They both started at Stonier in 2009 and both had great mentors prior to this, but it’s their differences, not their similarities, that make this pair the perfect winemaking force.
Mike Symons and Will Byron make a great team. They have worked nine vintages together at the Mornington Peninsula winery Stonier, and their skills complement each other. As Symons says, Byron is the details man (although he also sees the big picture), and this frees him up to do the more macro work. “I’ll be focusing on when to pick at exactly the right time, which is probably the most critical decision we make as winemakers, while Will is focusing on pressing at exactly the right time,” Symons explains.
The pair are nine years apart in age, Symons turning 50 this year, and each owes a debt to his early years being mentored in a great ‘school’: in Symons’ case at Petaluma, where he rose to senior winemaker, and in Byron’s at Coldstream Hills, where he was an invaluable member of the team for his first six years. They arrived at Stonier almost simultaneously, in time for the 2009 vintage.
Symons’ other formative learning experience was three years with the Antinori family in Tuscany, working in their wineries in Chianti, Bolgheri, Montalcino and Montepulciano.
There he learnt many things. In an appellation-controlled area where irrigation is banned, great attention is paid to nourishing the soil with organic matter as this assists vine health and healthy vines need less water. He put this to practice at Stonier. “I went there as a cocky young Aussie winemaker who thought he knew a lot, but I discovered there’s another whole way of looking at things,” Symons says.
Stonier has great vineyards. The job now is to make small improvements rather than radical changes. For example, they’ve invested in small tanks, so they can ferment more small batches and not be hurried to finish them so the tanks can be re-filled. “We stripped the place of Potter fermenters and increased the two-tonne open fermenters from 15 to 50.
“We’re using more refrigeration for the chardonnay fruit and have plans to put in new cool-rooms. We don’t pump the fruit any more, and we don’t have screws in the bottom of crusher pits which used to damage the grapes. Chardonnay used to be mostly crushed; now we are whole-bunch pressing 80 per cent of it.”
Symons says the chardonnay, while harvested earlier, is still generous. “It’s not too lean and not too ripe. In the past, I tended to pick it riper.”
In recent years Stonier’s single- vineyard pinots have been fermented with varying amounts of whole-bunch. A lot of thought goes into how each batch of fruit should be treated.
Symons and Byron are committed to expressing their terroirs, and to that end they now have up to four single-vineyard chardonnays and six pinot noirs. Some are grower vineyards, the remainder estate-owned. They take grapes from 17 growers of whom half are within two kilometres of the winery, so the Merricks locality is very much Stonier’s focus.
Small things like topping the barrels more often (at least every fortnight) are making a difference. Picking the chardonnay a little earlier, trialling new malolactic bacteria to produce less diacetyl, using more puncheons in lieu of barriques to decrease the oak impact, and bottling earlier to retain greater freshness, are among Byron’s tweaks. “Will is a great sounding board, and we discuss everything together. He challenges everything we do. He’s great at organising a team and making sure people do things the right way,” Symons says.
Byron in return says, “I love working with Mike. There is no recipe. Mike is the ambassador: he’s very respectful of Stonier’s past, and I try to challenge it.”
Byron has worked six vintages at Blain-Gagnard in Chassagne-Montrachet. “I learnt to take time and not be in a hurry,” he explains. “They are enormously respectful of their fruit: with great fruit comes great responsibility. They give the A-Grade approach to everything.”
As he says, the future is likely to be further refinement of the breed: “I am fanatical about trying to make the wines as best I can. I’m never really satisfied.”