The wild side of Richard McIntyre
Richard McIntyre is a former surgeon, and chief winemaker at Moorooduc Estate (tastings), which he and his wife Jill founded. He talks about his career in wine, his obsession with wild yeast, and vents some strong opinions on chardonnay.
“My father was into wine. We came to Melbourne in 1961 when I was 15 and he joined Dan Murphy’s Vintage Club in Prahran. Then we went to New Zealand where dad was a physiologist at the University of Otago. There was very little wine in New Zealand at the time and dad bought wine from Dan Murphy’s. We had wine at home, but not every day. I went to Monash university (studied medicine, graduating in 1969) and drank cheap wine and beer. The first wine I bought was the 1966 Penfolds Bin 707, six bottles at $2 a bottle. I became a regular Saturday tasting visitor at wine shops such as High Y Cellars. I started a cellar. Then I headed overseas in 1976. I went to Oxford for three and a half years to further my surgical training.”
“I used to say to drug company reps wanting to promote their drugs: ‘You can give us a presentation if you’ll put on a wine tasting’.”
“In England, I learnt about European wines. There was a wine shop behind the uni where I bought Château Doisy Daëne (Sauternes) for a couple of pounds, the 1949. I thought it was magical.”
“The older surgeons seemed tired and jaded, and I thought ‘There must be a use-by date for surgeons’, so I started thinking I should plan for a second career. I thought wine could be it. I gave myself 20 years to research it and buy land and that way I’d be ready for it (retirement) when the time came.”
“I returned to Australia in 1980 as a young surgeon and there’d been a huge change in attitudes by then. I’d had no idea the land around Melbourne might be suitable for viticulture till I returned. I met people through the Wine & Food Society. They included Ken John, Garry Crittenden – who used to bring a pH meter with him to tastings – and Bob Carson, who picked grapes at Mount Mary and Yeringberg. Garry had already done the work that I thought I’d have to spend 20 years doing. He was passionate about pinot noir. We looked for land together. We decided on the Mornington Peninsula. We decided we needed water, and Garry arranged for Professor Roger Boulton to come and give a talk about water tension in grapevines. It was fascinating.”
“Elgee Park (tastings) had a tiny planting of cabernet; that and Main Ridge Estate (tastings) persuaded us that the high country was too vigorous: the vine’s growth was uncontrolled. That was no good, so we preferred the lower areas (which don’t have red volcanic soils). Garry bought his block (for the original Dromana Estate – tastings) and I bought ours. I loved the aspect, the slope, etc. We expected it to be a low-vigour, irrigated vineyard; it turned out to be a high-vigour, unirrigated vineyard.”
“We bought in 1982, planted in ’83, the dam went in and it didn’t stop raining for six months. We could have filled the dam twice over. We planted five acres, half to chardonnay, the rest cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. We put in 160 pinot noir vines just in case, but Garry Crittenden thought it would be too hot for pinot noir. The weather data had been collected – misleadingly – in a hot, built-up area. In fact, it wasn’t that hot.”
“In 1987 we planted pinot beside the driveway. If we were to do a pinot noir we should have a sensible quantity. The rest was planted in 1994 and 95. We have 12 acres total, and no room for more.”
“We lease the 4.5-acre Garden Vineyard across the road, which has pinot noir and pinot gris, and the Osborn vineyard down the road, which is a similar size to ours. We share the lease with Ten Minutes by Tractor and get pinot noir for the Devil Bend Creek wine. We also buy fruit from Hugh Robinson’s 57-acre vineyard. All these vineyards are in the Moorooduc area and are looked after by Hugh Robinson and his team at Peninsula Vine Care. They look after 300 acres on the peninsula, including our own vineyard. He provides a wonderful service.”
“We’ve been contract-making for Ten Minutes by Tractor (tastings) since 1999, and that arrangement has just come to an end. (Owner) Martin Spedding always intended to have his own winery, and they’ve outgrown us. Last vintage (2016) we made twice as much wine for him as us. Income from contract winemaking has been incredibly helpful to us over the years. We would have struggled without it. But we were over-extended, so the timing of the separation is good. It will give us room to expand our production, and sales have been growing impressively in recent years. First, the freeway came, then Yabby Lake (tastings), and we decided to open seven days a week. We were only open on weekends before. Direct sales have really grown. We charge for tasting, refundable on purchases.”
“The peninsula has shown an increase in quality across the board. There have been big changes in chardonnay. For so many years, cellar-door visitors said ‘We don’t drink chardonnay; it’s too oaky’. We told people they might be surprised if they tasted it, and people liked it. Now, most visitors want to try the chardonnays.”
“I don’t approve of all the changes in chardonnay style: the pendulum has swung too far the other way (skinny, pared-back wines without richness). The makers of these wines prevent the malolactic, they say malo is a terrible thing. But white Burgundy has always had malo. Their answer is ‘It doesn’t suit our fruit’. But it does. We’re picking a lot less-ripe than we used to: we found we can get chardonnay with ripe flavours and really good natural acidity in most years. It makes winemaking so much easier, with more possibilities. The wines are seamless and complex and have less new oak than we used to have. The future is larger-format barrels.”
“There are two things abut chardonnay we need to get over: the idea that sulfide is a quality thing (it’s not!), and the reluctance to have malolactic, particularly in wines that are picked early.
- Sulfides. Show judges and influential commentators have encouraged that view. Solids-fermented characters are different, although they can look like sulfides. It is bizarre that winemakers deliberately look for stinky barrels. We will get over that.
- Malo. Some people are picking unripe grapes, not doing the malo, and thinking it’s like Chablis. It’s wrong.”
“Chardonnay down here is not as recognised as pinot noir. It’s easier to find good chardonnay in various regions. Yarra Valley, Margaret River, etc. But this is a very good chardonnay region. The great threat is climate change. It’s definitely warmer than it was.
On the positive side: the maritime climate will protect us a bit. We are picking a month earlier now than when we started. The whole cycle is earlier by a month.”
“I was not taught winemaking. I’m not trained as a winemaker. Nat White (founder of Main Ridge Estate) studied at Riverina College, now Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, while he was up and running. He held my hand. He learnt a very ‘protective’ style of winemaking at Wagga. Together we learnt about post-fermentation maceration and wild yeast ferments. We went on a journey of evolution.
In 1996 we had our first wild yeast ferments. They were controlled experiments. Soon, I decided to do all the ferments wild, because I always preferred the wild ferment wines over the controlled ones. We got more complexity and more structure. It was so ‘not scary’. People said ‘Why would you risk the whole production?’ But it’s only recently that winemakers have had yeast to inoculate with. As in baking, the only available yeasts throughout most of history have been ‘wild’ yeasts.”
*Footnote: Rick McIntyre has been a dedicated baker for many years, baking his own bread daily in his outdoor oven – and (with his wife Jill’s input) bakes an excellent pizza, too. All wild yeasts, of course.