The DRC of the southern hemisphere

Australia's most famous Pinot producer has changed hands. Max finds out what is planned, and hoped for.

When I visited Phillip Jones at Bass Phillip vineyard in Gippsland, south-east of Melbourne, in late February, the 74-year-old winemaker gave no indication he was in the final, stressful stages of selling his beloved business.

Instead, Jones was in fine form. Entertainingly irascible as ever, he opened bottle after bottle – including an older vintage of the Reserve Pinot Noir, considered by many Australia’s best example of the variety (and, at around AU$800 a bottle, certainly its most expensive) – pouring wines blind, to see if I could guess vintage and variety.

Bass Phillips' neatly tended vines in Gippsland, Victoria

The 4 ha (10 acres) of vines around the winery, planted in 1979, looked immaculate in readiness for the looming harvest: densely planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines trained low and neatly hedged, in Burgundian fashion. Jones told me he was looking forward to working with his long-time friend John Durham, former winemaker at Cape Mentelle in Margaret River, who was coming to help out with the 2020 vintage.

It was all optimism and energy. But behind the scenes, Jones was navigating the last in a series of bumpy, months-long negotiations with a group of international investors, keen to purchase the Bass Phillip name, business, vineyards and winery.

‘I’ve been trying for over three years to find buyers', Jones told me later. ‘I’m 74. I’m stuffed. We had to sell. My wife was fed up with it all. But the whole process [of selling] is tortuous and difficult. I was holding out for a result that would lead to the best price and the best long-term benefit for Bass Phillip.’

Then, in March, coronavirus hit, and his perspective changed. ‘As the scale of the pandemic became apparent, I felt that nobody was going to need fluffy expensive boutique wine for a while', he said. ‘And I just couldn’t go on for another three years.’

The sale became public in early May; the new business was announced as a ‘partnership’ between Jones and Burgundian vigneron Jean-Marie Fourrier of Domaine Fourrier in Gevrey-Chambertin.

The winery will be helmed by Jean-Marie as the primary person managing the vineyard. The vision is to bring the brand to a global stage. ‘[Becoming] the DRC of the southern hemisphere eventually is our aim.’

Jean-Marie Fourrier of Gevrey-Chambertin

This ‘international aura’ is also an important factor for Jean-Marie Fourrier. ‘I spoke with a sommelier in New York in February', he told me. ‘She said, I have heard all these great things about Bass Phillip, but I can’t put my hands on it. Everybody has heard about it, nobody has seen it. So, we have a wonderful opportunity to continue the legacy but give it a bit more exposure.’

Fourrier said he has been looking to invest in a vineyard outside Burgundy for a while; the price of land there, he said, is ‘untouchable, and guarantees a loan on the head of my children for 50 years’. He already had a few connections to Australia: he met his English wife, Vicky, through his Australian importer; Vicky’s brother and his family lived in Adelaide (they have since relocated to Victoria to manage the day-to- day running of Bass Phillip); Fourrier also did some brief consulting with Phillip Jones back in 2002. ‘So, when I heard through the group of partners in Singapore that Phillip was looking to sell and they asked would I like to get on board, it was hard to refuse', he said. [Fourrier has in the past referred to the role of Asian investors in the expansion of his business in Burgundy, including the establishment of his small négociant business Jean-Marie Fourrier - JR]

Once international travel restrictions have eased (which doesn't look likely to happen for Australia any time soon), Fourrier is keen to come out to Australia and start work on building a new fermentation cellar for the 2021 vintage. He told me there were ‘a lot of different SKUs’ in the winery’s annual 5,000-case production (the first time, surely, that anyone has used ‘SKU’ and ‘Bass Phillip’ in the same sentence), and he was looking to bring that number down, streamline the offering. He also said he wanted to attract new people to the brand, possibly through buying grapes in from outside.

Some of Bass Phillips' 'SKUs'

‘A very important concern I’ve got from being in Burgundy is the fact that [our wines] are impossible to approach for young consumers', he said from his home in Gevrey. ‘[So] I am buying a little bit of grapes from neighbours here to make 20,000 bottles of Bourgogne Rouge because I want to make some bottles that are around $50 or $60 for end-consumers to have access to because they will be our future customers of estate or premium or reserve in 10 or 15 years’ time. That is a direction I want to take Bass Phillip.’

