Stephanie happy in her sweet spot

Stephanie Toole (Photo: Mount Horrocks Wines)

Stephanie Toole, winemaker and proprietor of Mount Horrocks Wines at Auburn in the Clare Valley, is celebrating her 25th year in the Clare Valley this year.

She recently reminisced about her quarter-century in wine, as she launched her first new wine in many years, a delicious 2017 vintage rosé.

Stephanie has for 25 years been one half of a highly successful and quite rare arrangement, where her partner-in-life, Jeffrey Grosset, and she run separate winemaking enterprises, sharing the same winery, but relying on separate vineyards. Mount Horrocks uses only Clare Valley grapes, all from its own vineyards, and the wines are certified organic.

The original Mount Horrocks was started by the Ackland brothers in the 1980s.

“Mount Horrocks came on the market and I bought it in 1993, and 1993 was my first vintage. I had no idea what I was doing, but I did what I was told. I was twelve and a half weeks pregnant, but somehow I worked a 36-hour stint. I’d been told there would be a continuation of the fruit (from the previous owner’s vineyards) but there wasn’t. I sourced fruit elsewhere for the first few years. The Cordon Cut vineyard in Auburn was purchased in 2001.”

There are now three vineyards totalling 10 hectares.

The main one is the Watervale vineyard, recently re-named the Alexander vineyard, which is planted to riesling, semillon, shiraz and nero d’avola. Cabernet is on a separate vineyard in the Polish Hill River district.

In 1998, Stephanie renovated and re-opened the disused Auburn railway station as her cellar door sales. It opens on weekends and public holidays.

“All the fruit comes from our own vineyards. It’s all certified organic, and all the wines are unfined and low-sulfur.”

The lack of fining agents means the wines are acceptable to vegans and vegetarians.

The Alexander vineyard is at 475 metres altitude, in the north-east of the Watervale subregion.

Stephanie is not only a very quality-minded winemaker but is keen on managing the environment sensitively and sustainably.

“We’ve planted thousands of trees on the vineyard. We’ve stopped using under-vine straw and cow manure as they weren’t certified organic. Now we use under-vine plants, which are better at fixing nitrogen. We now get lower yields, the flavours arrive in the grapes earlier, and there is no need to add acid to the riesling. The reds get just a tweak (of acid) at the crush. The aim is to get the wine into the bottle with as little intervention as possible.”

When she says low sulfur dioxide, she means less than 100 ppm total, and less than 30 ppm free (except the Cordon Cut, because sweet wines require more sulfur dioxide). Since one of her reds developed Brettanomyces she has sterile-filtered the reds. That wine, the 2003 shiraz, was all destroyed.

The Mount Horrocks Semillon is barrel-fermented, and surprisingly 40% of the barrels are new, but the oak influence in the wine is very subtle because the barrels are all made from water-bent staves, which impart the subtlest oak characters. The coopers are Dargaud & Jaegle and Saury.

Speaking of the new rosé, Stephanie says,

“The aim is to make a European style and a wine I like to drink myself. It has three grams per litre of sweetness but for all intents and purposes it’s dry.”

A less-known and somewhat ground-breaking Mount Horrocks wine is the nero d’avola, a Sicilian red grape that Stephanie has been producing since 2012. She makes it as a light to medium-bodied fresh red which drinks beautifully when young. It’s full of bright, juicy, cherry and raspberry flavours: very much a modern, low-oak, low-tannin red which emphasises drinkability.

At a recent trade event in Sydney, Stephanie poured some back-vintages of each of her wines to show how they age. Both the 2012 and 2005 rieslings were superb, as was the 2009 semillon. All had developed beautiful mature complexities at the same time as retaining wonderful freshness.

We finished with the Cordon Cut, a sweet riesling made from partially dehydrated grapes that have been left on the vine after the canes have been cut, stopping the sap flow. The 2017 is a beaut, a slightly sweeter wine than normal, picked very late (May 15) with about 10% botrytis. Normally this wine has no botrytis but we also revisited the exceptional 2011 vintage, a heavily botrytised wine made in the wettest vintage of recent times. It’s a stand-out wine, now golden, honeyed, and luscious to taste.

“There have been more tears shed over this wine than any other,” Stephanie said of the Cordon Cut wines in general. “Originally, I thought this would be something that I could do that would be different; something I could make a mark with. I have blown up hoses, ruined crushers, ended up with sticky juice in my hair and everywhere. Sometimes the juice is too thick to pump.”

But the effort, one suspects, is deemed worthwhile because of the lovely nectar that results.

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