Moorilla and Mona: Wine, Food, Beer, Art

A side of beef, neatly dismembered and hanging from butcher’s hooks for several days until it goes putrid, is displayed on one wall, opposite a Sidney Nolan work from the 1960s. In between are piles of smelly black coal. The contrast between all three is bizarre. In a side-room, a machine consisting of a series of glass flasks linked by glass tubing digests food scraps from a restaurant, and once a day at the far end of the line a small but perfectly-formed turd drops onto a platter. In other rooms, gold coins from ancient Greece and Egyptian sarcophagi share space with modern paintings, one of which depicts female sexual parts.

This is a sample of Monanism, the opening exhibition at Hobart’s sensational new art gallery at the Moorilla Estate (tastings) winery. Owner David Walsh’s chief aim seems to be to shock. To that purpose, there is no end to the exhibits you might choose to steer around if you’re bringing the kids to Mona: 150 plaster models of vulvas (yes, they’re all different!); a life-sized sculpture of castrated male bodies; a painting of the Virgin Mary as a black woman which incorporates elephant dung; a picture of a dog sodomising a man. Tamer, but also grabbing the press’s attention – and no less a waste of space in my opinion – is a ‘fat car’: a lifesize, fibreglass Ferrari, bloated as though from a lifetime’s over-indulgence. There are many other fine works, though, of which more later.

Moorilla vineyard and winery were established at Berriedale on a peninsula jutting into the broad Derwent River estuary, just upriver from Hobart, by textile manufacturer and arts patron Claudio Alcorso in the late 1950s. His family sold it in the mid-1990s after his death and the present owner is Hobart-born professional gambler and art collector, David Walsh.

Walsh is reputed to have spent somewhere between $150 and $200 million on the various Moorilla and Mona projects in recent years. The site excavation and building of Mona (the Museum of Old and New Art), built into the side of a hill beside the Derwent, adjacent to the winery and vineyard, is the biggest of the developments. There is a brewery which produces excellent beers under the Moo Brew brand. There are eight deluxe chalets you can stay in for a deluxe price. There’s an excellent restaurant with beautiful view over the vineyards and river. There are two outdoor concert venues on the property. Oh, and the during the final year of the museum’s construction, Walsh built a new winery (with a beer and wine bar attached) for winemaker Conor van der Reest – just when it was looking as though the Moorilla property’s original raison d’etre, wine, was being overlooked. Indeed, it’s fair to say the wine side of Moorilla lost its focus, and there was a wobbly period after the property changed hands. The wines were still good but no longer in their accustomed place at Tasmania’s cutting edge. Walsh and van der Reest now seem determined to correct that.

After the Alcorso family departed Moorilla, David Walsh and his business partner bought it in December 1995 from the bank. For several years Walsh’s identity was protected – the owners were referred to as a local business syndicate.

Just months after the purchase, the new young winemaker, Jason Winter, was shot and killed, along with 34 others, in the Port Arthur massacre of 1996. French-born Alain Rousseau took over as winemaker till 2000, then New Zealand-born Michael Glover (now at Bannockburn – tastings) made four vintages, 2001 to ’04. Glover’s assistant, Alan Ferry, moved into the winemaking role for ’05 through ’07, and van der Reest was employed in August ’07. So winemaking has been something of a revolving door and as Glover says, the winery was not given much of a priority for a number of years. The full potential of Moorilla was not being realised.

The pieces seem to now be in place to correct this and van der Reest’s recent wines are very encouraging, especially his 2008 Muse pinot noir (tasting), which won a gold medal at the 2011 Tasmanian Wine Show in January. This wine is almost entirely made from grapes grown on the 3.5 hectare Berriedale vineyard, where the vines are mostly mature, and form “the core of Moorilla”, according to van der Reest. “Everything grown here goes into the Moorilla label,” he said. That includes riesling, gewürztraminer and pinot noir.

Moorilla’s other major grape source is its 15-hectare St Matthias vineyard in the West Tamar region, north of Launceston – a strongly contrasting terroir and climate to that of Berriedale. Most of the wine under Moorilla’s secondary label Praxis is from St Matthias.

In 2010, Moorilla crushed 110 tonnes of grapes, selling its excess West Tamar fruit to other people. Wine production has been slashed in recent years, in order to concentrate on quality.

On the other hand, almost 100% of the grapes in Moorilla wines are own-grown, which has important implications for quality control.

A word about the product range. The superbly packaged Moo Brew beers, in natty 330ml bottles, include pale ale, dark ale, pilsner, wheat beer, stout, etc. They are outstanding beers, especially so if you drink them fresh from the tap in the Moorilla bar or restaurant. I’m not much of a beer drinker, but I especially enjoy the Pilsner.

There are two wine ranges: Muse and Praxis. Praxis prices range from $20 to $28; Muse prices from $25 to $49 – and $60 for the very rare syrah (ex-winery prices).

Perhaps the most startling thing about the Moorilla wines is the label, which features black-and-white photography of writhing dancers, naked or near-naked, accompanied by the following exhortation from Mr Walsh, which must have the anti-alcohol brigade frothing at the mouth: “Wine is not just for drinking. The experience of wine is an experience of controlled licentiousness. Every bottle of Moorilla recapitulates the history of ritualistic indulgence. Now both within and without.”

Amen.

