A REGION WITH NO FORMAL IDENTITY, HIGH UP IN THE MOUNTAINS, IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. WELCOME TO OUR PLACE: WHITLANDS HIGH PLATEAU
Eminence wines is a true boutique producer making wines from grapes grown on our high altitude family owned vineyard in Whitlands – a sub region of King Valley, North East Victoria. The grapes are grown by my Mum and Dad –David and Sharon Burder, and I handle the rest , with plenty of help in the winery. We grow and make Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier Rose and of course – our vintage sparkling. The vineyard is located at the top of the Whitlands High Plateau on the family farm, between Mansfield and Whitfield. We don’t have a cellar door yet but it’s in the works!
The ultimate ideal for a vineyard owner is see the unique personality of the site in the wine. What does this mean? Grapes have a unique ability to translate their character into wine and when you have a connection to a piece of dirt, making wine from it is a pretty glorious process. I’ve had conversations with third generation families who’ve been growing grapes for 50 years and they say to me I’m only just starting to understand my vineyard. Every year we accumulate a little more understanding, and most likely a longer list of things-to-do-differently.
Our vineyard is one of the coolest sites in the country due to the altitude of 868 meters above sea level. It snows in winter and is mild in summer; the average annual rainfall is over 50 inches. It’s an incredibly challenging place to grow grapes! Most of the Whitlands Plateau consists of Cambrian era loam – a free draining, relatively fertile red/brown soil. And in contrast to many famous regions the plateau has no subsoil. Supposedly the whole ridge was created in under 10 minutes by an erupting volcano!
The cool climate means slower ripening resulting in higher acid levels – perfect for sparkling base, in which we aim for high acid and quite neutral flavour. When we set out to make table wine we need a couple of weeks extra ripeness in the grapes – because we’re seeking lower acid but more importantly good flavour concentration.
The Chardonnay is made (depending on the season) in a mid-weight style, old-oak fermented (which gives almost no oak character but enables small parcel handling), with plenty of time on its yeast lees to build in texture. The idea with this wine is make the most of the linear-acidity & concentration while building texture & length through winemaking. The wines so far have been impressive; complex without being too oaky, flinty without being astringent, beautifully textured and age worthy. There’s a sense of luxury with the Chardonnay!
We also grow Pinot Gris – which makes a lovely, light, aromatic white wine; a session wine as we call it: by the bottle, on a veranda somewhere with a sunset and a chunk of good cheese.
Next up is Pinot Meunier – which is what I refer to as the unCOOL cousin on Pinot Noir. Pinot Meunier is best known for contributing mid-palate width and rich red fruit characters to a Champagne blend; where it’s typically blended in at less than 15%. There are a handful of red wines produced with Meunier in Australia – most notably the Bests Old Vine from Western Victoria. We make a gorgeous Rose out of it, and when we get the right season we’ll have a go at making a dry Pinot Noir style red. The Rose is fermented to dryness, resulting in a clean, bright wine with loads of red fruit character and often some more savoury notes of ginger and violets.
Considering the site isn’t really that suited to producing iconic quality Pinot Noir, we’ve made some cracking wines out of it. Notably the 2006 and 2008 vintages –which were both warm and dry. Silky, with super fine tannin; juicy pomegranate, rhubarb and cherry. Bloody delicious!
The sparkling is what Eminence is all about. A long and complex process, the vintage (made from one season only as opposed to Non-Vintage [NV] wines which are blended across years) sparkling takes four years to make; ageing on lees for 42 months after being barrel fermented, barrel aged, blended and bottle fermented in the classic methode champenois style. This style of wine is not so much focused on expressing the terroir (place/origin) of the vineyard, but the skill and alchemy involved in managing the long winemaking process. The range is called The Assembly to give credit to this incredibly delicate process of blending the wines prior to the second ferment.
MORE ABOUT WHITLANDS
You’ve probably never heard of Whitlands until now, and unless you’re fond of driving through the middle of nowhere, you’ve probably never been here either. Officially Whitlands is a sub region of the King Valley GI. This is misleading however, since the King Valley is a valley, and Whitlands is the high plateau on one side. Viticulturally , they are different regions: 500m altitude difference, vast differences in soil and slopes and the valley – especially towards the Milawa end is much, much warmer. The valley specialises in the Italian varieties of Sangiovese, Prosecco and Nebbiolo plus more common varieties of Riesling, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Whitlands is a 9km stretch of plateau 40km from Mansfield and 15km from Whitfield. There are about 700 acres of grapevines here, but no wineries; it is quite rare to see Whitlands on a label. The grape varieties are typically limited to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling & Pinot Gris – all of which are able to ripen in the cool climate. Most grapes are destined for sparkling base made by producers such as Domain Chandon, Brown Brothers, Yalumba and Treasury. Whitlands fruit is in high demand; bolstered by the healthy thirst we have for high quality sparkling wine in this country!
THE BACK STORY
My Dad, David – planted grapes in 1998. I was half way through high school then, and working in the local pub which happened to be owned by the Pizzini family. Fred Pizzini – the patriarch of Pizzini wines (and my boss), asked me one afternoon what on earth I was going to do with my life and I responded that I had no idea – only that I wanted to do something creative. Fred took the time to explain to me that wine was creative and that I should consider it an option – being from the King Valley and all.
I always considered wine as farming, rather than a creative pursuit. But really, that realisation was the start of my love of all things wine.
Dad’s vineyard was producing some excellent quality fruit and year after year the whole lot was being sold off to various wine companies in need of sparkling base. In pursuit however of a more thorough understanding the vineyard, he commissioned John Stokes from Woodpark to make some Pinot Noir in 2005, and Joel Pizzini to make some Chardonnay.
Those wines were excellent, and while I was off traveling the world and looking in the other direction (mostly in the direction of Italian pastries) our shed was slowly being taken over by some pretty great wine. But it had no label.
In 2008 I took the plunge and designed a label for our little pile of wine. Eminence was born and suddenly I was wearing out the leather on my boot soles selling the wine to local restaurants and bottle shops. I was pretty green, 24 and only half way through my wine marketing/making course through The University of Adelaide. Talk about jumping in the deep end!
The wines – despite my inexperience – were well received and soon enough I was shipping a pallet here and a pallet there, finding my feet in the Melbourne market and adjusting to the responsibility of owning a wine business. I had to learn quick smart about bottles, labels, boxes, caps (the first Pinot Gris label fell off once the wine was in an ice bucket!), logistics, accounting and sales. Not to mention the decisions about what kind of wines to make, how to make them and how to get them into the wine glasses of thirsty customers.
A stint in wine retail in Melbourne, combined with years of cellar door work inspired me to start another business which was focused on educating consumers about the wonders of wine. The Humble Tumbler (a reference to my time living in Italy where I was commonly served iconic, high quality wines out of tumblers) began life in 2012 as a four week wine course. It has grown since to include a whole series of masterclasses, events and through it I have been invited to work with organisations such as the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Fairfax and Top Shelf. I now split my time between Melbourne and Whitlands, totally immersed in the wonderful world of wine as a producer, educator, author, wine lover and wine drinker.
Fred Pizzini was right, of course. Wine is creative, even if it still is grounded in the harsh realities of agriculture. Brian Croser, an icon of the Australian Industry has said that it is ‘a pure biological expression of environment interpreted by rational and creative thought’. And whether or not you want to take it so philosophically, there is no doubting the joy in wine. Certainly for us, and this farm that is our history and our home, this is what keeps us here defying the elements in pursuit of a great drink.