Meeting Gary Mills
We arrive on a day Jamsheed is being labeled, waxed, and packaged. The wines going out to fill orders in Australia. Gary Mills greets us with a huge smile. I’m lucky. Mike Bennie, an Australian wine writer that has a good rapport with Mills, has brought me for the visit.
Gary Mills references me living in California almost immediately. But not until after nicknaming me Lady Hawke (which I appreciate). It turns out he worked for Paul Draper at Ridge Monte Bello first as an intern, and then for two years full-time from 1998 to 2001 and credits Draper as the man that taught Mills real wine. Mills knew winemaking already, and in fact has an impressive resume otherwise, having worked in both Oregon and other areas of Australia, among others. But it is Draper that Mills claims taught him most insightfully about indigenous yeast, whole cluster ferments, and other classic approaches to wine.
Now with his own label, Mills sources fruit from a few vineyards in different parts of Victoria. Doing so gives him the opportunity to get to know the character of multiple areas in the Province, and to offer varying types of fruit.
When we get to tasting through the wines Mills explains his labels symbolism. His college education was in Literature. The story of Jamsheed relates the chance discovery of wine by a harem mistress of a Persian King. Jamsheed, the king, loved grapes so much he would store them all winter, leading to their spontaneous fermentation. At first thinking it was poison, the king kept the containers hidden. But suffering from migraines, one of his harem mistresses drank the poison in attempted suicide and awoke the next day to discover herself miraculously cured. After discovering the benefits of drinking such poison, Jamsheed would say he could see his kingdom in a cup of wine. Thus, Mills named his label for the mythic first maker of wine, and jokes that his wine label is all he got from his undergraduate Literature education.
Mills second tier label he names the Harem series in respect for the women that helped Jamsheed discover the grape elixir. The Harem Series intent is to offer quality wines at a more affordable price. By having both Jamsheed and the Harem series, Mills is also able to preserve the quality of the Jamsheed wines by having the opportunity to declassify fruit to make for the Harem series.
Though Jamsheed’s mythology inspires Mill’s label’s name, it’s Rumi’s writing that covers it–quotes from the poet showing on both the Jamsheed packaging and website. It is here I first get glimmers of Mills’ creative and spiritual inclinations, though they dance behind his more apparent joviality.
The Madame Chardonnay 2012 from the Harem Series shows example of Mills intent to keep quality with value. It sells for only $19.50 and offers a great bistro style option with juicy citrus blossom, impressive acidity, a zippy mid-palate followed by a pleasing saline and oyster shell finish. It also offers an example of the great quality Australia is producing in Chardonnay–even at the $20 range these wines are yummy.
Stepping up to a Jamsheed level white, Mills pours us his 2012 Beechworth Roussanne taken from the Warner Vineyard. It’s a nervy wine with a smooth wax feel and tons of lightness through the palate. The Warner Vineyard is loaded with pink granite, he tells us. The owners had to remove hundreds of tons of granite to put in vines. The nerviness comes with the granite influence. The acidity comes from the cool sub-alpine climate. The fruit is delicate and floral on the nose, carrying into a spiced floral, light palate both stimulating and peppered.
As we move into the Great Western Riesling from the Garden Gully Vineyard, Mills explains that the Garden Gully Vineyard the fruit comes from is the oldest Riesling in Victoria, possibly in Australia, believed to be planted in 1892.
The 2012 comes in with concentrated flavors compared to the lightness of the 2011.The 2012 is fragrant with nasturtium, beeswax, and light prosciutto on the palate. It has a rolling, fresh, lush presentation that moves with a light glissé over the tongue. 2011 has a dryer dusty nose, and a super delicate palate. The wine offers a tightened sense of beeswax and honey comb without the sweetness, and a smooth mouthfeel.
2011 was a cold year with lots of rain throughout that made people work extra hard to get their fruit. ’12, by comparison, was a more normal year resembling the vintage received in both Oregon and California–lots of quality fruit that seems ready to drink early.
The Harem series reds continue with the bistro level quality that showed in the Madame Chardonnay. Here we begin to see his use of whole cluster with 50% being used in the Pinot. Mills explains it was with Draper that Mills tasted his first 100% whole cluster wine, a Ridge York Creek Dynamite Hill Petite Sirah. It was from that wine Mills saw what whole cluster could do and he’s been committed to it ever since.
