Like a rolling stone.
Andrew Marks makes the Yarra Valley’s Gembrook Hill and The Wanderer wines, and is also the man behind The Melbourne Gin Company. Here, he shares the moments that have shaped his wine journey.
ANYONE WHO GETS INTO winemaking has to have a certain tenacity to get through the tough vintages and physically exhausting days, but Andrew Marks’s capacity for work is rare. Having always been heavily involved in his family’s Upper Yarra Valley winery, Gembrook Hill, Andrew took the reins last year. He started his own label The Wanderer in 2005 and then, just for kicks, The Melbourne Gin Company in 2012. To top it off, he makes the commute from Melbourne six days a week, and has done for the past 12 years. If you feel tired thinking about that, you’re not alone. “There’s no downtime anymore. Peak vineyard time coincides with peak gin time, so it keeps me pretty busy,” Andrew says.
Coming full circle
Founded by June and Ian Marks in 1983, Gembrook Hill is a part of the Yarra Valley clique that includes iconic family wineries such as Mount Mary and Seville Estate. As well as being pioneers of this now-coveted winemaking area, the families also share a professional background. “Prior to establishing Gembrook Hill, my father was a third-generation dentist, which actually follows quite strongly in the history of people here,” Andrew says.
“In particular, Dr John Middleton [Mount Mary], Dr Peter McMahon [Seville Estate], Dr Bailey Carrodus [Yarra Yering],
Reg Egan, a lawyer [Wantirna Estate] and James Halliday, a lawyer [Coldstream Hills]. I think that’s been important to the rigour with which people have gone about making wine here – it’s a considered way, I suppose.” More drawn to the family lineage of wine than dentistry, Andrew never had aspirations to be in the business of teeth, but he did inherit those detail-oriented, ‘tinkering’ ways.
During last year's harvest, Ian Marks passed away. “That made for an unusual year. It’s been a bit of a brave new world for us,” Andrew says. “We’re bottling the ’17s at the moment and we intend on releasing a blended Gembrook wine, which we’ve never done before, in honour of my dad. It’s a pinot noir and we’re calling it the IJM, after Ian James Marks. It’s a blend of three of the oldest rows on the property and a few of the youngest vines. I thought that coming full circle would be a nice idea. It will be available some time this year and, as it’s something special, it’s only a small quantity. I think the old man will approve.”
It’s a lovely and deserved tribute. Andrew and many others in the modern Yarra Valley owe a lot to people like Ian. “My parents planted in an area that others avoided because it’s wet and cool. My father was a perfectionist and he engineered it not to produce huge quantities, but rather recognisable qualities. I’m lucky in the sense that I had the opportunity to go off and learn, while always knowing there was this special patch of land I’d probably be coming back to.”
Learn Andrew did, working for household names such as Seppelt and Penfolds, and completing vintages everywhere from France to California and Spain. “I studied at Roseworthy in South Australia and went on to work at Penfolds after that.” It was around this time that he started to hit his stride. “Everything came together for me when I did a vintage in Burgundy in 2002, which was a beautiful, elegant year. I was given a list of great producers to visit and spend time with – I’m fortunate to speak French fluently, thanks to an exchange I did in Bordeaux when I was 16, because that means I can go into the cellars of winemakers and understand what they’re talking about,” he says. It was experiences such as these that influenced the winemaking philosophy Andrew holds today. “For each vineyard, no matter where it is, it’s just about trying to grow the best grapes possible and represent them well in the winery. It’s ‘the internationalist’ approach to winemaking because it’s a method that can be employed anywhere.”
Trends and the cult of personality are not particularly important to Andrew. “I’d rather the wine speak for itself than to have to run around in my underpants like a lot of people do,” he says. With Gembrook Hill and The Wanderer, it’s all about quality. “The stuff that people are doing these days has been done long before.
“Penfolds St Henri, for example, is the original hipster wine
[for its use of large-format oak], from well before it was cool to be hipster. Fashions come and go in the winemaking world, the pendulum is always swinging,” Andrew says. “In the 2000s, we were encouraged to avoid adding ‘green’ characters to wine.
Now, the inclusion of whole bunches is in vogue and that’s actually incorporating a facet of greenness. More recently there’s been an acceptance of oxidative wine styles, or wines with extended skin contact. From my point of view, it’s all about balance and making sure none of these are a dominant feature,” he says. “It’s got to be a good drink at the end of the day and the notion of quality is being challenged a lot more. You don’t want a winemaker telling you about the ins and outs of how they’ve suffered to make a wine while you’re standing there going, ‘Yeah, but it still tastes like shit’. People aren’t idiots – they can figure out quality for themselves.”
