This month I caught up with Ben Mullen – the winemaker half of Mulline Vintners from Geelong. Mulline are making headlines of late with their high scoring Chardonnay, Syrah and Pinot.
Q. There are plenty of good wine regions in Victoria, why did you choose Geelong?
I know the region well from my time at Clyde Park. I live in Melbourne, about 5kms from the city centre, so I have to be able to commute. Geelong’s the first region in Victoria to have vineyards planted, and I’m really drawn to that history. You’re right though, there’s the Yarra and Mornington close-ish as well, but they’re expensive. Whether you’re buying fruit, or a piece of real estate, there’s not a lot around. The Yarra’s got heaps of small producers, so the space is a little crowded and they are all chasing the same fruit. So the fruits scarce and expensive too. Geelong enabled me to source great fruit at an affordable price. And there’s plenty of room for another producer.
Q. How would you describe your wine style?
Ethereal. Flavour. Freshness and tension. Wines of drinkability, that immediately grab you. Serious wines need structure too, and these are serious. But I didn’t want people to have to wait to crack a bottle. I live in a 2 bedroom apartment, so I have no space to store wines. Truthfully, I don’t drink a lot of old wine, and this has definitely influenced my own tastes.
Q. Tastes are always changing. Would you say that your own palate has changed?
For sure. I grew up in the Barossa, so that was always how I expected wine to be. And then I travelled. I’ve made wine in Burgundy, New Zealand and Australia, picking up things along the way. Living and drinking in Melbourne is different from living and drinking in Adelaide. And so the wines we make here are different, and they have to be different.
Q. Is there a defining experience along the way, or a person who did things in such a way as to influence your own winemaking methods?
Everywhere I’ve been has been a different learning experience, and it just adds another piece to the puzzle. Or, from a winemaking perspective, it’s the understanding of options and their consequences. Time working with a vineyard is the only way to get the best result from the fruit. I worked at Yarra Yering with Sarah Crowe, and that changed my thinking. The Yarra Yering wines were always powerful and full of flavour, requiring time in the cellar. Sarah’s methods were gentle. She paired back the oak, and practised gentle extractions. The fruit had the flavour, so why push it so hard? She was able to build the wine’s structure through tannins, seeds, bunches and acid without going for heavy extractions.
Q. If oak and extracted wines were all the rage back in the 90’s, would you say its whole bunches today?
Definitely. Bunches for some guys, is a style, or a statement. But you’ve got to be careful with how you use them (as in the percentage). But also, the bunches shouldn’t be the main focus. The fruit and the vineyard should be at the forefront. Bunches are a tool to help build tension, structure, mouthfeel and complexity. So yes, they can be important, but again, I don’t want my wine to taste of greenage or twigs. Some of the bunchier examples may be interesting, but it doesn’t make them a nice drink. And what else is wine for, but to be drunk and enjoyed. Too many bunches doesn’t work, and I think things will change. You can’t drink them.
Q. If you could make wine anywhere, where would it be?
I don’t really think about it to be honest. I guess it would have to be Burgundy, but that’s never going to happen. I enjoy where I am and there’s a huge variety of soils and vineyards. I really like the Bellarine, and some of the vineyard sites are spectacular. The Portarlington vineyard, where we sourced some Chardonnay from, is 200m from the water and you get this sea spray minerality. It’s got to be the site. It’s a great vineyard. The acids are higher and tighter, the wine restrained, tensioned and pulled back. The Moorabool valley is pretty special, and what the Farr’s have done and Clyde Park is testament to that. The soils are really old deep limestone soils. The first vineyards are 40 years old now and really showing what they can do. This is where we’d like to plant a vineyard. No views, but the land is more affordable too.
Q. Can I ask what your favourite wine is?
The Fume Blanc, definitely. I call it my Somm (Sommelier) wine. Dry white Bordeaux is one of my favourite wines, but you never know what you’re going to get from a worked Aussie Savvy – That’s true. I spent a lot of time making Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand. Tank stuff usually, but we were always experimenting. Sauvignon Blanc holds onto it’s natural acids, even with extended hang time, so I’m going for flavours such as guava and orange peel. I want the wine to drink like a Chardonnay. People when they first try it, including Somms, love it. It’s not what they’re expecting, but the wine’s still fresh and vibrant. This is definitely a restaurant wine. I brought it around to Quay and they put it on pour. I guess it needs explaining. It’s cool.
Q. Last question. Is there anything you’d do differently, or is there a wine or wine style you would like to introduce?
It’s good to be critical, and there are always things you might like to tweak. Honestly though, when you get to know a region or better still a vineyard, you know what it can do. Obviously, we need to work with the constraints of vintage, but the vineyard character will still come through if you’ve worked with the fruit for a while. I’m always trying new things, but when production is tiny, you have less room for experimentation. The Chardonnay is fermented and aged in Austrian oak, the first time I’ve used it, and I really like the result, and will continue to use more of this in the future. In terms of new wines, it all depends on the fruit. I’m really not aiming for a particular style. It’s all about the vineyard and the fruit, so we’ll see what comes up in the future.
Initially this is all about mouthfeel/texture/structure until the back-palate and finish, when grapefruit notes break free to populate the aftertaste with primary fruit flavours, starting with white peach and freshly cut Granny Smith apple. 13% alc, screwcap, drink to 2029. 97 points – James Halliday, The Weekend Australian
25% whole bunches, 10 days on skins, pressed to oak (20% new), no further movement pre-blending/bottling. Terrific colour, the bouquet has spicy black pepper and licorice nuances, the palate with great line and length to its ocean of sweet black fruits. 13% alc, screwcap, drink to 2039. 97 points – James Halliday, The Weekend Australian
30% whole bunches, 9 days on skins, pressed to oak for 9 months before bottling with no fining and minimal filtration. Crystal-clear crimson, the bouquet complexed by a mix of berry, earth and spice. The light-bodied palate follows with red fruits and pomegranate joining the party. 13% alc, screwcap, drink to 2029. 95 points – James Halliday, The Weekend Australian
Beautiful expression. Elegant power. Terrific mouthfeel. It doesn’t try too hard but it still has punch and emphasis. Varietal in a smoky, lemongrass-y way. Will mature well. 93+ points – Campbell Mattinson, The Winefront