wines as the climate warms further?
Mark: We continue to look for long season varieties that will push back or at least maintain our harvest window as temperatures rise. Canopy management to maintain bunches in the shade but with sufficient light exposure is becoming more important. We have begun to farm the Hill of Dreams organically although not seeking certification at this stage.
We are also exploring setting out on the path to carbon neutrality via wind and solar power generation to offset our diesel and other energy usage. I view our kids’ agricultural futures with some trepidation, I don’t think we are doing enough collectively to address this very big issue.
Our director likes to play a game over lunch of listing the changes and rules we would implement if he was made leader of a ‘World Council!’ If Stu’s election ever comes to fruition and he puts you in charge of the world’s climate change decisions, what five rules or changes would put in place?
Jan: To me there’s only one rule which would help to better handle climate change and its effects – to employ (or to employ more) common sense and critical thinking. Who with common sense puts wine into 1kg+ bottle? Who with critical thinking plants a grape variety in a place where it needs a lot of unnecessary inputs? Is it sensible making Pinot Noir from Tasmanian grapes in the Hunter Valley?
Mark: not sure if I’ve got five but here are some thoughts;
• Use as much as possible of the capital stimulus emanating from Covid to move towards carbon neutrality – i.e. Subsidise jobs and research to this end
• My father (who was an old-school merino breeder) used to say of any employee (or his sons on their slow days, probably because of a hangover), who didn’t move with determination and look like they meant business, “you’ve gotta line him up with a fence post to see if he’s moving”. As a global community we’ve got to move like we are serious and mean to do something. Generate some noise, activity and get things moving on climate change and sustainability generally.
• Ban political parties globally from accepting donations from corporations and require all donations to be made public within days or weeks. This is one of the major means by which the fossil fuels lobby maintains its dominance.
• Publish a list within days or weeks of all meetings politicians have with any non-politicians. Ditto above.
We hope you enjoy the range!
Pinot Noir Chardonnay M.T. Sparkling 2014
Only 60 bottles available
97 Points - Stuart McCloskey “Made using traditional Méthode Traditionelle methods and aged on lees for 36 months. 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay. In many ways, this reminds me of some of House of Arras’ mature releases. The nose is super evolved revealing a wonderful medley of autumn, orchard fruits, nuts and I am detecting a little mature cheese rind, which is more intriguing rather than offensive (touches of bacon fat with more aeration). Similar to House of Arras, the palate is evolved and rich. A shrill of effervescence, but more of a wine with a delightful spritz rather than full on fizz. The fruit is bright and focused – chamomile tea with lovely grip. There’s lots of minerality and orchard fruits - Quince and apple… Exceptional texture and finesse are the signatures for sure. Serious, complex and certainly thought provoking. Impressive, very much so. Served using Zalto Universal glassware. Enjoy once opened and do not keep remnants for tomorrow.”
£26.95 per bottle
*** One week special ***
only £23.95 per bottle
Hill of Dreams Sauvignon Blanc 2019
Miniscule production - only 516 bottles produced.
97+ Points - Stuart McCloskey “I love it – it’s as simple as that. The colour is a riot of autumn – fallen Ginkgo biloba leaves and honey. So beautiful. The bouquet reminds me of Paul Lato’s uber-expensive Malvasia which I adore equally. Baked Russet apple filled with sweet spices and honey tincture. A little caramelised pineapple and cinnamon come through with more aeration. The bunches were de-stemmed and crushed, but the skins were included in the fermentation, creating wonderful mouthfeel and texture. The grip and tang of the Russet being a perfect description. This wine speaks fluently of minimal intervention to express its place of origin. There’s exceptional length and depth – Everything about this wine should be admired, including the fact that these grapes were rescued at the last minute from the Tingha Plateau Bushfire that ravaged their vineyard in February 2019. I love the honesty and I love the skill and dedication. Unfiltered, unfined and a miniscule 516 bottles produced. Served using Zalto Universal glassware. Drinking now to 2023/25. Do not overchill and there’s no need to decant.”