Two of the bottles Jones opened when I visited him in February were the 2006 and 2011 vintages of the Estate Pinot Noir. Both were made under extremely trying circumstances: the former at a time when Jones was very sick, had temporarily lost his sense of smell and relied on others to help him make the wine; the latter from a notoriously wet growing season with huge disease problems.

And yet both wines were gorgeous: the 2006 was expressive, spicy, lively, remarkably fresh for a 14-year-old Pinot, the 2011 was velvety and juicy with strong notes of undergrowth.

They’re wines that have survived and flourished, despite their tortured history. Perhaps Phillip Jones was trying to tell me something that day after all.

Bass Phillip 2018s

Here are my tasting notes for the 2018 vintage wines that the new owners are releasing this month:

Bass Phillip, Rosé 2018 Gippsland

Jean-Marie Fourrier says he is considering deleting the rosé from the Bass Phillip range. I think that would be a shame. The 2018 is absolutely delicious: gently hazy, pale-salmon in colour, redolent of rose-hip and spiced cream, long and savoury, with much more depth and flavour than you would expect from a wine with just 12.2% alcohol. Everything about this is very much on-trend – and in Bass Phillip terms it’s eminently affordable – making it a good ‘SKU’, I would have thought, with which to attract a wider, younger audience for the brand.

Bass Phillip, Estate Chardonnay 2018 Gippsland

This vineyard’s Pinots are rightly legendary, but the Chardonnays can also be excellent. This is a remarkably pure, youthful, fresh-tasting wine, with lemon-cream richness and just a touch of cashew oak. Lovely now, but worth cellaring: Phillip Jones opened a 2014 Estate Chardonnay when I visited in February that was drinking beautifully.

Bass Phillip, Premium Chardonnay 2018 Gippsland

This wine, like the Estate, has little time for the modern Australian fashion for lean, austere, ‘minerally’ Chardonnay. It’s just 12.8% alcohol but there’s no hint of leanness: there’s lime marmalade fruit intensity and tang, burnished honey-toastfat and nutty oak, and wonderful length. Complex, serious Chardonnay.

Bass Phillip Gamay 2018 Gippsland

Tasted blind, I thought this was the least of the 2018 reds from Bass Phillip: it’s quite a plush, rich, meaty expression of Gamay, with a touch of balsamic twang. But tasted (okay, drunk) later on, with dinner, its over-the-top, prickly character was less of an issue, and I rather enjoyed it.

Bass Phillip, Estate Pinot Noir 2018 Gippsland

This is a vivid, bright, raspberry-fragrant and rather eager-to-please Pinot that is a little anomalous to the other 2018 Estate and Premium wines here in that it’s carrying 13.7% alcohol. It’s not a bigger or heavier wine, but it does rush along the tongue, delivering a tumble of gamey, autumnal flavours all at once.

Bass Phillip, Premium Pinot Noir 2018 Gippsland

Of all the 2018s wines reviewed here, this is the one that is least ready to be fully enjoyed. Just 12.6% alcohol but quite a dense, firmly framed Pinot, swaddled in some obvious but high-quality oak, it has super-fine tannins and hints of cherry- pippy succulence waiting to emerge over time. The 2018 Reserve Pinot Noir, not tasted, is due for release in September.

Bass Phillip Nebbiolo 2018 Gippsland

A wonderful surprise. At the end of the tasting at the vineyard in February, Phillip Jones handed me a glass of this, blind, and instructed me to guess what the variety was. Nebbiolo was not the first thing that sprang to mind (I’m sure he must have told me he’d planted in the past, but I’d forgotten): the depth of purple colour and exuberant rose-petal, violet and peppery aromatics drew me to Grenache, but it was unmistakably varietal on the tongue – all dry, mouth-watering coal-dusty tannins. Again, the wine is just 12.8% alcohol, but tastes riper and deeper.