Growing up in Canberra during the 1970s was an inauspicious start for Simon Black, whose winemaking career path now sees him nestled on the Mornington Peninsula at the seriously smart Montalto Vineyard & Olive Grove.
In 2009 Black oversaw the fledging Montalto’s move from contract winemaking to a new purpose-built facility to process the vineyard’s 25 hectares of vines over six sites across the Mornington Peninsula. Half of the fruit comes from Montalto’s home site at Red Hill South, the location of its picturesque restaurant, cellar door, sculpture garden and olive grove. Black also manages the vineyards at Red Hill, Main Ridge, Merricks and Tuerong. The new winery, with Black at the helm, has seen Montalto’s wines soar to stand tall among the icons of the Mornington Peninsula. The region is fast assuming the mantle as Australia’s answer to Burgundy, producing chardonnay and pinot noir of distinction.
It isn’t the first time Black has presided over a newly commissioned winery facility on the Mornington Peninsula. In 1997, at the tender age of 27 and only just after completing his oenology course at Charles Sturt University, he was the inaugural winemaker at Willow Creek. In 2002 Black repeated this accomplishment by setting up the Heathcote Estate winery to process the local shiraz and later (a recurring theme) chardonnay and pinot noir off the adolescent Yabby Lake Vineyard back in the Mornington. This was followed by a stint at Clyde Park in Geelong, then Alpine Valleys before Black returned to the Peninsula in 2009 to cement his status as a start-up winery expert at Montalto.
Black’s commitment to Montalto is deep with its sculpture-loving owner John Mitchell giving him free rein to express his talents. He has done just that with the individuality of his chardonnays and pinots unfolding over his six-year tenure.
“Initially it was about getting the processes right in the winery while exploring the subregional differences with our vineyards,” Black explains. “I like whole-bunch ferments, but they can divide opinion. At Clyde Park in the warmer Geelong region, I used lots of whole-bunch to bring some perfume and elegance. At Montalto I initially played it safe, but over time I’ve push the boundaries a bit with up to 65 per cent whole bunches in my 2014 pinots.”
Black went on, “John Mitchell doesn’t interfere, he says, ‘Just go and do it, I’ll let you know if there’s a problem.’ Being allowed full control, I’ve been able to build up a complete picture in my head with all of our sites contributing to the master plan. Our sites are highly individual with different aspects – some cooler, some warmer, some more maritime. Each helps to complete the picture.”
And that picture is striking, from the entry-level Pennon Hill wines to the black label Montalto range and the white label single-vineyard chardonnays and pinots that are an exercise in Burgundian individuality.
To return to the beginning, Simon Black grew up in Canberra with a wine- and food-
loving family in the days when fine dining in the area was scarce. Black’s father, a politician, took things into his own hands, firstly cooking at home, then at Truffles Restaurant and later at Hill Station Homestead. Chefs at Truffles came and went, so Black Senior headed into the kitchen with Black Junior washing dishes. Pre-university, Black worked in the National Art Gallery kitchen where he met another local lad, Jim Chatto, who worked on the floor. As plates were passed from table to sink, the pair discovered they were both heading for Charles Sturt University to study winemaking.
The rest, as they say, is history with Chatto now winemaking supremo at Mount Pleasant and Black well-established at Montalto following vintage experience around Australia, and in Burgundy, California and Moldova.
Black is not just besotted with chardonnay and pinot noir, he also makes a nifty range of other varieties and styles: sauvignon blanc; moscato; pinot gris and grigio; riesling: rosé; tempranillo; and shiraz. But in his heart Black takes his inspiration from Burgundy, seeking to emulate the historic region’s sense of terroir on the Mornington Peninsula. He’s already making a pretty good fist of it, but rest assured there’s plenty more wonderful wines to come.