Barrel Ferment Gewürztraminer 2016
97++ Points - Stuart McCloskey “Put simply, the most enjoyable Aussie Gewürztraminer I have ever sampled. The bouquet leaps at you with a profusion of lemon grass, tinned lychee, rose petal, mandarins, spiced orange peel and Turkish delight. Waves of heady, sweet spice keep coming as does lime marmalade, ginger and elements of botrytis. 100 / 100 for the nose alone. The palate offers spiced, fresh ginger, galangal, lime leaf, lemon grass… more spiced tropical fruit – almost warming from the heat. Amazing! The freshness is compelling and the acidity lifts the wine to a glorious height. I especially like its refinement and the lack of floral sweetness. As I stated at the beginning, this is the best Aussie Gewürztraminer available today (in my humble opinion). Served using Zalto Universal glassware. Wonderful now and will continue to be epic over the next ten years.”
£23.95 per bottle
*** One week special ***
only £22.55 per bottle
Wild Ferment Tempranillo 2013
96++ / 97 Stuart McCloskey “Tempranillo is a temperamental beauty which places so many demands on the winemaker - from warmth and sun for perfect ripeness as well as cooling evenings to retain freshness. AKA, perfect conditions. Topper’s sits 900 metres above sea level which aids the deliverance of daytime warmth and cooling air of the night time. The nose is fully mature and alluring with saddle leather, tobacco, cedar, rose hip, blood orange and dark cherry cola. The palate texture is perfecto – crushed velvet with ribbons of sweet and sour cherry, cola, smoke and sweet spice. The tannins are svelte and the acidity adds a judicious slap of freshness. There is much to like - superb energy and a very long, sappy finish. We sampled in Zalto’s Bordeaux and Universal glassware with the latter being our preference. It’s in its prime, but will keep for a few years longer (although I really don’t see the point personally).”
£22.95 per bottle
*** One week special ***
only £18.95 per bottle
96++ / 97 Points - Stuart McCloskey "The blend changes with each passing vintage. The ’14 includes Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Tanat, Shiraz and Viognier. The perfume is brooding and laced with fauna and flora complimented with ribbons of dark, ripe red fruits (Very much reminds of red fruits founds in high-quality, bitter chocolate). The palate is incredibly fine, the tannins silken, the structural element wonderfully feminine. All-in-all, exquisitely balanced, refined and full of charm. The rose hip / petal, wild mint and licorice combination is a joy to taste. Profound it is not, but I am truly smitten by its overall charisma. This would be wonderful if paired with rare loin of venison served with a sweet berry and juniper sauce. En-pointe now and will keep for a few more years, but this is one to be enjoyed sooner rather than later… We sampled with Zalto’s Universal glassware."
£24.95 per bottle
*** One week special ***
only £20.95 per bottle
Next week, we will revert with tranche two of our tasting notes. We are so sorry - we drank more than we sampled...
Wild Ferment Petit Manseng 2017
1550 bottles produced. Drink now until 2028.
Winemaker “Manseng is one of our great success stories with Alternative Varieties. Its small berries, tough skins and open bunches make it very resistant to botrytis, the bane of our high summer rainfall.
Petit Manseng or Gros Manseng? While we believed we planted Petit Manseng fifteen years ago, the new DNA research conducted by Wine Australia showed that all planting material that has been imported to Australia is actually Gros Manseng.
What’s the difference? Both varieties have very small berries (Petit smaller than Gros), both share intensive ripe citrus and floral aromatic profile and mainly both are high in natural acid. Whatever Petit or Gros, our Manseng delivers juicy, fresh with unmistakable tension and high flavour concentration resulting in very long ageing potential.
Our Manseng shows fresh aromas of orange blossom and citrus peel, juicy flavours of ripe citruses and honey with unmistakable tension between naturally high acidity and rich flavour concentration resulting in a very long aging potential. Perfect wine to be drank by the glass but it provides enough texture to accompany wide range of food.”
"Such a good wine...
Mike Bennie, The Wine Front, Aug 2020 “Such a good wine, this. A strong assertion of individuality by Topper’s. Very aromatic, muted floral notes, green apple, nashi pear, cashew nuts and exotic spice. Beautiful perfume. Slippery texture that rolls exceptionally long and to a nice, neat pucker. Coursing acidity of lemon-lime and saline character, so minerally and fresh. This is a feast for the senses but wildly complex and compelling too. Stunning white wine.”