The 2012 pepé le pinot from Mornington is ultra light in its presentation, carrying stem spice, and light dark plum with plum blossom, as well as lifted green notes (not as in underripe, but as in greenery).
The 2012 ma petite francine Yarra Valley Cab Franc takes up 100% whole cluster giving a refreshing red floral and spice wine that hits a nice balance of being grounded and lifted both. The spice is characteristic Victoria to me, all dusty red earth, saffron, and long ferric notes. I like this wine.
2011 la syrah is a dirtier wine with barnyard showing at first that blows off into violets, red fruit and flower, and some carbonic up notes. The acidity and drive is intense, clenching the cheek bones and finishing with a tang. This is the wine that begins to show where some people may be challenged by Jamsheed. The la syrah is well made while also funky.
Mills ease with whole cluster fermentation shows most apparently in the Jamsheed Syrahs–the approach drinking as seamlessly integrated into the overall presentation of the wine. Tasting through Mills’ portfolio I am struck by the same coupling that showed up in his personality–he has a jovial nature coupled with a creative seriousness that gives him grounding. The wines drink this way.
2011’s cooler vintage brings a lean focus to each of the Jamsheed Syrahs.
The Yarra Valley Healesville is the lightest of the three pictured giving a super fresh and juicy presentation peppered with hot chili spice flavors without the chili heat, a nutty greenery element with integrated carbonic lift, and hints of the entire southwest of the United States–cacti, agave sweetness, fresh from the kiln ceramics, red wax flower and a dusty texture that is just a little bit weedy.
The Beechworth Syrah 2011 comes from a sub-alpine district in granite vineyard. At first opening, the wine gives good mouth tension, with bubble gum, red fruit and flower lifted notes, coupled with integrated spice, red dusty earth, and a band of fresh stems and nut skin. I was able to drink it again in the states and thus take more time with this bottle. It showed rich and pleasing on the second day deepening into violet and dark berries with tart plum, chocolate, a tight long finish and good grip. The iron-saline mineral expression of the region is also there but well integrated.
Finally, the 2011 Great Western Garden Gully, Mills explains comes from a vineyard full of 119 year old vines. It’s an old style Syrah made for people that want a balance of juiciness with wine that’s there to chew on. Mills calls this his “old boys wine.” It comes in with purple flower, agave, and masa, all green chili and corn tamale with the rolling tannin characteristic of the region, and a nut wax, banana leaf finish. I’m in.
The Syrahs Mills makes showoff the geographical parallels between parts of Victoria with parts of the American Southwest. Drinking them in Victoria the wines are fully in line with their sense of place. Bringing them back to the United States it’s an interesting contrast that includes what for some people will be a recalibration of their palate. It’s a recalibration worth making, and perhaps even important.
As Bennie described later, Mills’ approach is uncompromising. For some people that means wines that are a challenge. Where Mills’ doesn’t compromise is in allowing the site to express itself, even if that means bigger flavored wines. He is also committed to no acidity additions, and whole cluster fermentation, though he does vary the portion of whole cluster by vintage and site character.
The Mills challenge finally showed up for me at the end of barrel tasting through the 2012 Syrahs. 2012 was a ripe year and so even with keeping lower alcohol levels, the wines simply have bigger flavors. The 2012 Syrahs as a whole drink fresh and juicy, closer to a bottled wine even while still in barrel. But Garden Gully, that same vineyard the Riesling is sourced from, carries a distinctly ferric-plus-salty character in its red fruit, something found in a number of sites through Victoria. The combination of those big flavors plus the overtly mineral mouth-grab was almost overwhelming for me. That said, I’m fascinated to discover how the wine will show in a few years. Especially recognizing that it was the same wine that from the 2011 vintage pulled me in.
The Jamsheed Syrahs, I believe, offer an interesting lesson for California winemakers too. Where some California Syrahs drink like the winemakers behind them are experimenting with their techniques–not quite cohesive, Jamsheed drinks like wine already comfortable without being boring.
Thank you to Gary Mills, and to Mike Bennie.
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