Mark and Andrie Whisson grow our Whisson Lake Vineyard Pinot Noir at Piccadilly Valley, Adelaide Hills.
Mark: This vineyard was planted in 1985, which makes it one of the oldest Pinot blocks in the Adelaide Hills. The first generation of Hills Pinot vineyards were all here in the Piccadilly Valley, in 1982 and ’83. Ours was planted in ’85, along with another over on the other side of Carey Gully. After that, there was a bit of a pause before another burst of activity around the late 80s, and then nothing because the industry was very depressed through the early 90s. And then everything went crazy in about 1995.
The thing we notice about grapes coming off these older vines is that they tend to have silkier tannins. And the wines are more complex; less showy and more substantial. They’re now starting to do what we really want our wines to do, which is have power but without weight. The best wines from Burgundy usually seem to be described as “weightless finish” or “a weightlessness on the pallet” – that kind of phrasing comes up quite a lot. It’s very light in the mouth, yet you get flavour and texture and so forth. That’s the tricky part. If we can get a little further down that road, we might start winning a few more converts in Australia.
Underneath this vineyard is an old metamorphosed stratified rock called schist, so it’s layered like slate – schist is a precursor to slate, actually. It’s tilted up on about a 70-degree angle, which means the vine roots can get down into it and go down, down, down. That means these vines don’t have to have the irrigation that other vineyards need. They can withstand extremes of temperatures much better. It’s a long road, but I think we’re starting to see already some of the best pinots in Australia coming out of parts of this vineyard – in my unbiased opinion! And they are parts of that vineyard that we haven’t irrigated since 1995.
Andrie and I don’t have much family history in winemaking. I came back from Canada after doing a masters in plant biochemistry overseas and thought: “Hmm, I think I’d like to work in the wine industry.” I had bought a house close by in Bridgewater, so I just pestered Brian Croser at Petaluma until he gave me a job. It took about three months of pestering and eventually he gave me a job and it went from there. That was in 1983. Since then I’ve successfully planted and managed about 100 new vineyards, mostly in the Adelaide hills but also in the Clare Valley, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek, Coonawarra and the Yarra Valley.
Andrie: I’m from Taiwan and I came over to Australia for nursing. Then I met Mark and we got married in 2010. I saw that he needed a hand, someone to help him out, so I started. He trained me from the basics: pruning, bud bashing, all that stuff. I can even drive tractors. I started to learn about winemaking from Mike Downer and Taras Ochota, and Mark taught me a bit as well.
M: It’s very hard to be a good winemaker and a good grape grower, so it’s very much a team effort. It’s very difficult to make money out of just growing grapes, especially in vineyards like this, so we have to wear a few different hats. We sell most of the grapes we grow and make a bit of wine and sell that for the icing on the cake, the cream on the top, or whatever the metaphor is. We’re lucky because the most important thing for winemaking is the palate and Andrie’s got a really excellent palate. It’s something you’re born with, I think. Her real passion is cooking and you can see the influence that’s had on her palate.
A: Mark encouraged me to do the wine thing so I went off and took two wine courses at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. Now I’m doing more and more of the winemaking and sales. We have a market back in Taiwan now, in my hometown, so we do sell a bit over there. Mark mainly looks after the vineyards.
M: We love living right by our vineyards. I could waffle on about it for ages, but can probably sum it up by saying that it’s hypnotic – like looking at a fire or the sea. It’s always changing.