As well as the great legacy of Gembrook Hill, there are a few other factors that have drawn Andrew to wine. “It’s an amazing lifestyle choice. You’ll never make that much money, but you can travel the world. It’s typically grown in beautiful regions. It’s also associated with culture – food and wine are often the two mainstays of a place, and that’s where I find it interesting.” These ideas led to the naming of Andrew’s own label, The Wanderer. “It’s basically reflecting that everyone – be it James Halliday or a novice – is on a journey with wine. That’s what I wanted to capture,” he says. “You can really delve in or you can just enjoy a good drink at the end of the day.” This journey also applies to winemaking.
“Your palate changes, your style evolves and you’ll never know everything there is to know – there’ll always be something to be surprised by. Each vintage is a page out of your life and over time you develop this story.” Travel has certainly provided plenty of inspiration. There’s even a wine in The Wanderer range that’s made from international grapes. “Since 2008, I’ve produced a wine from a single vineyard of 100-yearold carignan bush vines called El Wanderer. That came about because I became friends with a girl who has a family-owned winery in Spain – essentially next to [globally renowned restaurant] El Bulli – that has these incredible old vines. I’ve just sold out of the current release and I haven’t been able to do vintage over there recently, but I intend to go over and remake that wine this year,” he says.
There’s also a collection of vinyl that inspires the Gembrook Hill/Wanderer winery team. “We’ve played a lot of music over the years. I quite like classics such as the Rolling Stones, Diana Ross and The Supremes. When AC/DC toured a few years ago, one of the winemakers who used to work with us had original pressings of theirs from the ’70s, so we played those. That was a pretty hard and fast year,” he says.
The gin thing
You might think two wine labels and regular vintages overseas would be enough to keep one occupied, but not Andrew. “I live in Melbourne’s Collingwood and when I started playing around with gin, my flatmate at the time and I would solve the world’s problems over martinis on Tuesdays. One day it just occurred to me that I have this particular set of skills, having worked with flavours for my entire professional career, so why not have a crack at making gin? There’s a lot of time thinking in the vineyard with the three months it takes to prune 18,000 vines, so I bought a couple of copper pot stills and started doing trials in my apartment at night time. I had to ventilate the place a little when my flatmate started having weird dreams and hallucinations,” he says. “It was a real journey into alchemy. I wanted to understand the different flavour profiles that make up gin – juniper berries, coriander seeds, orange peel – so I distilled them individually and that allowed me to build a bespoke flavour profile. At the end of that winter, I’d gotten it to the point where I thought, this actually tastes like gin. So I had a still made for me in Portugal, which is a tiny copper pot designed for making perfume, providing a really gentle extraction, and I spent the whole year distilling botanicals.”
“I use a grape-based spirit that comes from South Australia – it’s probably the best use of Barossa shiraz and semillon,” Andrew jokes. “I make just one gin and I wanted it to taste like gin – a dry style that someone from England would recognise – but with a Melbourne twist. There are native botanicals in there – I think mine is the only gin in the world that uses honey myrtle, which
I get from a farm in Western Australia that grows it for me especially. I also use local sandalwood, rosemary from our garden at Gembrook and organic grapefruit from the Queen Victoria Markets. In winter, I’ll sit there and peel grapefruits for days and then distil them, which means I can use those and other botanicals that are only available in winter all year-round. We are available nationwide and export to seven countries, but it’s sold by word of mouth in Melbourne and that’s our biggest market by far.”
“You don’t want a winemaker telling you about the ins and outs of how they’ve suffered to make a wine while you’re standing there going, ‘Yeah, but it still tastes like shit’. People aren’t idiots – they can figure out quality for themselves.” Andrew Marks
No place like home
Having worked all over the world and in Australian regions as diverse as Coonawarra, the Barossa, the Hunter Valley, Western Australia's Great Southern and Victoria’s Great Western, the
Yarra Valley is still where Andrew wants to be. “It’s an extremely exciting place to make wine. The reason for that is we make good sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, as well as having some amazing producers of nebbiolo and gamay. Show me any other region in the world that can do the same. It almost defies imagination, yet the proof is in the wines.” And what of Gembrook Hill and The Wanderer? “Our wines aren’t for everyone, but we don’t make a lot and there are enough people out there who like them,” Andrew says. “I would say they’re for people with good taste, of course.”