Inside the bottles is wine that is decidedly individual. Van der Reest is on a quest to make wines that go with food. He’s not the first to profess that, of course, but his conclusions are sometimes different. For instance, his dry whites: he believes in a higher level of phenolics than usual for Australian wine. This again is not new: several winemakers in recent years have been experimenting with fining their chardonnays and rieslings less – or not at all. This follows decades of Australian obsession with low phenolics in delicate white wines, a philosophy enshrined by our wine shows. They have long run counter to the approach of many in France and Germany. Alsace riesling and gewürztraminer have long been easy to tell blind from Australian versions if only because of their vastly different phenolic (tannin) levels.

Tannin, so the argument goes, gives a white wine backbone and texture, strength and grip, all of which helps it cope with food. Gewurztraminer is a high-tannin variety anyway, but when the winemaker holds back from fining it, it can be very grippy. The Moorilla 2010 Gewurztraminer is a case in point. This had a long cold-soak prior to fermentation, which enhanced its aromas as well as its phenolics. It has a classic varietal lychee-like spicy perfume, reminiscent of bath-powder, and the taste is very strong and dry, with quite high alcohol at 14.1% and low residual sugar. Indeed, I thought the wine would have benefitted from more sweetness. However, the winemaker was adamant this wine would go well with pate and charcuterie, as well as spicy Asian dishes. “They are pouring the ’08 (by the glass) at Spice Temple,” he said.

Van der Reest hails from Ontario, Canada, where he says gewürztraminer is a big deal in the Toronto market. “They compete on gewurztraminer, and if they (wine buyers in retailing and restaurants) like your gewurz they will look at your other wines.” Very different to Australia.

Dryness, partly due to phenolics and acidity but mainly to do with low residual sugar, is a feature of all Moorilla white wines. I particularly liked the ’09 Muse Riesling (tasting – restrained, delicate, refined, a touch minerally, dry but not austere), and the ’08 Muse Chardonnay (tasting), a full-bodied, rich, oatmealy wine which has seen a lot of oak, but it has integrated well into a wine of power and layered complexity. The ’10 Praxis Chardonnay is also very good in a lean, dry, quaffing Chablis-esque style which seems perfect for oysters.

Van der Reest is also a big believer in cabernet franc and has replaced Moorilla’s cabernet sauvignon with franc. Future vintages of the Moorilla Muse Merlot Cabernet – the ’08 is a leanish, herbal style of red – will be cabernet merlot blends, with cabernet franc the dominant variety.

Moorilla’s secret weapon is its syrah (tastings). There is precious little shiraz/syrah planted in Tasmania, but Moorilla’s old vines in the West Tamar have yielded the occasional stunner. The 2005 was a gold medal-winner, and the upcoming 2009 is likely to be at least as good. It’s a superbly spicy, flavoursome and ripe wine – ripeness being the difficulty for shiraz in Tasmania. Only just bottled at time of tasting, it will be mainly sold ex-winery but a small allocation will go to the mainland. Till now, the syrah has been limited to just 100 to 130 dozen, but some more vines have been planted recently.

Moorilla’s biggest success at the Tasmanian Wine Show was a gold medal for the ’08 Muse Pinot Noir (tasting). This is a relatively deep-coloured, concentrated, richly spicy and cherry flavoured pinot with a touch of foresty mystery and fleshy texture, the ample tannins being a feature of the wine. It should be an excellent food wine and should age well.

While Petrossian caviar was served freely to the 1,500-odd guests, and a sushi team prepared fresh sushi from an entire tuna mounted on a bed of ice, and oysters, terrines, fresh fruit and many other delicacies were served at Mona’s extravagant opening night, the wines and beers were exclusively Moorilla. No Champagne. But the Moorilla sparkling wine, Muse Vintage Brut ’06, was certainly up to the job. It’s excellent, if a touch youthful, and we can expect to see more bubbles in future, as sparkling is a special interest area for van der Reest.

Perhaps the most memorable thing about the Mona opening was the building itself. It is truly spectacular. Architect Nonda Katsalidis has done a splendid job. Sheer stone walls have been preserved inside the museum to provide a natural back-wall, and one of the collection’s most stunning exhibits makes use of this. It is a waterfall that spells out messages: a thin veil of water comes down in a sheet, the droplets and spaces between them forming words. A brilliant piece of computing, no doubt, and a wonderful concept.

An entire gallery with a massive, curving wall was built expressly to hang Sidney Nolan’s ‘Snake’, which was created in the 1960s and has never before been displayed in its entirety. It comprises 1,620 separate panels, each of which is a discrete artwork in itself. Together they form a snake-line image. While others have been less than admiring of this work, I find many of the panels – evocative of desert plants springing to life following drought-breaking rains – utterly beautiful.

There is much good art in the museum, but much that, as The Australian’s art critic Christopher Allen wrote, seems to have been chosen for its supposed shock value, and when the haze of controversy clears it stands revealed as exceptional only for its insignificance. “Sheer vacuity seeks to hide behind anticipated indignation,” as he wrote of Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary. Fat cars, lumps of rotting meat, pooh machines, piles of black coal… and a preoccupation with sex organs and mutilated bodies: it leaves a lot of us cold.

The warm ray of optimism is that, as every new year brings a fresh vintage in the vineyards, and the opportunity to make a better wine than last year’s, art collections needn’t stand still, either. They’re in a constant process of renewal. Time offers the chance to refresh and develop. Even so, there’s much to enjoy at Mona now, and I for one will be going back for another look as soon as I’m able.


First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine, April – May 2011.

 

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