Written by Lilani Goonesena.
It’s not every day that you get to pass an afternoon with one of Australia’s top winemakers. And to drink his wine, have a laugh and grill him on why it’s so damn good. But that was our lot on the third day of our Electrolux Appetite for Excellence produce tour in the beautiful Tamar Valley.
Stoney Rise winery is home to Joe and his wife Lou’s four-hectare vineyard, three quarters of which is Pinot Noir. Along with Chardonnay, they also grow an unusual Austrian grape called Grüner Veltliner.
It was truly a privilege to meet Joe Holyman, named one of Australia’s best Pinot winemakers. Indeed his passion for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is possibly only exceeded by his detestation for Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Every Cabernet vine in the world should be destroyed”.
Yes, he really said that.
But we can’t hold it against him because the grapes he does love he makes extremely well. And they are certainly made with love, and not much else. Joe’s philosophy is to be easy on the earth. He doesn’t use chemicals or herbicides on the soil or add anything to the wine besides sulphur. Stoney Rise is known for not manipulating its wines in any way.
Between harvests, the soil is treated with a very natural fertiliser – sheep poo. “We just had 112 sheep here; we kept them in till they start escaping. I borrow them from a nearby farmer and give him a case of wine each year and pay for the transport. We put a temporary fence up and while there’s food, they’ll stay”, he said.
Joe is a stickler for equal treatment. “We treat the vineyard the same way every year”, he said. “Pinot Noir grows in very small bunches generally. A tiny bunch off the side of the main bunch that never quite ripens at the same time is cut off religiously every year. A shoot in our vineyard never has more than two bunches on it”.
Picking is based on seed and stalk colour. “We don’t do analysis on the fruit. The seed colour tells the birds when to start eating them which is nature’s way”, explained Joe. “We only use eight pickers and they’ve been here since I have. All the sorting happens out in the vineyard”.
Again in the winery, all the grapes go through the same process, including the small amount bought from around the Tamar for the Stoney Rise wines. “We treat all the fruit the same way, whether we’ve grown them or not”, he said.
Joe explained that he’s neither a trained winemaker nor a scientist. “We don’t have a lab. There’s no point trying to analyse stuff because I won’t understand what it means”, he laughed.
Joe had lined up 12 bottles for us to taste. But instead of comparing vintages, as done in normal wine tastings, we tried samples from different barrels of two grapes – three Chardonnays and nine Pinot Noirs – that would later be blended to make the Stoney Rise and Holyman wines.
It was an inspired tasting highlighting how much difference terroir can make to the grape. Shanteh Wong is a sommelier from Quay in Sydney and a 2014 Highly Commended waiter. “From one plot to the next, the wines were totally different. It may just be that one has a different aspect or altitude or the soil is slightly different. It’s quite incredible”, she said.
This year Joe dropped the alcohol content by 1% and likes the results. “There is a bit more finesse and structure to the wines, they’re more natural flavours rather than potentially being cooked. Pinot can very quickly go from being Pinot to non-descript dry red wine”, he said.