This past February I took my first trip down under to Australia to work on a gin project with Yarra Valley distillers Four Pillars. While I was there primarily in my role as spirits buyer, I have a great personal and working relationship with our Aussie expert Ryan Woodhouse and he gave me full permission to shop for K&L on his behalf. I wasn't in Healesville for more than a few hours when I ran into two winemakers who wanted to show me their vineyards in the hills above town. After catching a few gin and tonics at Four Pillars to get the old blood pumping, I hopped in the car with a guy named Behn Payten, a friend of my buddies at the distillery. Behn Payten spent a number of years working as a winemaker at Punt Road, even working on some of the Dalwhinnie wines that we import to K&L, and his partner Troy Jones works in sales while managing time over at Four Pillars. I spent that entire afternoon with Behn tasting through a handful of his wines and touring his estate vineyards. Behn's dad Peter, a viticulturist and consultant in the Yarra Valley, also helps with the project, working to source additional fruit beyond the pinot noir and chardonnay sites on Behn's property. Having worked at Botobolar in the early eighties, Peter Payten had an early role in organic farming in the Yarra. Botobolar was the first organic vineyard in all of Australia when it was founded in the seventies, and his experience there has proved valuable to those producers who continue to move away from pesticides and other chemicals.
Located just outside of Healesville behind one of the Yarra's highest peaks, Behn's original house perished in what's referred to as "Black Saturday" in the Yarra; the horrendous wildfires that savaged the region's hillsides and killed more than 170 people back in February of 2009. Having talked with a number of folks in the area over the last few days, it's clear the tragedy is still fresh in their minds and the blackened trees that still scatter the region are a stark reminder of that carnage. "After the fire a lot of outside money came in to help rebuild," Behn told me as we gazed out over his vines. "When they rebuilt the infrastructure it was better than before. There was more awareness at that point and today we're stronger because of it. Before then we tried to make pinot noir like Burgundy and cabernet like in Bordeaux, but today we understand what Yarra is and how the fruit responds in turn."
Joined by his daughter Pia (pictured in the first photo), we crept beneath the tarp meant to keep out local pests and animals. "We get kangaroos here and loads of wombats," he said with a chuckle. I was dying to run into one, I told him. "We'll keep an eye out," he replied. "They'll be here by dusk." In addition to his estate selections, Behn is making a lush, yet vibrant grenache and a solera-aged, non-vintage sangiovese that about knocked my socks off. The wines are modern in their expressiveness, but classic in their restraint. In essence, they represent a style currently embraced by a number of forward-thinking Yarra producers: wines made to drink in their youth, but with complexity and elegance. The best of both worlds, if you ask me. After seven months of waiting for paperwork, legalities, and shipping arrangements, we've brought the Payten & Jones wines directly to K&L and I'm absolutely stoked, both for our customers and for Behn and Troy who I know will be excited to see their wines available for sale on the site. Ryan and I were practically grinning like kids on Christmas morning while tasting through the new arrivals today.
Twisting off the cap on the 2016 "Valley Vignerons" Chardonnay and tasting that crisp acidity on my taste buds brought me right back to those vineyards. The wines of the Yarra Valley are the perfect middle ground between California and Burgundy, in that there's more fruit than say a young bottle of Chassagne-Montrachet, but more freshness and minerality than a typical Napa expression. The Payten & Jones Chardonnays are zippy and clean, but they're never tart or citric. For the price, they're a big step up from what we generally see in that range from both California and France. The same goes for the reds. We cracked the 2016 "Valley Vignerons" Pinot Noir and it had plenty of fleshy berry flavor, but balanced by a vibrant acidity and hints of spice and earth. There's definitely a terroir-driven quality to the wine.
Did it show notes of kangaroo and wombat? No, although as the sun went down that day the "critters" Behn spoke of did come out. It's not often you get to drink dynamic bottles of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay while observing a family of kangaroos in the wild, but that's part of the Yarra's inherent charm. It's a different version of what we think of as wine country; and one that I quite prefer as I get older. There's a certain quirkiness that a number of producers once questioned, but today have come to embrace. The wines of Payten & Jones are a pure passion project for us here at K&L. We don't have all that much. They're never going to make anyone rich, but they're what we as professionals are interested in drinking ourselves (every now and again we get a little selfish while out on the trail). I remember as we moved to Behn's deck just behind his fantastic swimming pool, he brought out some home-cured venison sausage and a huge knife he had forged himself at a local cutlery. "That's a knife," he said without an ounce of sarcasm, harnessing his best Paul Hogan for me. I had thought the old Croc Dundee stereotype might be passé at this point, but I was secretly charmed by Behn's relaxed and laid back nature. There's not one bit of snobbery in the guy, and his wines are as humble and easy-going as he is.