Deep Down Under with Timo Mayer

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“Ready to taste some stalky shit?” Timo Mayer yelled out as we arrived at Gembrook Hill, blurry eyed, for our 8.30am visit. An impromptu meeting that we’d planned spur of the moment the night before. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

Considering he’d probably only had about four hours sleep at best (he’d been hosting a Wine Australia dinner/after party that went on till the early hours), Timo was impressively perky. Certainly more so than the rest of us. I had the feeling that this was the norm. Bags of infectious energy and clearly an extreme lust for life. Within seconds we were as excited as he was and yes, indeed, ready to taste as much “stalky shit” as he’d let us get our hands on.

Timo, who hails from a family of German vignerons near Stuttgart that have been making wine for 400 years, is the chief winemaker at Gembrook Hill, the most southerly winery in the Yarra Valley. He also makes wines under his own “Mayer” label using grapes from his own small property Bloody Hill, a beautiful 2.4 hectare vineyard in the centre of the Yarra (view from top of Bloody Hill pictured above). His winemaking philosophy ‘Bring back the funk’, where he takes things to the edge, creating hand crafted, single vineyard wines with a point of difference, is at the heart of both estates.

People often say that dogs resemble their owners. I wonder if the same can be said about wines and their makers. In Timo’s case, I’d say this was a given. “Eccentric”, “on the edge”, “hairy”, “unintelligible” – just a few of the adjectives that have apparently been used to describe him in the past. The same sense of energy, vivacity, playfulness and slightly wild disarray that one experiences when one meets Timo, can certainly be felt at work when one tastes his wines. Full of nervous tension, brightness, vibrancy, these are wines that are truly alive and kicking and certainly some of the most exciting I tasted all trip.

A big believer in whole bunch fermentation, which to my mind adds an extra dimension of perfume, texture, freshness, spice and structure that I personally really enjoy, Timo has no problem using this technique on a whole host of varieties, not just Pinot Noir and Syrah for which is it usually reserved. Amongst other things, we tasted whole bunch Nebbiolo and Cabernet Sauvignon, neither of which I’d tasted before made using this method, and thought they were quite delicious.

Timo describes the Cabernet as “Cab for Pinot drinkers” with lively aromatics, bright blackcurrant fruit, wonderful freshness and a well-defined, linear structure which is somehow supple and incredibly easy to drink. Apparently the first take of this wine was in fact a destemmed version but the tannins were so tough that even after five years of barrel aging, it still wasn’t anywhere near approachable. Instead he declassified it to cooking wine and decided to experiment with whole bunch Cab, the first I’m pretty sure of its kind. 

Depending on how you use the technique, you can of course increase tannin levels. Using 100% whole cluster, however, as Gary Mills from Jamsheed explained to me, means you have less skin to juice ratio as the majority of berries remain intact and undergo intracellular fermentation. The tannin extraction really depends on how you manage the cap and the skins. If you leave berries as intact as possible, soft, supple tannins, and bright fruit aromatics result. Of course using ripe stems is a must to avoid any chance of green, astringent tannins, the reason whole bunch became so unpopular in Burgundy for so many years until recently.

The Nebbiolo I thought was very characteristic of the grape despite the addition of whole bunch aromatics – layers of strawberry jam and tealeaves with a very intense structure and fine, chalky tannins.  The Pinots we tried were spicy, with layers of savoury complexity underlying bright raspberry/cranberry fruit. 100% whole bunch Syrah from Bloody Hill, so called because, as Timo explained “it’s such a bloody pain to walk up”, was more meaty, with a touch of so-called ‘funk’ creeping in amongst the ripe blackberry/cherry fruit and pepper spice. It was more masculine in structure with broader, firmer tannins. It’s sheer profundity and darkness of fruit standing in stark contrast to the purity one might expect from a destemmed version. Wild, wicked and a bit hairy just like Timo! Bloody delicious!

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