Topper’s Mountain

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At the top or the world you can find Topper’s Mountain … a scenic paradise that is home to some of the most amazing wines New England has to offer … Mark Kirby introduces us to Topper’s Mountain Wines; with 14 (soon to be 18!) varieties of grapes grown on site, there’s bound to be a wine that suits your palate. Give the team at Topper’s a heads up before you visit, so they’ll be on hand to provide you with a wine tasting and fabulous charcuterie plate at the cellar door …

Hi Mark. Where did your history/interest in the wine industry begin?

From the “draining the bottle” end of the industry, my involvement began at uni, but this time wasn’t a very cerebral approach to the wonders of the world of wine!

My involvement from the “filling the bottle” end, i.e. the viticulture and oenology end of the industry, began in the late 1990s, when we bought Topper’s Mountain.

Prior to this, a partnership from Moree of my two brothers’ families and Peter and Jenni Birch decided in the early 1990s to shift focus from annual broadacre crops such as cotton and wheat on the Moree Plains to horticulture – Gwydir Grove was the first blossoming of this move, and Topper’s Mountain the second.

But my family’s history in the NENW goes back a long way before this – our great grandfather moved to Moree in the 1860s, and my brother and I still own his son’s original selection, Glen Prairie, from 1874.

When did you establish Topper’s Mountain Vineyard – and why did you choose this location?

The partnership mentioned above was the Thunderbolt’s Rock Partnership, and it purchased Topper’s Mountain in 1998.

Peter Birch is an agronomist who consulted all over the NSW North West, and he also has his own light ‘plane. From his bird’s-eye view while in the air, Peter knew all the good bits of dirt in the region. He knew Topper’s Mountain is a degraded basalt cap and that such soils are excellent deep, free-draining horticultural soils. When Topper’s Mountain came on the market in early 1998, on Peter’s recommendation we all had a look at it and bought it.

Describe the property … how many hectares do you currently have planted with grapes, and what’s the overall terrain like?

Topper’s is on the north side Tingha at the very viticulturally cool-climate altitude of 900 m. It is open and undulating Tablelands rangeland with a wonderful view on the watershed between the Gwydir and MacIntyre Rivers.

The vineyard is 10 Ha and nurtures far too many grape varieties – the count is currently 14 and about to rise to 18, with more grafting happening this coming spring.

Of the wide variety of grapes grown at your vineyard, there are some our readers may never have heard about! Why is your vineyard particularly suited to growing such a large selection? 

It’s not so much that Topper’s is suited to growing such a large selection of varieties, as I’ve found it hard to separate those really kicking goals from those merely doing well.

It has taken the Europeans and other old world wine regions centuries to home in on the few varieties that are best suited to each of their regions, so this process requires time, patience and loving attention to detail.

Having said that, it is quite remarkable that  Topper’s can produce excellent and acclaimed wines from such a range of varieties. For instance, early ripening Gewurztraminer hails from Alto Adige in north-eastern Italy and Alsace in France, and late ripening Nebbiolo comes from much warmer Piemonte in western Italy – these two varieties would and could never be found in the same vineyard in the old world.

Who is responsible for making your wines, and how do they come up with new blends?

Mike Hayes is our winemaker – he’s based in Stanthorpe in our neighbouring wine region, The Granite Belt. Mike was the 2017 ASVO Winemaker of the Year.

This is the plus side of being where we are – a young winery in an unknown wine region. This allows us to do what we like, unconstrained by history.

The wines and blends we make come from a fusion of Mike’s decades of experience making wines, in emerging varieties, knowledge and local markets and my penchant to do things differently – mostly sitting around the winery tasting bench with a table full of samples in front of us! My family says, “Why do things the easy way, when you can do them the Kirkby way?”

Recently a young fella, Jan Taborsky, has joined the team, and he’s moving us into some new wine styles influenced by his European heritage – he’s Czech – including a skin contact Gewurz, a traditional Portuguese blend of Touriga, Tinta Cao and Tinta Roriz fermented in Georgian qvervi (large earthenware vessels that are buried in the ground to control temperature) and a Pet Nat (Petillant Naturale – the original winemaking technique that results in lightly sparkling wines).

What’s your wine making philosophy?

Mike and I focus on making wines that sing of their home and heritage – their unique Topper’s terroir. We do this by unrelenting focus on quality in the vineyard, use of wild yeast from the vineyard for fermentation and minimal winemaking adjustments and additions.

Your wines have won so many awards, it’d be impossible to list them all here. You were also a finalist in this year’s Armidale Regional Business Awards for Customer Service – Hospitality. What does it mean to you and your team to be acknowledged in this way?

It makes us proud and humbled in equal measure. We were only involved in the Regional Business Awards because some of our customers nominated us for the awards, so it’s very comforting to know that our efforts to show cellar door visitors an enjoyable and instructive peek into the production end of the wine industry are appreciated and hitting their intended mark.

Terrible drought has affected so many areas of our country this year. Has your area been largely affected – and what impact has this had (if any) on your production?

The drought is terrible in our little corner of heaven and the broader region at the moment. However, our vines are dormant now and have low soil moisture requirements. Additionally, we have plenty of water from a large dam and a very productive underground bore.

In fact, we are due to give the vines a little drink in the next few days to start to help prepare them up for spring – which is going to be upon us before we know, it I suspect.

Probably our biggest fear resulting from the dry period is the increased likelihood of spring frost, which can be devastating for grapes. Budburst will be about the third week of September, but we can get frosts into late October or even early November, so a lot of pondering BOM forecasts and our weather station output is on the cards until mid-November!

What’s the best way for us to try your wines? 

The best way to try our wines are

  • Local outlets such as the Royal, White Bull, Railway and St. Kilda Hotels, Red Grapevine and Charlie’s Last Stand in Armidale,
  • The Visitors’ Info Centre, the General Merchant, the Inverell Club and the Australian Hotel in Inverell
  • The Rest Point Motor Inn and Great Central Hotel in Glen Innes
  • New England Brewing in Uralla

We’d love to see you at our Cellar Door for tastings with a charcuterie plate. Being off the beaten track, it’s only open by appointment – call Colin 0420 902 554 or Mark 0411 880 580 or visit www.toppers.com.au for details.

Our website www.toppers.com.au is also where you can join our Top100 Wine Club, to make sure you don’t run out!

I’m sure you love all your wines  … but if you had to recommend something special that’s ready to drink now, and also something that would be terrific to cellar for a few years – what would be your top picks?

Ready to enjoy now:

  • 2015 Gewurztraminer, fantastic with Asian curries while it’s still cool, then with Asian stir-fries, fruity salads and strong cheeses once the weather warms.

One to cellar:

  • 2016 wild ferment Petit Manseng – a white wine that thinks it’s a red as it relaxes into middle age. Great with chicken stews, duck and pork dishes.

Thanks Mark.

Interview: Jo Robinson.

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