1550 bottles produced. Drink now until 2024 and beyond.
Winemaker “Bricolage Blanc is a traditional Topper´s Mountain white blend. Its assemblage varies every year as we always put together our best performers of the vintage.
The 2014 contains four classic French varieties: Chardonnay which brings body and structure to the blend, Viognier adds robust texture and together with Gewurztraminer complex aromatics and flavours while the last contribution – dash of Sauvignon Blanc – adds freshness.
Rich, deep and complex aromatic profile stretches from ripe citruses like grapefruit and red orange over peaches and lychee to Turkish delight – Viognier and Gewurztraminer play the main role on the nose. This blend is a full bodied and cream like textured wine with complex and ripe flavours albeit relatively moderate alcohol. Smooth flavours of nectarines, ripe peaches, red oranges and lychee ending with a touch of cappuccino in a sweet and bitter finish.”
1850 bottles produced. Drink now until 2024 and beyond.
Bricolage Blanc is a traditional Topper’s Mountain white blend. Its assemblage varies every vintage as we always put together our best performers of the vintage.
The 2015 contains four classic French varieties: Chardonnay which brings body and structure to the blend. Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer are responsible for the complex aromatics and flavours while the last contribution, Petit Manseng adds a brisk acidity providing freshness and an extra kick in the finish.
Although two varieties (Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer) of the blend are highly aromatic, this wine is rather noble, elegant and indeed complex on the nose. Every variety has its aromatic footprint – apples, green pears, ripe gooseberries, ripe peaches, rose water and macadamia nuts.
The wine is rich, textured, long and very young which altogether indicates long cellaring potential. Mainly ripe citrus flavours like pomelo, grapefruit, lime or red orange rule on the palate but there is more – ripe peaches, lychee, touch of honey and vanilla. Slightly bitter touch in the finish is a trade mark of Topper’s Mountain terroir.”
Huon Hooke, The Real Review, July 2018 “This unusual and excellent wine is a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer and Petit Manseng. With a pungently spicy Gewürz-driven bouquet, it has an oily, round texture and is voluptuously soft, with stacks of flavour and character. The finish lasts long and the acidity keeps it tight and fresh.”
Mike Bennie, The Wine Front, Sept 2018 “Fleshy white of savoury nuttiness, floral characters, exotic spice and medium weight. There’s a sense of hyper-floral lift in both perfume and palate, but the gist is mostly about greener fruit flavours of pear and just ripe stone fruit. Finishes succulent and a touch grippy with a nice, bitter twist. Really lovely, really good.”
Wild Ferment Nebbiolo 2016
1620 bottles produced. Drink now until 2030 and beyond.
Winemaker “Although massively structured, the best examples show remarkable elegance, typical aromas of sour cherries and tar and almost never ending cellaring potential.
Our Nebbiolo shows aromas of tar, rose hips, sour cherries, dark cherries, liquorice and heaps of flint. This can’t be anything else but Nebbiolo! Juicy and fresh on the palate yet with a strong backbone braced by high acidity and succulent smooth tannins. Cherries, currants and cranberries are accompanied by liquorice, black pepper and hint of earthiness. Long and tight finish. Wine with considerable ageing potential.”
Touriga & Tintas Kvevri 2018
1380 bottles produced. Drink now until 2030.
Winemaker “Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cao and Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo) – blending these varieties is a centuries-old tradition in the most famous Portugal wine region – the Douro Valley.
Plums, blackberries and layers of spice re supported by a very good acidity and significant but elegant tannins. Serious wine to drink with food will benefit from a couple of hours of decanting.
Campbell Mattinson , The Wine Front “Lots of character here. In fact it’s a very good wine full stop. Leathery, perfumed, ripped with tannin, glossy in some ways, resinous even, but savoury at heart. Fruit, graphite, cloves, something sweet and musky, something sour and dry. Many different things. There’s a huge swerve of tannin to the finish it’s part of the wine’s shtick, and charm.”
Nick Butler, The Real Review, Dec 2019 “Garnet red colour with a tawny edge. Dried herbs and violets lead the bouquet, elevated and expressive, plum sauce and asian spices. A gentle roundness to this - blackberries, bruised apples, cinnamon and plums. A vibrant and delicious red blend. Built for early enjoyment.”