This husband and wife winemaking team have done much to change the face of Australian wine, bringing pinot gris/grigio into the mainstream and championing alternative varieties.
Few drinkers probably notice that the ‘l’ of Quealy on the wine labels is actually an exclamation mark. It’s a subtle reminder that little about Kathleen Quealy is conventional. And she’s proud of it. Assume nothing.
Her husband Kevin McCarthy shares a readiness to thumb their noses at the establishment, to challenge accepted wisdoms, to bend rules that others consider mandatory.
Together, in their first winery T’Gallant, they put both pinot gris/grigio and unwooded chardonnay (as a premium quality wine) on the map. They stuck their chins out for the natural wine movement with their murky, wild skin-ferment T’Gallant Claudius. Later, they championed alternative varieties such as friulano, amphora fermentations, and red and white field blends, Rageous and Pobblebonk. With strikingly original labels provided by designer Ken Cato, they shook up a complacent wine world.
While others were erecting edifices incorporating fine-dining restaurants on the silver-tailed Mornington Peninsula, these two opened a dirt-floored pizzeria called La Baracca. It was an instant hit. T’Gallant became a magnet and Foster’s, sensing a goldmine, made the couple an offer they couldn’t refuse. McCarthy stayed on at Foster’s for a decade, but Quealy grabbed the money and ran, buying a new property at Balnarring. Square pegs, round holes. This was the genesis, in 2006, of the Quealy label.
McCarthy and Quealy have always taken a wholistic approach to wine production. You can’t begin to make great wine without thorough knowledge of your vines, says McCarthy. To that end, the couple have always dwelt on their land, living and breathing their work.
They met in 1984 when they were working for Bungawarra winery in Queensland. Jobs in the Yarra Valley followed, with a move to the Mornington Peninsula in ’88. The first T’Gallant vintage was 1990 and the first pinot gris was made in ’92. In 1995 they made their first trip to Italy to research pinot grigio, then in ‘98 their first trip to France and Alsace, a ‘road to Damascus’ experience. McCarthy says going to France and learning from winemakers like Frédéric Blanck was pivotal, as was learning about friulano from Josko Gravner in Friuli.
McCarthy and Quealy were among the first in Australia to plant friulano, which, like many of the ‘difficult’ Italian varieties (eg. sangiovese, nebbiolo), naturally wants to set huge crops of massive bunches. This necessitates much work in the vineyard to control yield, and Quealy theorises that this hasn’t come naturally to most Australian viticulturists, but vineyard effort is what has enabled them to achieve whatever success they have. “Friulano wants to crop at 7-8 tonnes an acre, but if you want any chance of making good wine you can’t crop higher than 2-3 tonnes per acre.”
She credits the natural attributes of the peninsula for much of her success. “It’s different from other cool Australian regions: being maritime, it has cool nights and cool days, it has both rich red soils and silty clays, and has never been addicted to irrigation.”
Quealy was awarded a Legend of the Vine award in 2016 by Wine Communicators of Australia. Working with the Australian Wine Research Institute, McCarthy developed the PinotG Style Spectrum, a back-label scale aimed at helping the consumer better understand the difference between gris and grigio.
The future looks bright for Quealy Winemakers, with eldest son Tom joining the business in 2012. With an agricultural science degree under his belt, and work experience in Alsace, Collio and Burgundy, he seems to have inherited the free thinking of his parents. Great things are seldom born of conformity.