‘We had a wonderful time, it was good fun,’ Francis recalls with much understatement. He has no formal training in viticulture and his sunny disposition and easy charm belie the skill, experience and sheer hard work vineyard management takes.
When Bass Phillip came up for sale, Fourrier saw the perfect constellation. ‘I’d had the chance to do some consulting in 2002 for Bass Phillip and have been connected with this domaine for 20 years,’ he told me.
Chief winemaker, Jean-Marie Fourrier.
Fourrier recalls that Bass Phillip would often turn up as an impressive mystery wine at high-rolling Burgundy tastings in Hong Kong, so ‘when the possibility to take over came, that historical link – and my brother-in-law and his wife living in Australia – all the stars aligned.’
Francis manages the estate, his wife Dimity looks after logistics and admin, while their Staffordshire terrier Penny greets the few lone visitors to the remote property near Leongatha in deepest Gippsland farming country.
Sales and marketing are handled from Singapore, where Fourrier’s two co-investors are located. ‘Because the brand is established,’ adds Dimity, ‘we don’t need a huge amount of marketing.’
Dimity is underplaying it just a little. Bass Phillip Pinot Noirs are Australia’s most expensive. They sell on allocation, are hard to find on the secondary market and the wines have been showered with accolades by Australian and international critics alike.
In 2020, Australian wine writer Max Allen called Bass Phillip ‘the DRC of the southern hemisphere’. Fellow critic James Halliday called its Reserve 2010 ‘the greatest Australasian Pinot ever made’.
Bass Phillip – named after the 18th-century explorers George Bass and Arthur Phillip – was founded in 1979 by Phillip Jones, an electrical engineer who had fallen in love with wine.
‘He planted Bordeaux varieties and quickly discovered it was too cool for them,’ Francis recounts. ‘So he ripped them all out and planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
‘Phillip did an awful lot of research on site selection. When he started, he was the only one – there were no other producers here – so it was quite a brave move and a risk.’
Jones made his first Pinot Noir in 1984 and released his 1985 to 1989 vintages in 1991. Critics took note, but Francis adds that ‘what really put Bass Phillip on the map’ was that stellar 2010 review from James Halliday. ‘From that point onwards, the estate garnered a lot of attention.’
In late 2018, aged in his 70s, Jones decided to sell up and went looking for the right buyer. The 2019 vintage turned out to be his last, with Fourrier taking over in April 2020.
The lay of the land
Dairy and beef farming dominates Southern Gippsland. You pass vast hillside pastures dotted with black Angus cattle and, as you arrive at Bass Phillip, the vineyard looks unremarkable – an almost flat piece of land, densely planted. It is what lies beneath that makes the difference.
‘The soils are silty loams and clay on volcanic bedrock,’ Francis tells me. ‘With the amount of rain here, and with the loamy clay soils, the vines have always been dry farmed.’
The low-lying site, at 25m, is a mere 20-minute drive from the Bass Strait, making for a temperate climate. ‘It is a touch cooler in summer and a degree or two warmer in winter,’ Francis notes.
Another defining factor is the dense planting of 8,000 vines/ha on the original 2.7ha/ site planted in 1979. Jones knew that he could achieve quality with low-yielding but densely planted vines. Vineyards in the region usually have a planting density of between 2,200 to 3,000 vines/ha.
Jones planted a second 8ha site in 1996, with the same density, close to Leongatha town, ‘on redder soil, a little higher and a little further from the coast, so it ripens a week earlier,’ Francis says.
Fourrier was in love with the conditions: ‘The climate of Gippsland, temperature and rain are perfectly appropriate for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,’ he says. ‘There is no need for irrigation, and when you add old, ungrafted vines, it is a dream!’
With the ownership change, Fourrier bought a new 3.6ha vineyard in Kardella, higher-lying and cooler site, in October 2020. Formerly known as Clair de Lune vineyard, this had been planted at lesser density to Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc, which has since been grafted over to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The blocks planted by Jones are mostly on their own roots with a big proportion of MV6, the Australian Pinot Noir clone known for its small berries and intense flavour. ‘But the plan is to plant more,’ says Francis, which means more Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gamay, with some talk of Cabernet Franc, too.
Transition and future
Fourrier was in Gippsland in January 2020 just prior to the sale and met with Jones. ‘It was a rare opportunity for us all,’ says Francis.
‘The intention was for Jean-Marie to come two to three times a year, for harvest, bottling and all the key times, but Covid put a hold on everything. It all went on Skype and Zoom.’
Thankfully, John Durham, the winemaker taken on by Jones in latter years, was a constant. ‘We were so lucky to have him on board,’ says Francis. Durham will retire soon, and winemaking will be in the hands of Fourrier and Francis.
‘It was a big thing for Phillip to hand the reins over,’ says Francis. ‘For Bass Phillip to be where it was when it sold – that was a huge accomplishment. He made the wines himself for a long time.’
With travel restrictions lifted, Fourrier is free to come and work the 2023 vintage. And he does not plan any drastic changes. ‘I always said Bass Phillip would have evolution without revolution. I want to continue the legacy of Bass Phillip, I do not aim to make Burgundy wines here.’
Adam ‘Skip’ Francis.
Francis is confident, too. ‘Jean-Marie is a great teacher,’ he says. It is clear why Fourrier trusts him as he says in his understated way that his job is to be ‘observant and diligent, aware of everything around you, both in the vineyard throughout the season and in the cellar’.
Since the current winery and facilities are very basic, Fourrier has planning permission in place for a new and modern winery at the Kardella site in time for the 2024 harvest. He clearly loves this land. He trails off, thinking wistfully as he evokes his travels: ‘Arriving in Melbourne at 40°C, driving two hours to Bass Phillip, coming out of the car at 19°C… the smell of the air, the sunset, the smell of the soils after rain…’