In October we were asked by our UK importer The Vinorium to answer few questions on our vineyard and our approach to grape growing and winemaking. It turned up as a pretty long but interesting read.     

Topper’s will be the first winery from New England that we have worked with. Can you tell us about the region? Can you make us super envious as we race towards winter in the UK, by describing the view you can see over your coffee in the morning?

Mark: New England is an old wine region from the 1860s to the 1920s that was reborn on receiving its GI status in 2008. The defining characteristic of New England is its high elevation resulting in its excellent cool-climate growing conditions. Summer days vary from about 10-15degC at night to 28-33degC during the day. Topper’s has never recorded at 40°C day.

The normal morning view over the cuppa is a beautiful clear cloudless morning, sometimes with a little fog, a gentle breeze from the west rustling the vines with a chill in the air that has one’s sleeves rolled down until about 10am.

Jan: I can see lot of work… in a beautiful tranquil place.

Your strategy at Topper’s Mountain of planting twenty rows of each of innumerable varieties and clones is something we have never come across before with our other Australian producers, but it is something which excites us hugely! We’re hoping to try something similar with our vineyard in Kent and we’d love to hear any tips you have or lessons you have learnt! 

Your 28 original varieties are now down to 19 as you have been grafting over those which are proving unsuitable to enable you to focus on these which are showing the most promise. Can you tell us about your planting plans and what inspired you to attempt this strategy?

Jan: Although wine used to be made in our region more than 150 years ago the production stopped a long time ago, unfortunately leaving us with no viticultural experience when the vineyard was planted in 2002. Moreover, our climate is moderate to cool (at least in an Australian context) but also relatively humid. That´s not really common in other Australian regions. So, we really couldn´t adopt existing successful trends – experimentation was the only way to go. In general, we were looking for either early or late ripening grapes with thicker skins and open bunches.

Mark: Records of the varieties grown by the pioneers of the region like George Wyndham (of Wyndham Estate in The Hunter Valley) were very poor – the only variety we know they grew was Malbec.

We approached Dr. Richard Smart for help to select varieties to plant initially. He compared a number of what he believes are the most important viticultural variables of our climate such as Heat Degree Days, diurnal range, harvest period rain & humidity etc. He then compares these with long established viticultural regions of the world to find the closest climate matches then takes note of what varieties are grown in these regions. After some more winnowing based on other attributes of these varieties, a final list of varieties to plant was arrived at.

Once the vines were producing, we focused on those that produced the best wines with the least viticultural intervention – these are the ones that revel in our terroir! Simple really, you just need plenty of time!

You’ve mentioned experimenting with varieties which might be more successful for a hotter and drier future. How is this experiment working?

Jan: The logic behind our experimentation is fairly simple. We don´t believe that the ´classic´ portfolio of Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon is sustainable for many Australian regions. To prepare for the future we need to take a very close look at grape varieties which have long-term positive results in warmer regions. We also need to focus on varieties with high natural acid. We definitely took inspiration from the Douro valley and grafted a few rows of Touriga Nacional and Tinto Cão to use in a blend with Tempranillo. We were surprised how balanced and elegant the resulting wines have been so far. From the whites, Verdejo and Chenin Blanc are currently in our focus as they have proved to make fresh high-quality wines from warmer conditions than we currently have.

Mark: We are lucky that water is not an issue for Topper’s as it has plenty of underground water. However, we prefer not to irrigate unless conditions are very tough at critical stages of the vintage. Thus, our focus is now also on varieties that ripen relatively late so that harvest is late as possible in Autumn to maximise aromatics in the wines.

Any surprising successes or failures from the varieties you have planted?

Jan: The Petit Manseng is definitely the most successful result from our experimentation block – the ´fruit salad´. At the beginning of this year CSIRO published DNA research concluding that all Petit Manseng in Australia is actually Gros Manseng but it doesn´t change the fact that it´s a fantastic grape. With its open bunches, tiny berries and thick skins it is almost bullet proof in humid vintages. On top of that, the wine is unique, delicious and age-worthy. From the same reason (high humidity) grapes with compact bunches and thin skins like Grenache showed no future. Originally, there was also Riesling planted at Topper´s vineyard. We still have a few bottles from 2005 and 2006 and the wine looks absolutely fantastic. We grafted over it because of issues with botrytis but we´re still hoping we can bring it back one day.

Mark: Grenache, Malbec, Primitovo, Pinot Gris & Arneis all didn’t work for us for various reasons, although I suspect I was a little hasty with grafting the Arneis over as the 2005 wines have aged magnificently. Manseng, Tannat & Nebbiolo would have to be the standouts in those that have migrated from our Fruit Salad experimental block to become the backbone of our portfolio along with Gewurz.

