Meeting Ian and June Marks
When we arrive at the Gembrook Hill winery down the hill from the Marks’ home, June Marks is picking tall grass to feed to the horse next door. She realizes we’re there and invites us up to sit with her and her husband, Ian, to taste through wines. She’s already done her weights, she explains. She’ll just feed the horse and then go up and get things ready.
Over thirty years ago the Marks moved into what was then uncultivated property. No one had planted vines as far south in the Upper Yarra subregion, and not in their nook of the valley. The wine divisions were based on shires, rather than distinct growing zones.
Having considered property throughout Victoria, the Marks arrived in the Yarra Valley as part of a second wave of winery owners. Some vine experimentation had been done to see what grew best in the region, but the area was still largely undeveloped. After planting, the Marks would become part of the turn in attention to the Yarra region as a good place for making quality wine, and Ian would help redelineate the appellation boundaries based on growing characteristics.
This vintage marks their 30th anniversary.
The Marks’ Story
In the early 1980s, the Marks had been looking for property to build a home and plants some vines. “Eventually we saw this place and bought it in a quarter of an hour.” Ian tells us. “We didn’t really know anything about the soil, or rainfall, so it was quite a bit of luck. When we bought it, it had three cows and a tree. So, June and I planted everything.”
“On the weekends,” June adds.
Earlier June had pointed out parts of the property and explained together she and Ian had planted, tended, and cropped the vines themselves. She’s comfortable now leaving the work to Timo Mayer and their son Andrew Marks, Gembrook Hills’ winemakers, she explains because “I’ve already done everything.” She laughs.
Ian nods and continues talking about how they got started. “We planted one clone of Sauvignon Blanc originally but it picked at about one-quarter ton to the acre so we had to plant a new clone. Ian pauses, “it makes a beautiful wine.” He continues, “we’ve been lucky. That one clone is about the only big mistake.”
from the top of Gembrook Hill
Gembrook Hill’s Sauvignon Blanc is widely considered the best in Australia. When we taste their 2011 current release I am surprised. It’s style rests outside the variety’s stereotypes. It is a texturally focused, light and lifted wine with real herbal, bay leaf elements, delicate fruit, and a long seashell, sea air finish. The acidity is dancing.
The Australian white wine market generally considers young wines the most desirable. Even among the winemakers and wine geeks I spent time with on this visit, the older vintage whites I’d brought from the States consistently got a surprise remark, though the wines were then enjoyed after. As Mike Bennie explained to me, as far as sales here go, in Australia people most often want to drink their white wines within the year of their vintage date.
But the Marks’ Gembrook Hill wines are known to age well. To showcase the quality of their whites, the couple recently hosted a vertical tasting of their Sauvignon Blanc, written up by Tim White in the Financial Review.
Ian Marks continues his story, revealing more luck in securing the quality of their white wine. “To be honest, this was 30 years ago. I’d never heard of Sauvignon Blanc.” The Marks’ had a friend help them with planting advice to best judge the character of the site. “He surveyed the property and said, this is the perfect site for Sauvignon Blanc, and I said, okay.” Ian pauses. Referring again to their advisor, “he doesn’t even like Sauvignon Blanc.”
Tasting Gembrook Hill Wines
The Marks’ success has extended beyond the white grape. They’re also appreciated for their sparkling Blanc de blancs. They’ve produced still Chardonnay as well, and I quite enjoyed the 2008, but they’re shifting their attention with it to the bubbles.
The Gembrook Pinot Noir also shows off how well the wines age. We did side by side tastings of their current 2010, and the 2002. The ’10 was lifted, again with a textural focus, and plush while lean dark lines. The older vintage was still youthful and vibrant with a perfumed nose and graphite tension. The flavors had deepened into meats and cigar box. Ian explained that 2002 was an intense year with very small cropping. They didn’t produce that much fruit. But the wine is elegant, with supple tannin.
Thank you to Timo Mayer, Andrew Marks, Ian and June Marks, and Mike Bennie.
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