A scientist, a viticulturist and a winemaker in one, Frank van de Loo’s work with the wines at Mount Majura Vineyard in Canberra District have seen the region’s reputation soar.
Winemaker Dr Frank van de Loo may have only come into the spotlight in recent years, but his quiet commitment to excellence is storied in Canberra District wine region. His work, focused on the single Mount Majura Vineyard site, has embraced not only tenets of quality and excellence, but of innovation and experimentation making for a very potent combination.
“My winemaking approach starts in the vineyard,” says van de Loo. The aphorism might be well worn, but it’s a truism considering van de Loo’s steady course from scientist to viticulturist and then winemaker. “I originally studied agricultural science,” he explains, “and I got diverted down the road of research.” The research led van de Loo to a PhD in plant molecular genetics, which in turn contributed to his position with the CSIRO in Canberra.
“The plant genetics work was fascinating,” van de Loo states, “but I realised I wanted to make a change. It fascinated me that making wine combined farming and producing, so I jumped ship to study, and take up work in the local wine region.
Van de Loo worked a few vintages in Canberra District, did some winemaking in Burgundy, and spent some valuable time with Roger Harris at Brindabella Hills, but it was a visit to a vigneron in Heathcote that shifted his focus to Mount Majura Vineyard.
“I remember walking through a vineyard with a guy in Heathcote and he said ‘you’ve got to have a vineyard with rocks, things to kick’, and that stuck with me. The Mount Majura Vineyard site is on a nice slope, but with an interesting and good soil profile. Limestone and red clay makes up the site, but there are big rocks through patches. I felt the place produced good fruit, so I leapt at the chance to work in the vineyard.” He took formal employment there in 1998.
Van de Loo’s science background has been applied to the viticulture at Mount Majura Vineyard with a healthy approach to farming that sees minimal intervention in the growing season and, increasingly, parcels that are dry grown. After he studied more his work shifted to include the winemaking role.
The lo-fi viticulture approach is similar to van de Loo’s winemaking ideology. “The winemaking was lo-tech, low-intervention before all that was trendy,” he says. “Simple, traditional winemaking, hand-plunging, stick the wine in a barrel, let it mature through winter, get it to bottle without any tricks.”
The resulting wines have had their accolades, but it wasn’t until the quiet experimentations with a suite of ‘unusual’ varieties that his reputation began to soar.
Tempranillo has been seismic in importance, but graciano, mondeuse and touriga have also played a part. “I like experimentation, perhaps that’s the scientist in me,” offers van de Loo. “I’m trying new varieties, new techniques in the winery, forever trialling and trying to innovate and move forward.”
This ethos has served him well. The TSG, a quixotic blend of tempranillo, shiraz and graciano, has been a magnet for wine show accolades and equally for those seeking an expressive red wine of pedigree. It sits nicely alongside the equally unusual mesh of red grapes found in the Lime Kiln Red, where shiraz, mondeuse and touriga become easy bedfellows in a light, soft, gently spiced wine.
There are additional highlights in the scintillating, mineral-charged riesling, and the shiraz, a regional thoroughbred, suitably medium weight, peppery and herbal, and satiny textured. Regional staples aside, it’s tempranillo that seems to be accelerating from the pack. Three single vineyard releases of tempranillo (Rock Block, Dry Spur, Little Dam) and an Estate blend are a serious commitment to the variety. Each tempranillo speaks fluently of individual parcels.
Van de Loo is counted among Australia’s best winemakers because of his outstanding wines as well as his approach to viticulture. He is never idle and is always coming up with new ideas. While regional counterparts celebrate the pre-eminent varieties that have taken Canberra District to the apex of Australian fine wine, van de Loo toils with modesty and humility, ever the scientist looking to reshape and redefine.