This week I had the privilege of visiting the Bass Phillip winery and spending four enthralling, informative and sensory-expanding hours with winemaker Phillip Jones. I was very excited but a little apprehensive because he is an icon of the Australian wine industry with a big reputation. It is very easy for people to put labels on Phillip and he has endured many over the years – cantankerous, mad, idiosyncratic, unconventional, eccentric! The wine press seemed to have changed their labels on him more recently with international recognition, accolades and perfect scores.
I have known Phillip professionally for some time, and have found him to be generous, knowledgeable about all wine subjects, passionate and humble. I might just qualify – passionate. I once heard Sam Neil say “try to avoid using the word “passion.” As in, “a passion for Pinot.” It is overused, and should, in my opinion, be reserved for the heightened emotion between two people that usually results in the discarding of trousers.” In the case of Phillip Jones, I am struggling to find another more appropriate word and the time he spent with us during our recent visit clearly illustrated his passion for wine as well as his generosity. During our visit he only made a few succinct comments on his own wines preferring to to say rather laconically but with a wry smile; “it’s a drink!” as we savoured some sublime wines. I assumed this to be a typical Australian understatement but it also tells something of his humility. When pressed, Phillip admitted that he was proud of his achievements in creating such beautiful and highly praised wines. And so he should be!
Phillip Jones sometimes gets caught up in controversy but he is not a crusader and is incredibly generous in sharing his knowledge and approach. I have several winemaker friends who will attest to this. He is a exponent of many techniques now called “natural” winemaking and could indeed claim to have invented natural winemaking. He has a research science and consulting background. and his approach is grounded in well thought-out scientific logic.
In the past his wines have been accused of inconsistency and he readily admits he has learnt more about his site and winemaking over time. However, I feel what others have characterised as inconsistency is more that his wines truly reflect the seasons and rather than winemaking inconsistency. This variability in his wines which was evident in our tasting is exciting and reflects his non-interventional approach to winemaking. Consistency is boring! I find this approach far better than manipulation by fining and adding acid or tannins.
His emphasis in making wine is clearly on the vineyard – he “grows wine”. In 2002, he introduced Biodynamic techniques which Phillip attributes as a major factor in the success of his wines. All vineyards have different ‘terroir’ and you could argue that Phillip’s sites are unique and that in itself accounts for his outstanding wines. But what else makes Phillip’s pinots different from most (not all) other Australian pinots? He employs a high density of plantings, high natural acidity, biodynamic practices and organic sprays. In the winery, he uses gentle destemming, minimises pumping, uses wild yeast for primary fermentation, uses the best oak (sometimes up to 100% new oak), does not filter or add acid or tannins. Of course, there are other Australian winemakers who make pinot using similar practices but few do so with Phillip’s level of commitment and dedication. Everything Phillip does is for a reason that he has thought through in depth. His hard work and dedication are evident everywhere. He is not just managing all the processes in the vineyard and winery – he is intimately involved and hands-on at every level. These wines may truly reflect the vineyard terroir but he has brought them to life.
Much has been written about Phillip Jones and his wines and I don’t want to repeat the excellent coverage available from so many including Robert Parker, Lisa Perrotta-Brown, James Halliday, Huon Hooke and others. I also wouldn’t be doing the wines justice to try and offer tasting notes on the dozen or so bottles that Phillip allowed us to taste so here are a few brief observations with an emphasis on the yet to be released 2013 wines:
2013 Crown Prince – deep crimson colour, aromatic, rich, linear palate, some grip and acid enough to ensure ageing, flavours characterised by raspberry and very dark cherry. This is incredibly young wine for a Bass Philip and will only improve over the next 8-10 years. Brilliant. Crown Prince is a relatively entry level wine for Bass Phillip but the quality of this wine belies its place in the line-up.
2011 Crown Prince – lighter in colour, obviously unfiltered, brick red, slightly reductive element, flavours of blueberry, blackberry, coffee grinds. Well structured to age with ample acid – tongue smacking, drying, still rich and mouth filling almost a contradiction. Can visualise a earthy forest floor element developing.
2013 Bass Phillip Premium – opulent, broad middle palate but with good acid structure and tannins. Roasted Coffee aromas. Flavours of blueberries, blackberry and cherry with oak char, spice and mineral notes. Tannins so fine as to be almost transparent. Beautifully structured and built for age. Needs time. Nice mid-palate fullness and persistence.
2013 Bin 17K “The Backyard”. This is a prodigy – an amazingly complex and intense wine which is extraordinary given it comes from relatively young vines. The “Backyard” is a 1ha block is just behind the winery at Bass Phillip Estate and in close proximity to the Reserve and Premium blocks. At 17,000 vines per acre it is very closely planted and possibly one of the closest vine plantings in Australia. Phillip says the close planting accounts for the early maturation of the vines and the wine balance. It’s a dark, intense pinot and typically fits the iron fist in a velvet glove description, brooding, mineral, earthiness, bramble fruits and dark chocolate. This will be a fascinating wine to follow as it ages and to sample from future vintages.
Younger Bass Phillip wines have a slightly reductive tautness with typically high acid, at the same time as being rich, broad and expansive with great length. I think these characteristics point to the trademark longevity of the wine which develop wonderful aged “Burgundian” characteristics over time. I was impressed with the 2013 wines which are definitely going to be highly sought after and deserving of pride of place in any good pinot cellar.