We were all so saddened to hear that your 2019 vintage was terribly affected by bushfires with the death of over 3,000 vines, including a huge percentage of your Gewurztraminer. How are you recovering from this?  Were you insured for this damage?  You’ve implemented a ‘adopt-a-vine’ program to aid the recovery, is this proving successful?

Mark: As I type, we are beginning re-grafting about 1,700 vines that were ringbarked at ground level by the fire but have re-shot from their roots last season & are now big enough to graft. Next month we will replant about 2,500 vines that were killed by the fire in addition to about 2,500 that we replanted last vintage. The process of recovering from the bushfire will take us about six years in my estimation.

Insurance covered the damage to infrastructure like trellis posts, dripline etc but not the vines themselves. The biggest cost is the labour to look after the damaged vines as they re-shoot or are replanted.

Jan: Adopt a Vine initiative resulting in the My Vine Club was a great success. Next to the cash aid we experienced incredible support and generosity which gave us tons of motivation and determination to go on.

The 2019 Hill of Dreams was the only wine produced from the 2019 harvest as the vineyard was engulfed by bushfire just one week after the hill was hand-picked. Surely this must be a very special wine to you. What can we all expect from this wine?

Jan: The Hill of Dreams is our cherished micro-terroir with poor, stony soil and rows rising steep from both the south and north side. The hill always gets picked first hence it escaped the fire. It´s planted only with white varieties – predominantly Sauvignon Blanc with experimental blocks of Verdejo, Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. The idea is to make a terroir driven field blend. However, the 2019 is 100% Sauvignon Blanc spontaneously fermented on skins and then pressed off to old oak barrel. It´s a fragrant, floral, textural expression of the variety with low alcohol but perfect flavour ripeness – the power of the Hill of Dreams.

Mark: We always knew the Hill of Dreams was special because of the excellent barrel fermented Sauv Blancs it has been producing since 2010. When we tried the more natural expressions with lower intervention winemaking, skin contact etc at Jan’s suggestion with the 2019 vintage, a whole vista of possibilities opened for the Hill of Dreams.

Can you provide (a hopefully more positive) update on the 2020 vintage? How was the winter for you guys and how did you survive the initial wave of the pandemic? Did it take much adjusting? How is spring looking – is the weather favourable so far?

Jan: Particularly challenging vintage to say the least. Second half of 2019 was affected by a massive drought and numerous bushfires across the east coast. We received 110mm of rain from July to December which is 490mm(!) below long-term average. On the other hand, we were ´blessed´ with a whopping 430mm during the harvest period. The overall crop was down to 25% but unlike many other vintners we were lucky to escape smoke taint issues.

Saying all of that some exciting wines are coming out of this vintage if only in small volumes. After many years we made straight Viognier and it looks great, so does Gewurz. Nebbiolo is very pale, light and very elegant but extremely approachable. The Touriga & Tintas is still in kvevri with the skins looking terrific. We also launched The Submarines – a new range of early drinking low-intervention blends (white, rosé and red). These are beautiful honest, low preservative wines with lots of immediate charm.

Mark: Putting it succinctly (and hopefully you’ll excuse the vernacular) – Shit vintage, pretty good wines! Severe drought (lowest rainfall on record for June-Dec 2019) followed by bucketing storms from mid Jan to the end of vintage. All in all – a year to put behind us (but not forget – we learnt a lot about the vines’ response severe drought).

Our director (Stu) openly admits that your Gewurztraminer is the best Aussie example he has had in a long time. What do you think are the contributing factors to the success of Gewurztraminer in Topper’s Mountain vineyards?

Jan: The terroir. The diurnal temperature difference in summer can be as high as 20°C which helps us to achieve fully ripe flavours and preserve good natural acidity without potential alcohol going through the roof.

Mark: Our Gewurz is the classic example of a variety finding its home terroir. From the very earliest years it produced excellent wines repeatedly with little viticultural & winemaking intervention – voilà, there it is! Gewurz’ only challenge for us is that it has relatively tight bunches that can be susceptible to botrytis if it rains at the wrong time.

Unlike many other Aussie producers you keep a stock of older vintages, rather than selling all wines to be consumed when young.  What inspired this decision and has it proved useful after the devastation of your 2019 vintage?

Jan: We like to offer our wines when they are ready to drink. Our Nebbiolo and especially Tannat, need lots of time to soften the edges. Current release of the Petit Manseng is 2017 and to me this is one of the best we have ever made. However, it looked a bit like an ugly duckling not even a year ago.

Having enough stock definitely helped us after losing the 2019 vintage. We could keep on supplying our wines to our clients as well as keep on running our club programs.

