The un-spin doctor


It was around the same time that the position of winemaker at Bannockburn Vineyards came up when Michael Glover was also considering taking up the offer of a similar role at a winery in Oregon in the United States. He had also looked at returning to New Zealand, where his father had a vineyard. But he says that Bannockburn, just north of Geelong, was probably one of the few wineries in Australia that was sure to persuade him to stay.

“And it’s because of the vineyards — purely,” he says. As an aficionado of the cool climate style of winemaking, and the magic that the chardonnay and pinot noir varieties can conjure in the right circumstances, Michael knew that here was a winery resplendent not only with proven success in these very areas, but also bursting with promise. “The Serré pinot noir vineyard, the closely planted one, is close to 20 years old and crops at about half a kilogram per vine. You’d have to go to premier cru Burgundy to get a yield like that,” he says.

Some of the other plantings at Bannockburn are more than 30 years old, and although these are nowhere near as old as, for example, some of the more extensive plantings of shiraz in the Barossa, for which 80 years old is not uncommon, Michael says that for large “new world” plantings such as are grown at Bannockburn, they are special in that these vines are very well established. “I am a total believer in mature vineyards. These guys in Europe have it so bloody easy,” he says, “because they’ve been doing it for centuries and have had all the hard work done for them. There’s one vineyard over there that has been permanently under vine since 1365. We’re still trying to really figure it out. They just fine tune.”

The winery at Bannockburn was built in 1981, but the vineyard was established years before by Stuart Hooper, who owned a chain of supermarkets. The year was 1974, and it is important to remember that at the time, growing and making wine was on a tangent to some more accepted career changes. The chief executive of Bannockburn Vineyards, Phillip Harrison, says Stuart used to import some French wines, and became enamoured with them. He also rubbed shoulders with people who had a great appreciation for wine. “One of the people he was in business with was Ian Holme, who set up Yellowglen,” Phillip says. Stuart came to the conclusion that some land that he already owned would be suitable to grow and make his own wine, so he planted this with shiraz. He bought more property, planted more and different vines, and today his legacy covers 27 hectares and produces 10,000 cases of very fine wine a year.

The maritime-influenced climate is cool but stable, and allows a long growing season from September through to the end of harvest, usually in early May. Most rain falls over winter and spring, and the soil is rich brown and black volcanic loam and is well drained. Conditions have been compared to Bordeaux but Bannockburn is actually a little cooler than there, yet warmer than Burgundy, with more sunshine and less rain than both. It is also typically less fertile. All in all, the vineyards nestle in an area, and under the sort of conditions, that a cool climate viticultural buff revels in.

By his own admission, Michael’s work is largely a matter of “fine-tuning”, given Bannockburn’s already well-established vineyards, but it is the sort of tinkering at the edges that can make some dramatic changes to the end product. That old accepted truth, that most winemaking is done in the vineyard, is utterly exemplified, and encouraged, under Michael’s guidance. “The fruit is so good,” he says. “I mean, I know it sounds a bit tossy, but it’s true that the only time you have to ‘make’ a wine is when the fruit is deficient. That’s when the winemaker has to pull out his bag of tricks — add tannins, or cover it in too much oak. But then you’ve let the vineyard down.”

There is still experimentation in Bannockburn’s winemaking process — trying different sized barrels, picking the grapes either a little earlier or a little later than has been done before, or leaving certain varieties in the barrel for longer — but they are carried out on a small scale, just to see what the result may be. “I can’t say ‘this is the way’, because I don’t know yet,” he says. “We’re looking at comparing results with all the wines in the cellar, what makes differences on all manner of fronts.”

It is the sort of tinkering that Michael contends has already been done by the great winemaking houses in Europe. “If you look say at a great Bordeaux producer or any of the top vineyards over there, it is the vineyard that gets the worship, not the winemaker,” he says. “Often you won’t even know who the winemaker is.”

It annoys Michael that Australians and New Zealanders can sometimes show a certain infancy and naivety by following a name, a sort of “cult of the winemaker”. “The message I’m trying to get across is that it’s all about the vineyard. I’m just trying to work out how to get the best out of it. One day I’ll move on, but Bannockburn vineyard will continue. The winemaker serves the vineyard, not the other way around.”

It is arrogance and elitism in the world of wine that he finds are “just the enemy”, and says all his decisions are made with the wine in mind. “Not the market. Not the business. Not dollars — but what is best for the wine.” It is the hype and spin of the industry that is most at odds with the ideals Michael espouses. “At Bannockburn, what we are about is making wine that does not reflect market fashion or trends. We have no desire to follow anyone. What we are endeavouring to make is wine that accurately and sympathetically reflects our unique terrain. This sounds romantic but in reality it is far from easy; it is only achieved with integrity, rigour, a hint of madness and a minimum of hoopla.” And so the experiments continue, for which Michael is extremely grateful to be allowed the opportunity. “Not many places in Australia give you that luxury.”


This story first appeared in Victorian Lifestyle Property