Maybe it was the idyllic, lily-topped pond glimmering to the left. Maybe it was the proudly untidy grass sprawling out underneath the grapevines. Or maybe it was just how green and lively the whole estate looked. Whatever, when our busload of wine scribes rumbled through the gates of Handpicked Wines’ Capella Vineyard a few weeks back for the 10th anniversary, it didn’t feel like we’d arrived at ‘just another Mornington Peninsula vineyard’.
That’s not an exaggeration. Sure, Handpicked had picked up the bill to fly/drive us all there from different points of the country. I also scored a Handpicked coffee cup and a drink bottle (both well-received in the Graham household). But that doesn’t detract from my first impression – the Handpicked Wines team aren’t there to fuck around.
The story here really starts in 2009, when the previous owners of the Capella Vineyard planted 6ha of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the grey clay loam dirt. The Handpicked part began in 2013 when William Dong scooped up the property in what was Handpicked Wines’ first-ever vineyard purchase. In the years since, Dong has thrown time, manpower and dollars at the property with an eye to making it a regional star. Capella is now, interestingly, one of the first and only certified organic vineyards on the Mornington Peninsula and proudly embracing regenerative viticulture.
That regenerative inflection (which I didn’t know about) explains the wonderfully unkempt vineyard rows. Longtime readers will know that I’m a massive fan of regenerative farming (read my feature here for a start), and to see it on the Peninsula – where carefully manicured vineyard rows and Instagram-worthy tidiness are a thing – felt like a breath of fresh Western Port air.
The vineyard is the story here, with the little details that mark it as a top-tier vineyard. Like the ‘insectarium’ (pictured below), where Handpicked Wines Chief Winemaker Pete Dillon has pushed the planting of 25 species of clover, snowpea, fava, and medics across rows of old olives to bring more beneficial insects. Or the rows of onsite beehives to help with flowering (and the rest). Or the array of fancy tractor implements to aid with manual weeding (rather than spraying herbicides). These aren’t revolutionary vineyard practices in isolation, but the combination of small factors adds up to one impressive regenerative operation (and a proper wild-looking vineyard for the Peninsula).
What’s more revolutionary is how different this face of Handpicked Wines feels compared to what the brand was built on. Historically, the premise of Handpicked was indeed just about handpicking wines (and fruit) from around the world. Over the years, everything from Moscato d’Asti to proper colheita Port to chunky Barossa Shiraz appeared under the label, often to the point where the brand wine style was all over the shop. So to have such an intense, terroir-driven operation like that of Capella is quite a pivot – although with five more vineyards now owned by Handpicked across the Yarra Valley, Tasmania, Mornington Peninsula & Barossa Valley, it’s probably just a start.
While the story is ultimately about vineyards, that restlessness you can see in the Capella Vineyard extends into the winery as well. On the day of our visit, we also tried a range of ferment vessel trials from 2022 that proved provocative (if divisive, with the room split as to what was ‘best’.
Oh yeah, there is plenty of finessing happening at Handpicked Wines.
All of this effort would have cost an absolute fortune too. However, this is an example of wine production done with quality as the key driver, sparing no expense – I mean, we had a five-course lunch after the tasting with a string accompaniment. That sort of wine scribe indulgence doesn’t happen anymore! More importantly, to hear Pete Dillon talk of his inter-row daikon plantings with such relish (or is that radish?) and then shifting to evangelise about his locally made amphorae is the sign of a vigneron deep down into the ‘what can we do more/better’ mindset, and supported (quite clearly) by the commitment of William Dong.
It’s a winning combination.
Still, it’s not all marshmallows and rainbows. There is work to be done with the wines drawn from vineyards beyond Capella – as you can see below, I didn’t love all the (fully priced) releases. But unquestioned promise.
Anyway, let’s get stuck into the wines. Notes in italics are context. The rest are my musings from the day.
Also, I didn’t write down notes (too engrossed in comparing the different whole bunch vs Viognier blends), but the tasting included a brace of very smart barrel samples from the ‘Numbered Series’ No.1 Shiraz 2022. all sourced from Malakoff Vineyard Shiraz. Now there is a wine to keep an eye out for!
Handpicked Wines Collection Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay 2021
Sourced from the Capella Vineyard. Predominately p58 clone. Wild ferment, full solids to barrel. Some malo and more malolactic fermentation compared to the Capella Vineyard release.
Enjoyable opener for the day! Lean, and all about white peach, clay and a bit of nougat. The palate is reasonably powerful but not rich – it’s a tight sort of thing, despite the suggestions of nutty weight. The finish is softer, but it still feels reasonably lean, and leaner than the Capella despite more of the blend going through malo. Good. Best drinking: good now. 17.7/20, 92/100. 12.5%, $49.99. Would I buy it? Worth a few glasses.
