A decade of Carson-made Yabby Lake

Some winemakers cherry-pick such line-ups, only showing the wines they are most proud of, but not Carson (pictured). (Photo: Yabby Lake Wines)

Yabby Lake chief winemaker Tom Carson, one of Australia’s most lauded winemakers and a senior wine show judge, has many runs on the board as a maker of pinot noir, chardonnay and other varietals. He recently released the 10th vintage of Carson-made Yabby Lake pinot noirs and chardonnays – from the 2017 vintage – and decided to mark the occasion by inviting the media to taste his ‘complete works’. It’s not complete, of course, as he is still on the job, but the vintages 2008 to 2017 are his first decade.

One of Carson’s biggest moments was winning the Jimmy Watson Trophy with his 2012 Block 1 Pinot Noir – the first pinot ever to win this coveted award.

Some winemakers cherry-pick such line-ups, only showing the wines they are most proud of, but not Carson. He was candid about the early Yabby Lake vintages when some of the pinots were arguably a little over-made – with heavier tannin extraction and more assertive oak than today. We all learn on the job. But by now, even the most tannic early pinots have been softened and rendered more approachable by time.

Carson is a fastidious winemaker and record-keeper, and he furnished the scribes with reams of statistics, analyses, charts of picking dates and vineyard maps showing soil types and plantings by grape variety – each variety with a list of clones, slope aspects and even planting densities (number of vines per acre). This is pertinent because in most vintages, Yabby Lake bottles some individual block wines. Where one of these is made up of more than one sub-block, the label also discloses this detail. Students of minutiae can have endless fun trying to identify what characteristics each sub-block imparts to its wine. Needless to say, all Yabby Lake wines are from the estate vineyard. (The cheaper Red Claw wines can incorporate some bought-in fruit).

The just-released 2017 Block 6 Pinot Noir is from a single sub-block, numbered 6.3. For your information, the grapes came from just near a dam situated halfway between the main road (Tuerong Road) and the winery.

The Yabby Lake site was first planted in 1998. It is in Moorooduc, one of the lower-lying subregions of the Mornington Peninsula, with an altitude between 40 and 91 metres. And it’s on a north-facing slope, which all theoretically adds up to one of the region’s warmer sites, although the climate is moderated by the fact that the peninsula is surrounded on three sides by sea, which provides cooling breezes. Indeed, Yabby Lake’s site is very windy, and this helps also to (accidentally) moderate crop-levels.

Carson has long been an advocate of harvesting chardonnay early and blocking the malolactic fermentation, both of which result in wines that are restrained, tight, age-worthy and reliant on their natural acidity. This approach began in his previous job as chief winemaker at Yering Station.

Mintiness can be an issue in pinot noir, but Yabby Lake now has a modern grape-sorting machine which efficiently removes any eucalypt leaves and bark from the freshly hand-picked grapes.

Charts of picking dates show the vintage at Yabby can be amazingly varied. Pinot noir was picked over just three late-February days in the hot, early 2016 vintage; the following year, 2017, it was picked over three days in mid-March – nearly three weeks later. Quick picks are the exception: in 2009 pinot was harvested over a nail-biting 30 days from February 21 to March 21. In the very wet 2011, the first pinot wasn’t picked till the last day of March and proceeded until April 12.

Carson uses his information to divide the vintages into three groups: earlier, warmer seasons (2008, ‘09, ‘13 and ‘16); later and cooler seasons (2011 and ‘14); and the ‘Goldilocks zone’ (2010, ‘12, ’15 and ‘17). Early and warm produces wines rich in flavour and texture, immediately accessible in their youth, sometimes showy and precocious. Goldilocks zone wines have the ultimate balance of power, restraint, purity and longevity. Later and cooler produces wines that are reserved when young, backward and structured, needing cellaring to unfurl, but they can provide “a unique window on vineyard potential”.

There were 40 wines in the 2008-2017 tasting: 17 chardonnays and 23 pinots. In each vintage there is a ‘normale’ as the Italians would say: a regular bottling which Yabby terms Single Vineyard pinot noir, and the same for chardonnay. The 2017s are available now at AUD $64 for the pinot, AUD $45 for the chardonnay.

Five of the seven single block chardonnays came from Block 6, two from Block 1.

In the pinots, the 13 wines came from Block 1 (3), Block 2 (6), Block 6 (3) and Block 5 (1). The 2017 Block 6 Pinot Noir and 2017 Block 6 Chardonnay will cost about AUD $95 when released on November 1.

One of Carson’s biggest moments was winning the Jimmy Watson Trophy with his 2012 Block 1 Pinot Noir – the first pinot ever to win this coveted award. This wine is still drinking superbly and has many years left in it.

My tasting notes are on the website now. I especially liked the most recent releases: 2017 seems a classic vintage, although the 2015s provided the stiffest competition.

Today’s chardonnays are tight, refined and fresh, with modest alcohols of around 12.5%, and flavours in the lemon/grapefruit/citrus spectrum, with very subtle oak influences, and occasional struck-match smokiness. And today’s pinot noirs are also restrained and finely-structured, emphasising fragrance and finesse. The raspberry, cherry and mixed spice aromas are sometimes complemented by foresty characters from whole-bunch fermentation; tannins are fine-grained and beautifully sculpted. They are modern wines of precision and beauty.

*Huon Hooke travelled to the Mornington Peninsula as a guest of Yabby Lake.

One thought on “A decade of Carson-made Yabby Lake”

  1. Andrew Nipperus says:

    Great read. The 2015 Yabby Lake Single Vineyard Pinot Noir is one of the best wines I’ve ever drunk. I recall the 2015 Chardonnay being too sulphidy for me, and your initial review for that wine reflected my thoughts. But a stunning turn around from you for that wine! It must have developed very well to earn a 96 from you! I’ll have to seek another bottle out.

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