Topper's Mountain – Seamus O'Brien

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Mark Kirkby invites you to Topper’s Mountain for a long, lazy degustation lunch, with Seamus O’Brien, chef from the American Club in Sydney, serving up a feast.




Where is your Estate, and how long have you owned it?

Topper’s Mountain is a rare piece of land about 5 km north of Tingha. We’ve only been here twelve years, so haven’t got a sign yet – but all things in good time! I first became involved with Topper’s via a family partnership and some friends, Peter and Jenni Birch, in late 1998. There have been a couple of changes among the partners since, until my family and I became the sole owners in 2010.

What is your history in the wine industry?

The partnership bought Topper’s initially because it is such spectacularly good horticultural land, without a specific plan to plant a vineyard. In late 2000, the partners approached me to see if I would accept the task to plant and develop a vineyard – which I did with excitement and some trepidation.

The trepidation arose from the fact that I’d had another hat on for thirteen years – that of a mechanical engineer in a family engineering business in Sydney. I have always been closely involved with the land, but this background was in broadacre dryland and irrigated farming at Moree, not viticulture. So I packed myself off to a viticulture certificate course at Kurri Kurri TAFE in 2001.

Since then, I’ve continued to attend viticultural field days and courses to try to learn from those with much more experience and wisdom than me. However, viticulture and winemaking are a very subtle blend of black art and hard science – the science bit comes pretty easily to me with my agricultural and engineering background, but the black art bit is much more difficult.

Tell us about Topper’s Mountain and its climate …

As I said earlier, Topper’s is a piece of fantastically good viticultural land and very picturesque to boot – a basalt cap of about 150 ha in a sea of granite. At an altitude of 900 m, Topper’s is one of the few high altitude, cool-climate vineyards in Australia planted on beautiful, free-draining, deep, red basalt soils.

Vines love this soil, because they never get water-logged and they have a massive soil volume to feed from and spread their roots through. Surprisingly, while the soil is very deep, it doesn’t store much water – which keeps vine vigour at reasonable levels, helping to maximise grape quality.

We are on the western edge of the New England Plateau, which drops off quickly towards Inverell and beyond. While only about 18 km away as the crow flies, Topper’s is more that 300 m (1,000 ft) higher than Inverell. This location on the western edge of the plateau lends Topper’s a climate with significantly more sun and less mist and drizzle than is experienced closer to the top of the plateau along the New England Highway, where there is much more coastal influence from easterly winds. This climate, with long, clear days and shorter (but often intense) rain events leads to less fungal diseases in the vines – which makes my life a bit easier and increases wine quality.

Who makes Topper’s Mountain Wines, and what is his philosophy?

Our vision is to make special wines that talk of where they came from: their terroir at Topper’s Mountain. Our wines are all Single Estate wines, which means that only grapes grown at Topper’s are used to make the wine which eventually fills the bottles of our brands.

Our wines are made by Mike Hayes, the winemaker at Symphony Hill Wines in the Granite Belt. I know just enough to be dangerous, so when we plan wines and styles, luckily Mike’s vast experience from all over Australia’s wine regions and his feel for the subtle dance of nature that coaxes the soil, the climate, the fruit and the yeasts to co-operate towards the wine in the bottle, keeps our vision on track. In Mike’s words:

My philosophy is to express the terroir of the vineyard and not the barrel maker from the south of France. I feel that great wine comes from great vineyards, not great winemakers. Also, I feel that to capture the flavour of the earth and express it in the bottle is a far greater challenge than manufacturing wine in the lab.

I believe in wild yeast ferments that build funky nuances within the flavour profile and in little interference during fermentation. A great deal of cold soaking in red winemaking delivers wonderful natural fruit tannins, and thus no addition of tannin is necessary with most wines. We winemakers merely guide the fermentation, and we do well to remember that the yeasts are the real winemakers.

Tell us about the Topper’s Mountain Long, High Lunch …

On Sunday 15 April starting at noon, we’re holding a celebration of the 2012 vintage in the garden at Topper’s. The fare will be a long, lazy degustation lunch at the Long Table at altitude with Seamus O’Brien, Chef from the American Club in Sydney looking after us. Guests will be the first to taste our new release 2010 reds and 2011 whites matched with Seamus’ small and delicious plates of local produce.

The guest speaker will be the renowned Master of Wines, Rob Geddes. Before lunch, we’ll have a ramble though the vineyard with Rob, winemaker Mike Hayes and me leading the debate about terroir, climate and whether or not it is important in modern wines. The catch is that there are only 62 seats at the Long Table!

Do you network with other New England wineries?

Yes, constantly. New England is a young region and the wine industry is very open; we talk a lot among ourselves and often help each other out. A good example is the Three Amigos Partnership, including Shaun Cassidy of Merilba Estate, Peter Zappa of Zappa Wines and myself. We bought a grape harvester to share, because it is more cost effective for us all.

Plans for the future?

The current wine grape glut has been making things difficult for the last 4 – 5 years and will probably continue to do so for another 3 – 5 years. The amounts of previously export wines that are now being dumped in the domestic market because the sky high $A is making them uncompetitive in the UK, Europe and the US is mind boggling.

This is pushing down prices across the board, made worse by the market dominance of ‘Coles-worth’. In this climate, my focus is on marketing: to build our Top 100 Wine Club, to get our wines listed in a few of the best local restaurants and a few bottle shops and the best top end restaurants in both Sydney and Brisbane. Oh, and to have some fun along the way – hence the Topper’s Mountain Long, High Lunch – come along and join us!

Thanks Mark.

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