Mark: In the early days, for a couple of vintages we made too much wine, so the vintages lagged a little. This lead us to the conclusion that these extra couple of years bottle age resulted in much more approachable & distinctive wines – so we kept doing it!

What can you tell us about your Wild Ferment Petit Manseng? It’s so unique! What inspired you to make this wine?

Jan: Once our newly planted or grafted variety start to yield fruit, we usually use it in a blend first and when we have enough to fill a barrel, we make an experimental batch. Petit (Gros) Manseng already showed us its potential in the second vintage of production – 2012. The wine is still delicious going through fantastic and unique development stages. Otherwise wild fermentation is a standard in our winemaking and for the fermentation or aging we either use old oak or ceramic eggs. At the end, the credit should go to Mark and Mike Hayes (our former winemaker) for introducing Manseng to Topper´s vineyard.

Mark: Initially I was being entirely selfishly vineyard focussed – trying to make my life easier! Manseng comes from Jurançon in South-West of France which is very wet – it thrives in this climate because it is tough, thick-skinned & with open bunches, I thought it would have to be easy to grow at Topper’s – and so it proved. The excellent wines it produces was just a bonus!

You seem to work in a completely different and inspiringly creative way. How would you describe your style of winemaking? Do you experiment as much in the winery as you do in the vineyard?

Jan: Our winemaking is fairly simple. We have only two principles – only wild fermentations and no additions of tartaric acid, nutrients or other artificial products. Otherwise we do experiment in the winery as much as in the vineyard. We are still looking for the most suitable grapes for our terroir, we also look for the best expression of the given variety or blend. We don´t use too much new oak and recently more and more wines ferment in ceramic vessels. We also play with skin maceration of both white and red grapes to better understand textural potential of each variety.

Mark: Basically, we are prepared to try some new & unusual things – life is pretty boring if we don’t get out of our comfort zones occasionally. The consequence of this attitude is that you have to be prepared to lose a wine here or there because something new didn’t work as hoped – the larger commercial wineries are generally not prepared to take this approach.

Does the entire family muck in with the vineyard work? Do you see the younger generation taking over the reins in the future or are your daughters looking to escape from vineyard life?

Mark: My wife & I have three girls, now all in their mid-20s. Until the kids grew up it was “all hands on deck” when things needed to be done. Now they’re pursuing their own careers, two of them in marketing & PR & the other in Sustainability, all of which are coming in handy. However, they all still take an interest in the vineyard – time will tell eventually! At this stage of their lives I’m glad they are pursuing their own paths.

You’re obviously hugely passionate about climate change and the affect that this will have on wine production in Australia. As a winemaker who lost a substantial part of your vineyard, you must be concerned about what the future in your vineyard will look like for the younger generations of your family? What steps are you taking to ensure Topper’s Mountain will continue to produce fantastic wines as the climate warms further?

Mark: We continue to look for long season varieties that will push back or at least maintain our harvest window as temperatures rise. Canopy management to maintain bunches in the shade but with sufficient light exposure is becoming more important. We have begun to farm the Hill of Dreams organically although not seeking certification at this stage.

We are also exploring setting out on the path to carbon neutrality via wind & solar power generation to offset our diesel & other energy usage. I view our kids’ agricultural futures with some trepidation, I don’t think we are doing enough collectively to address this very big issue.

Our director likes to play a game over lunch of listing the changes and rules we would implement if he was made leader of a ‘World Council!’  If Stu’s election ever comes to fruition and he puts you in charge of the world’s climate change decisions, what five rules or changes would put in place?

Jan: To me there´s only one rule which would help to better handle climate change and its effects – to employ (or to employ more) common sense and critical thinking. Who with common sense puts wine into 1kg+ bottle? Who with critical thinking plants a grape variety in a place where it needs a lot of unnecessary inputs? Is it sensible making Pinot Noir from Tasmanian grapes in the Hunter Valley?

Mark: not sure if I’ve got five but here are some thoughts;

Use as much as possible of the capital stimulus emanating from Covid to move towards carbon neutrality – ie. Subsidise jobs & research to this end

My father (who was an old-school merino breeder) used to say of any employee (or his sons on their slow days, probably because of a hangover), who didn’t move with determination & look like they meant business, “you’ve gotta line him up with a fence post to see if he’s moving”. As a global community we’ve got to move like we are serious & mean to do something, generate some noise, activity & get things moving on climate change & sustainability generally.

Ban political parties globally from accepting donations from corporations & require all donations to be made public within days or weeks. This is one of the major means by which the fossil fuels lobby maintains its dominance.

Publish a list within days or weeks of all meetings politicians have with any non-politicians. Ditto above.