Wealthy professionals buying vineyards is nothing new. As hobby farms or as tax write-offs or for just the thrill of plonking down a bottle of ‘their’ plonk onto crisp linen tablecloths - whatever the reason, the idea of owning a vineyard is certainly seductive to people of certain means.
Rarely do these stories end in the creation of great wine. More likely, the vineyard falls into disrepute. Good and indeed great sites go begging into obscurity. Ignored. Dilapidated. Another meaningless whim. It’s not pretty, but it happens, and all too often.
In 1996 Denton purchased a naked block on the border of Coldstream and Tarrawarra. A house was designed, vines were planted, the quest for John’s own Mount Mary had begun.
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were put down on the cooler side of the slope, late ripening reds - Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc - on the warmer side. Close density plantings were trialled on the top of the hill. It was full steam ahead for Denton View Hill.
When the first mature yields came online, Simon Denton, heir to the Denton empire, courted his mates to make the wines. His mates just so happened to be the hottest bunch of young winemakers in the country. Mac Forbes, Bill Downie, Barney Flanders, the brat pack of the Yarra Valley. The three young bucks, full of ideas and at their most potent, took a piece each to make their own.
But the lock didn’t click.
The wines lacked continuity. Too many cooks, or something to that effect, seemed the situation to the outside observer. Cabernet Sauvignon, the variety that brought John to the region, wasn’t performing. The mojo, for whatever reason, just wasn’t there.
An inspired pivot in viticulture to graft Merlot vines to Nebbiolo is where the story turns.
Dead Mouse Shed may be one of the most jarring names imaginable for a wine lover. The connotations of faulty wines were too much for some. But to the Denton family, there is a deep sentimental value to the name. A portrait by a great uncle of a dead mouse on a dinner plate being sorrowfully eyed by a fly had been with the family for generations. If they were to put the family stamp on the label, the mouse and fly was it.
Eventually the brat pack disbanded. Bill pursuing his own passion for boundary-pushing Pinot Noir, Mac forging his Yarra Valley sub-regional exploration, Barney conquering the Mornington Peninsula with his epic suite of Garagiste wines. And Luke Lambert was the last man standing.
Which brings us to today. Now the Dentons are releasing a suite of wines from their vineyard, brought to bottle solely by Lambert. Luke is without question one of the country’s most gifted winemakers. From his breathtaking, unfettered expressions of Chardonnay, Syrah, and Nebbiolo under his own label, to the dynamic work he is doing in conjunction with Maxime Graillot under the umbrella of the Graillot Project, seemingly everything he touches turns to gold.
But Luke’s true passion lies in Nebbiolo. And in the Denton vineyard, Luke sees the golden goose.
“It’s not there yet,” he says with complete humility, “But we are working hard to get it there.”
A deep investigation of clonal material is what is happening behind the scenes at Denton View Hill. Seven Nebbiolo clones, each picked and treated separately, scrutinised and monitored each and every year. Thorough work is being done to find the best fit for the Denton site. Each vintage something new is learned. The grafting over of less suitable varieties is continual. New vines go in the ground. The potential and trajectory is tantalising.
Meanwhile, other varieties thrive. The Chardonnays from 2015 are mineral-charged but with flesh, funk and power. The Pinot Noir is tight, structured and lithe. Cabernet Franc is jubilant, jubey but with some savoury grunt. A blistering release of Chardonnay aged under flor is the latest curio added to the stable. Luke’s striped down methodology and incisive eye clearly wringing the best out of the fruit from this site.
But it’s the Nebbiolo that is the thing to watch. As it stands, Luke is making twin Nebbiolos each year. The fruit split 50-50 between Denton View and the Luke Lambert label. Denton sees old puncheon, Lambert sees huge foudre. Two differing expressions from the same home. The Cane and Able of Yarra Valley Nebbiolo.
With the new releases from 2015 and 2016, with new packaging, new branding, Denton View Hill feels reborn. “The brand is almost twenty years old,” says Luke, “But it feels like we are launching something new here.” There’s an energy to the wines which is palpable. A re-birth, a harbinger of great things to come.