Handpicked Wines Capella Vineyard Chardonnay 2021
Similar handling as the Capella, though Mendoza clone. Less malo. Pete Dhillon says, ‘we approach malo in a barrel-by-barrel basis. A bit more in a cooler year, a bit less in a warmer year. The last few years, we’ve had huge amounts of malo – 5g/l.’
This is a much more expansive wine. There is still some white peach and clay, but it’s a significantly more substantial wine. More definition, more power, more precise acidity. Such a different wine – more triumphant. Orange juice acidity, yet lovely white peach fruit. A delightful wine. The push-pull acidity of Mendoza clone is the winner here, for sure. Nice. Best drinking: from now, it will be even better next year. 18.5/20, 94/100. 12.2%, $69.99. Would I buy it? Worth a bottle.
Handpicked Wines Capella Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013
High-yielding year. Wine was made at Montalto. 11 months in 33% new oak. Fully destemmed. pH 3.43.
Brick red-orange edges, though still some red fruit. Fully mature, tea leaves and some ironstone, it’s fading, but there is still some red fruit in there. I think this would have been a rounded sort of thing in its youth. Drink up. Best drinking: last year. 16.5/20, 88/100. 13.8%. Would I buy it? A curio, but not my sort of drink.
Handpicked Wines Capella Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015
Strong year on the Peninsula. pH 3.65
There’s a bit of haunch here – a bit of meaty spice, a bit volatile and ferrous. It feels warm-edged and warm-seasoned. Leaf litter and spice on the nose, but it hasn’t lost the palate richness. Indeed you can still taste the suggestion of oak and plumpness. Nice wine, even if the primary fruit is fractionally on the downswing. Best drinking: right now. 17.5/20, 91/100. 13.1%. Would I buy it? A glass.
Handpicked Wines Capella Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017
Very late start to the vintage. More puncheons from this vintage onwards. Includes some whole bunches too. pH 3.48
Still quite red, though with orange edges. A more tannic and driving sort of wine this – more whole bunch? It certainly has some complexity to it. Maybe a little volatile too. Just a little up/down and sweet/sour in its expression. Spicy and interesting sort of thing, though, despite the lumpiness. Best drinking: good now. 17.7/20, 92/100. 12.9%. Would I buy it? A glass or two.
Handpicked Wines Capella Vineyard Pinot Noir 2021
Less whole bunches this vintage. pH 3.61.
Lovely. Fleshy and beautiful raspberry mid-palate, even if it is still opening up. Lots of tannins. This is quite a robust Mornington Pinot in its tannins. It’s just a little reticent and tannic on the back end to be truly compelling, but the grunt of the thing makes it delicious. Brooding. Mouthwatering though. Best drinking: good now, probably even better in the next two years. 18.5/20, 94/100. 12.2%, $89.99. Would I buy it? Pricey, but I’d gladly drink it.
Handpicked Wines Collection Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir 2021
Capella Vineyard fruit supplemented with some fruit from a vineyard leased at Red Hill. All destemmed. pH 3.57
Easy and open. So generous and with lovely red fruit – more MV6 sort of opulence. It doesn’t have the tannins of the big brother, but it does bring seduction. Very tasty and pretty thing. Best drinking: great now. 18/20, 93/100. 12.1%, $59.99. Would I buy it? Well worth sharing a bottle.
More wines from the range
These were served over lunch, so more vibes than tasting notes. I wouldn’t mind a closer look at the Chardonnay & Cabernet below…
Handpicked Wines Wombat Creek Chardonnay 2021
Sourced from the Wombat Creek Vineyard and looked seriously complete. Rather complex cool style of certain energy and lightness but power! Just delicious. Maybe my wine of the day. 18.7/20, 95/100.
Handpicked Wines Auburn Road Tasmania Pinot Noir 2021
High-toned but just a bit strained – all warm cherries and a bit smoky/savoury. I can see the pretty fruit, but it feels a bit lean. 17.5/20, 91/100.
Handpicked Wines Collection Barossa Grenache 2019
A bit warm and flat. 50% whole bunch, but I didn’t see the spice. It just seemed a bit strained and missing energy, even though the fruit intensity is clearly there. 16.8/20, 89/100.
Handpicked Wine Collection Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon 2020
Fruit sourced from the Credaro Vineyard, Juniper + Sandalford fruit. A-grade fruit and high class wine. Mid weight, excellent tannins. Has that to that effortless bay life and cedar power of the best in Margs Cabs and tongue-coating tannins. Yes yes. 18.5/20, 94/100.
Disclaimer: I travelled to the Capella Vineyard as a guest of Handpicked Wines.
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Enjoyed the back story here.