Slip of the tongue

What happens to a winemaker when he or she suddenly takes ill, and loses their sense of taste? This is what happened to Bass Phillip owner and winemaker Phillip Jones in 2006, when the stresses of running his business resulted in an attack of shingles. “The pain was incredible,” says Jones, “The headaches were indescribable, like someone had bashed me on the head with something very hard. I’d be working in the winery and suddenly shriek because of the sudden pain.” Relating the traumatic story still brings tears to his eyes.

Bass Phillip is a small South Gippsland winery which makes some of Australia’s finest pinot noirs. It’s a small business with few employees and relies on one man: Jones. But, for nine months, he was barely able to function. “Mentally, I lived from day to day, and was on severe painkillers. Eventually I was helped by a brilliant Indian neurologist.”

Because the hundreds of barrels of young wine in his winery were not attended to properly, a lot of the wine went off, and became volatile (or vinegary). Adding to the problem was that Jones could not taste. If a winemaker can’t taste, he can’t notice when things are going wrong. A winemaker is like a quality control officer: it’s a matter of guiding the wine safely through the process from raw grapes to a finished wine ready for bottling. Every step of the way must be quality-checked.

When Jones finally came out of the prison that had been his illness, and realized more than half of the 2006 vintage wines were spoilt and unsaleable, he rescued what pinot noir was salvageable, blended it together and bottled it as one wine. Composed of the produce of several vineyards, which would normally go under several different labels, he cast around for a name. It would be a one-off, so he didn’t want to use any of the existing wine names. He chose “21”, because 2006 was his 21st year of making wine at Bass Phillip (where he planted the first vines in 1979). The wine retailed for about $80 and was very good.

Four years later, along came the abundant 2010 vintage. Bass Phillip had some wine that was ‘surplus to requirements’, says Jones, so he decided to do another one-off bottling, this time simply named “25”. It just happened to be the 25th anniversary of Bass Phillip – an event worth marking. Tasted following the more expensive 2010 Premium and Reserve pinot noirs, which are sublime wines, it’s not outclassed, although it’s significantly cheaper at $55. In other words, it’s good value.

Jones turns serious as he explains how the wine came to be ‘surplus to requirements’. As he tells it, a Sydney wine merchant defaulted on his order, and still owes Bass Phillip $25,000. No names, no pack drill.

It’s enough to give you a case of shingles.

Jones says his shingles experience was a wake-up call to make better wine. “I’d made a few wines earlier on that I wasn’t that proud of. I’m more focused now.”

The 2010 Bass Phillip wines are all stunning wines: the Estate chardonnay ($63 – tasting), Premium chardonnay ($79 – tasting), the Crown Prince pinot noir ($54 – tasting), Estate ($77 – tasting), 2010 Premium ($150 – tasting) and Reserve ($530 – tasting) pinot noirs are very complex, delicious wines with mounting degrees of power and profundity. The price of the Reserve notwithstanding (it’s more of a statement than a serious claim that it’s three and a half times as good as the Premium, or almost seven times as good as the Estate), these are inspiring wines which provoke thought and discussion. Jones never enters wine shows, so his wines are never measured against others in that way, but in my opinion Bass Phillip today is living up to its reputation as Australia’s best pinot noir producer.

The 2011 pinots are another story. The very wet ‘vintage from hell’ produced lighter wines, but they have their own kind of beauty. They are fragrant, subtle and in the case of the Crown Prince, paler in colour, but the prices are the same as the 2010s. They are fine and lovely wines, and in the case of the Premium pinot noir, the colour is normal, the wine is deliciously fragrant and refined, a totally amazing success for this vintage (tastings).

The Premium chardonnay is certainly not in the class of the ’10, but it’s good.

All this was achieved thanks to rigorous viticulture, lots of hedging, leaf-plucking and fruit exposure, continual application of (organic) sprays against mildews, and scrupulous fruit selection in the winery.

It was the kind of year when other wineries failed to harvest a single berry. But, as Jones says, he is more focused these days and determined to make great wine. Cheers to that.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 19 March 2013.


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