Tyson Stelzer: The extraordinary tale of the Pinot Noir of the Year

Tyson Stelzer: The extraordinary tale of the Pinot Noir of the Year

The article below was written by Tyson Stelzer (pictured above) and published in the September 2022 Awards issue of the Halliday Companion Magazine.

How is it possible that a wine can seemingly appear out of nowhere to win Pinot Noir of the Year?

It was before dawn on a chilly morning in late May when I set off from Launceston in Tasmania’s north to Cambridge in the south, purely to meet one man and hear the story of the wine that stopped the Halliday tasting panel in its tracks at this year’s Awards Judging: Lowestoft La Maison Pinot Noir 2020.

It wasn’t yet 9am when my tiny hire car pulled into Tasmanian Vintners winery, home of the Tasmanian operation of WA-based Fogarty Wine Group, to be greeted by the broad smile of Chief Winemaker Liam McElhinney.

‘I arrived here on a one-way ticket on 16 February 2020,’ he began. ‘There was a lot of change at that time. Covid lockdowns. A new team. Good people who just needed to build a bit of trust. I asked them to put their faith in me when it came to making our flagship wine, Lowestoft La Maison Pinot Noir. To me, this wine is the ultimate reflection of a team that didn’t know each other, but we trusted each other. We love good wine good food and footy and we go to the pub together, but ultimately it was this wine that galvanised us. And to be awarded Pinot Noir of the Year is such an amazing reflection of the team and the trust that they put in me.’

It was just a year prior to Liam’s arrival that the Fogarty group had purchased the small three hectare Lowestoft vineyard at Berriedale on the banks of the Derwent River opposite MONA. Close planted in 1986, it’s now one of Tasmania’s oldest pinot noir vineyards. The governor’s manor on the site is also among Tasmania’s oldest homesteads, built between 1839 and 1850, now the proud home of Liam McElhinnney.

‘I am the custodian of the manor!’ he laughed! ‘A sanctuary in the middle of one of the grittier suburbs of suburban Hobart!’ At home on the vineyard, his connection with the vines is palpable. ‘This vineyard gives an ethereal perfume and supple tannin glide that are unmistakable.’

When I reviewed the wines of Lowestoft for the Companion for the first time last year, I immediately declared this to be Tasmania’s most exciting new label of the year. The meteoric success of Peter Fogarty across the length and breadth of Australian wine is a well-told story, with now ten brands ascending to breathtaking heights and legendary show success under his broad wings, not least Margaret River’s Deep Woods Estate, the Hunter’s Lake’s Folly, more recently Pyrenee’s Dalwhinnie and now his Tasmanian trio of Strelley Farm, THALIA and, most of all, Lowestoft.

Sourcing for its Tasmanian brands spans the south of the island and the Tamar Valley. Substantial plantings on two properties at Forcett and Richmond in the Coal River Valley bring the group’s holdings to some 200ha, making this Tasmania’s 2nd-largest vineyard owner. Tasmanian Vintners is the state’s biggest contract facility, in which the group purchased.

Liam assembled for me that morning a huge sneak preview of upcoming releases, representing one of the finest sets of pinot noir and chardonnay I have ever tasted in Tasmania (and a stunning shiraz, too!). In addition to the Fogarty brands, he also demonstrated how much he has elevated the calibre of a suite of great Tasmanian brands for whom he makes the wines by contract, including Bream Creek, Gala Estate, Bangor and Ossa.

In his two short years, Liam has built an intimate knowledge of the personality of each region from which he sources, each clone and each method employed in the winery, and he blends them all like a musician.

‘The 2021 vintage is the strongest we’ve made yet,’ he declared. ‘A stunningly ethereal, fragrant and lighter-framed season of dancing beauty. We’ve been working hard on building restraint in pinot noir and chardonnay. Getting the leaf cover right in chardonnay and a little whole bunch inclusion in the pinot noir ferments is important. One of the biggest challenges we’ve had is in encouraging our growers to pick earlier to capture freshness rather than chasing ripeness. We’ve seen a lot of positive evolution already, and the show success of our wines has encouraged our clients to have more faith in us. The key is to remain true to site and to variety and to style.’

Lowestoft has quickly assumed a coveted place among Australia’s greatest names in cool climate viticulture. And with an additional 200 hectares of supply coming on stream in 2025, this is a brand fast ascending not only in quality but also in quantity. ‘It’s a really exciting journey!’ Liam beams. ‘And we haven’t even touched export yet. We’re really only just getting started!’ Watch this space.

Shop all current release Lowestoft wines here.