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