It’s a beautiful and sunny Saturday morning as start the drive out to Barongarook, two hours south-west of Melbourne. Driving down the highway past Geelong, a storm starts to crackle around me, with the rainfall steadily increasing as I make my way. Water thunders down on my car, washing away all the mental images I had of frolicking in the fields between vines—such is the reality of wine country.
When I finally pull up at the winery, the rain has temporarily abated, and is now just a set of mildly threatening grey clouds above yellowing trees and vines. It all makes for an oddly appropriate Autumn day visit to the inimitable Jordy Kay of Chevre Wines.
As the world of natural and minimal intervention wines blows up all around us, Australia has helped lead the way, with plentiful land, a rules-breaking spirit, and lax wine-making regulations—ain’t no regional council dictating what a Shiraz should taste like in these parts. A heavy focus for international attention has been placed on Adelaide and its surrounds, due to its status as a venerable qvevri of spontaneously fermented activity (applicable to both beverages and people). And while the South Australian natural wine world is indeed a font of goodness—which we’ll cover in due time here at Sprudge Wine—there is also delicious diversity to be found in many other Australian regions.
One perfect example is Jordy Kay, who, despite his spritely age of twenty-seven, has been a familiar face in the Australian natural wine scene for more than a decade. Since dropping out of school at age fifteen, Kay has worked vintages in Margaret River, Austria, Tasmania, Portugal, Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, and now the Otway Ranges. He’s a winemaker who has a phenomenal grasp on all the considerations that go into making a great wine—the soil, the environment, the viticulture, and the fruit’s potential—all paired with the ability to fully realise that potential in the final bottle of wine.
After many years traveling and tending to other people’s land, Kay decided to take a lease on a vineyard in Mornington Peninsula to launch Chevre Wines back in 2014. This is the closest wine region to Melbourne, located due south from the city. After that vineyard was sold, he took his operations one big step further just prior to this most recent vintage, and bought a five acre vineyard in the Otways in August of 2016. It’s a beautiful area, relatively undiscovered compared to Mornington, and located southwest of the city instead of due south. Visitors there find themselves surrounded by the lush green trees and rolling hills, farm lands and meadows and gently undulating terroir. It’s not too hard to see what compelled him to buy here. While the vines on his land are already producing fruit which he harvested for the most recent vintage, Jordy has ambitious plans for improving the viticulture and making it more sustainable in the longterm.
“I'm going to start planting bush peas, wattle, prickly moses—low lying shrubs that are native to the area —as cover crops in every second row,” Kay tells me. “No one is doing that in Australia with Australian crops; all the biodynamic vineyards seem to use European crops instead.” By planting these and letting them grow, the soil structure will be strengthened, and when he cuts it back and uses it as mulch it will introduce naturally occurring nitrogen and carbon back into the soil.
To this end, he’s been working with a fellow who’s been growing native crops in the Otways for close to thirty years, so everything that he’ll be planting has been growing in the area for decades. It’s nerdy viticultural stuff, but damn exciting for fans of agricultural biodiversity and plant health which, in turn (and we assure you), result in tasty grapes, healthy cultures of yeast, and delicious beverages.
And speaking of fermented grape drinks—Chevre's wines are already great. Take, for example, Kay's Sauvignon Blanc, which I tasted in barrel at the winery, and comes from fruit source from nearby Otway vineyards. Kay picks just as the grapes being to take on some of that characteristic passionfruit juiciness, but while the acid is still bright as ever, resulting in a refined minerality and beautiful fruit. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, his juicy & full Pinot Noir, with a hint of that whole bunch stemmy deliciousness.
To supplement the burgeoning yield on his own land, Kay purchases fruit from around the Otways, from the Grampians and Henty regions specifically. Here many growers have vines planted in black basalt volcanic soils, and work using largely organic practices. This year he's made Riesling, Pinot Gris, loads of Pinot Noir, Syrah, and even some cheeky Cabernet Sauvignon (fermented on Pinot Gris skins, of course).
While spending the afternoon strolling around the misty forest with Jordy Kay after tasting his new vintage from barrel, it was hard not to find his calm confidence and general optimism incredibly compelling. His winemaking and viticultural practices speak volumes to the vibrancy and potential of the Otway Ranges wines, and are very much of a time and place. No-fuss and no fluff—just damn fine booze.
Eileen P. Kenny is a winemaker and journalist based in Melbourne.