HEAD FOR THE HILLS

LUCK SE­CURED STEPHEN GE­ORGE A PER­FECT PLOT FOR PINOT NOIR, BUT SKILL AND FI­NESSE DID THE REST.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - DRINKING -

Stephen Ge­orge is not your av­er­age wine­maker and Ash­ton Hills is cer­tainly not just any old winery. Driv­ing up to the quaint old cel­lar door high in the Ade­laide Hills is al­ways a plea­sure – no glitz or glam­our, just bril­liant wines.

And in the past it was the wine­maker Stephen Ge­orge stand­ing be­hind the wooden bar with its cor­ru­gated iron sheet­ing. He would forgo the usual wine mar­ket­ing spiel and just tell it the way it was. That same hon­esty is also seen in the wines and is an in­te­gral part of their char­ac­ter. It is also what makes Ash­ton Hills one of the finest pro­duc­ers of pinot noir, not only in the Ade­laide Hills, but in the coun­try.

While Ge­orge founded Ash­ton Hills in 1982, his ca­reer in the wine trade started decades ear­lier dur­ing school hol­i­days along the River Mur­ray. Work­ing for a grape­grower with what was at the time an un­usual in­ter­est in ta­ble wines, Ge­orge lis­tened in­tently as the man be­gan his train­ing, teach­ing him about wine and its nu­ances.

This be­gan an un­usual pas­time: while his teenage con­tem­po­raries were buy­ing comics Ge­orge was al­ready sub­scrib­ing to viti­cul­ture jour­nals and The Bul­letin, to read Len Evans’ reg­u­lar Cel­lar­mas­ter col­umn. The first wine to come out of his home winery was aptly named “Vin Sub­ur­bia”, made from grapes col­lected in the sub­urbs of Ade­laide. Ge­orge was on his way.

Af­ter study­ing wine­mak­ing and viti­cul­ture he moved to the Ade­laide Hills, more for his chil­dren and coun­try life than to plant a vine­yard. Serendip­ity would have it that the house he chose was in the high­est, wettest and coolest part of the Ade­laide Hills.

Soon there­after a neigh­bour­ing prop­erty used for grow­ing Brus­sels sprouts came on the mar­ket, which was pur­chased by his father-in-law, and this be­came Ash­ton Hills. Ac­cord­ing to Ge­orge, the choice of site was “more to do with serendip­ity than sci­ence” – a piece of luck that se­cured what many lo­cal wine­mak­ers will con­fess is the re­gion’s best site for pinot noir.

Ge­orge planted a mar­ket gar­den of ex­per­i­men­tal va­ri­eties to iden­tify which were best suited to this unique cli­mate. But sell­ing the wines would prove to be a chal­lenge. “No one had heard of Ade­laide Hills wine and what we were of­fer­ing was more ex­pen­sive and deemed wishy-washy by the shi­raz-cen­tric Ade­laide pop­u­lace,” he says.

But it be­came clear that this site was su­perb for pinot noir, and he stuck with it. Many other grape va­ri­eties, some of which cre­ated out­stand­ing wines such as the Ash­ton Hills chardon­nay, were pulled out so that Ge­orge could fo­cus on pinot.

Not only does Ge­orge have a tremen­dous site but he is also an in­tu­itive pro­ducer, mak­ing wines across the board with grace and fi­nesse. He con­cen­trates much of his work in the vine­yard and fol­lows a sim­ple phi­los­o­phy: don’t fix what ain’t broke. Or as he puts it: “Avoid the temp­ta­tion of stamp­ing my author­ity on an in­her­ently com­plete wine just to con­vince my­self of my own in­dis­pens­abil­ity.” If only more wine­mak­ers would do the same.

One of the great cu­riosi­ties in the life of Stephen Ge­orge has been his side gig, as­sist­ing Tony Brady at the Clare Val­ley’s iconic Wen­douree, with its repos­i­tory of old vines, craft­ing what are im­mense and long-lived reds. While the un­der­stated Ash­ton Hills style seems at odds with Wen­douree’s sheer power, both sets of wines show a dis­tinct sub­tlety – Ge­orge’s wine­mak­ing sig­na­ture. As part of the ar­range­ment he also uses Wen­douree fruit to craft his own unique style of sparkling shi­raz – long aged in neu­tral oak to re­duce its fruiti­ness and sub­stan­tial Wen­douree tan­nins.

While at Wen­douree Ge­orge was an as­sis­tant. At Ash­ton Hills al­most all the tasks in the vine­yard and winery were his for over 30 years. Tend­ing 8600 vines and mak­ing the re­sult­ing wines, with help only from his part­ner, pick­ing crew and some part-timers, has over time proved more and more dif­fi­cult.

When re­cently Ge­orge was of­fered an op­por­tu­nity to sell, it seemed like the right time to hand over the reins, as the tough phys­i­cal work of man­ag­ing a winery and vine­yard is more of a young man’s game. The pur­chaser, as it turned out, was an­other fam­i­ly­owned wine com­pany – Wirra Wirra of McLaren Vale – and Ge­orge has no re­grets. He still lives next door to Ash­ton Hills, works in the vine­yard and makes and blends the pinot noirs. It seems that he can have his cake, and eat it.

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