Some years ago, Gary Farr took his wine to Burgundy in France and asked the local vignerons for their opinion. One recurring “criticism” that struck a chord with him was that there was “too much sunshine” in the bottle. It was one censure that he was more than happy to bring home.
Gary is the winemaker at Bannockburn Vineyards, situated about 25 kilometres north of Geelong and which has developed over many years to become one of the most highly regarded small winemaking estates in Australia. His Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines have gained an unparalleled reputation in Australia and beyond, not only for their quality but also for their consistency. If we had such a system as the controlee d’appellation in Australia, they would definitely be classed “premier cru”.
Bannockburn Vineyards CEO Phillip Harrison says the vineyard was established in 1974 by Stuart Hooper, who at that time had a chain of supermarkets in Geelong, with a couple in Melbourne also. “Stuart had always had an interest in wine, he and a couple of friends who were in business with him,” says Phillip, “one of which was Ian Holme, who set up Yellowglen. Stuart had always been interested in French wines, and used to import a few. And that’s where the interest grew.”
And like a lot of people who are very keen on good wines, Stuart thought it would be nice to produce his own. So he planted Shiraz vines on a small seven acre block he owned near the township of Bannockburn. Not long after, Gary Farr came on board as winemaker and started to help set up the burgeoning winery. Stuart bought more property, planted more vines (the winery itself was built in 1981) and today Bannockburn has 25 hectares under vine and produces about 10,000 cases of wine annually.
“Stuart had an uncompromising commitment for Bannockburn to always produce the best wine possible, regardless of cost involved,” says Phillip, “and he had total faith in the ability of his winemaker, Gary Farr.” Indeed the winery’s achievements have been made possible in no small way by the fact that Bannockburn has always given its winemaker a free hand.
Gary had completed a wine course at Roseworthy Agriculture College in South Australia before joining the team at Bannockburn in 1978. But the turning point in his personal growth as a premium winemaker came in 1983 when he made the first of many visits to the Burgundy region of France, and started a long and intensively hands-on study of the winemaking techniques employed there. The experience profoundly influenced his approach to wine production.
Why the focus on the Burgundy region? “I think it was just that I decided that Australia didn’t make the sort of wines that I like to drink,” Gary says. “The French wines, even though they’re the same grape variety, bore no resemblance to what we were doing. So I wrote a few letters to some wineries in France, and went over there and travelled around various different wineries, but ended up spending all my time in Burgundy, which is where they grow a lot of Chardonnary and Pinot Noir. These were the sorts of wines that I wanted to make – the sort of styles that I wanted to make.”
Gary started working for a small domaine over there, Domaine Dujac, but to begin with had to pick and carry grapes. “But I was so interested in the way they made wine,” he says. “It was so different to the way we made wine at that time.” He has now completed 12 vintages in France, usually following a vintage at Bannockburn with a vintage at Domaine Dujac.
The difference seems to be that the French have always approached the winemaking process a lot more naturally than Australians have tended to. “We’re taught to make wine a certain way over here.” Gary says. “They just let it all evolve and happen naturally over there. Natural yeast, and a lot of patience. Most of the processes in winemaking will happen of their own accord,” he says. “You just have to monitor them.”
There is very little temperature control for example. “They just do things in a certain size batches, so they don’t get too hot,” he says. “They just arrive at the right temperature.
The yeast that Gary brought back with him from Burgundy about 20 years ago now blooms naturally every year throughout the winery. So, like the French, he does not have to artifically introduce yeast culture for fermentation to proceed.
The pursuit of quantity, perhaps more so in the past than now, may have had a limiting affect on the style of wines Australia had been able to produce. “Most Australian wineries need to turn over their [fermentation] tanks probably half a dozen times, or 10 times a year,” says Gary. “At Bannockburn I’ve set things up so that we only have to turn them over twice Ñ once for the Pinot and once for the Shiraz. And there’s a four week gap between the two varieties. So we can let everything take its time, and be patient about it.”
Of course this means that there is a limit to Bannockburn’s production. “You can’t make a huge amount of wine this way,” Gary says. “It is so hands-on and manual, you can only make so much.” Phillip Harrison is hopeful about expanding a little more, starting with planting more vines next year. Gary concedes that the winery could perhaps produce a little more than it is now, as long as facilities are expanded as well.
Phillip says that Bannockburn wines go to “the UK, USA, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Denmark, Belgium. Our total production is around 10,000 cases now, and we’d probably be looking at 10 per cent of that as export. The UK market is biggest of that.”
As well as making wines for Bannockburn, Gary has been making wine under his own “By Farr” label for a few years now. His son Nicholas has continued the family tradition, and has just completed his first vintage at Dujac this year. Gary has his own plantings adjacent to Bannockburn, and is quite fired-up about the Viognier variety coming on board from there, which is quite new. He and Nicholas are planting another vineyard as well, a few kilometres down the road from Bannockburn.
It seems fair to ask, however, what it was about the French wines that so profoundly sparked his enthusiasm all those years ago. “Well there’s a certain savouriness to them, a lot more finesse and elegance than most Australian wines,” he says. “I mean, that’s the sort of style that I want to produce here. We’ve worked very hard to get to that point of having more finesse and elegance.
“We’re not interested in the great big Shiraz styles, or fat Pinot. We’re interested in finer, stylish wines Ñ a lot of ‘perfume’ to them. I mean, that’s what the French wines are all about. Whether it’s Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay; it’s just earthy; its flavours are quite earthy and quite savoury.”
But as all winemakers acknowledge, good wine starts in the vineyard. And there is a difference to what we can make here compared to the French product, as Gary has noted all along. “I originally modelled my approach on Dujac, but then we realised that you can only make wine from the grapes from your own vineyard,” he says. “We make good wine, but it’s called Bannockburn or By Farr; they make good Burgundy.” But people appreciate the wine for its own style, says Gary, they don’t necessarily go back and compare it with Burgundy.
It is a difference that the French are aware of as well – hence the “sunshine in the bottle” criticism made to Gary, although he says he is sure they would have liked a bit more sunshine themselves.
Of course such differences are inevitable, given Bannockburn’s soil type, climate and general environment. The maritime climate is cool and stable and the soil is a relatively shallow volcanic loam over limestone, well drained but of low fertility. The vines are therefore not all that vigorous but, Gary contends, are more in balance with the conditions. “It’s a low yield; probably about two tons to the acre that we get,” he says. “The bigger wineries harvest twice as much, or they might take off two tons to the acre of green fruit, do a lot of leaf plucking, and then go back and eventually pick the final crop. And all this just to get something that they think is in balance. But we don’t do any of that.” He says that the prevailing winds of the area also have a “devigorating” influence.
Bannockburn has no cellar door as such. “We’d rather concentrate on the production side of things and put all our efforts into producing the quality,” says Phillip Harrison. “It’s better for us to concentrate on what we do best Ñ and that’s actually make the wine.”
Both the Bannockburn and the By Farr labels tend to shun entering any wine competitions. But not having gold medals to stick on their labels has certainly not hindered the reputation or popularity of Gary Farr’s wines. Rather, it is their consistent impeccable quality, individuality and pure drinking pleasure that ensures these wines stand out from the masses.
This article first appeared in Victorian Lifestyle Property magazine.