Mac Attack

Coldstream, Woori Yallock, Hoddles Creek, Wesburn – these regions scattered across the Yarra Valley have been given pride of place on the front of Mac Forbes’ wine bottles. But only if that’s the place where the grapes were grown. Mac Forbes, the man behind the winery brand, explains his deep appreciation for the microclimates and nuances within each of the winery’s four vineyards to Aleesha Callahan.

Photography by Marija Ivkovic.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF PLACE AND PROCESS

Mac Forbes: The Yarra Valley is in a really weird position, where there are lots of different climates and influences, that means as a place it has a more complicated story to tell.

Essentially, what we do is bottle a snapshot of the circumstances we confront every year, but we do it in the most pure, unadulterated form. Our ambition is not to see our thumbprint, but to see the vintage in the site.

We bottle more than 30 different wines every year. Sometimes people question why we don’t blend our eight to 10 pinot noirs each year into one wine. It's because our objective is to capture personality of site. We don't set out to make big, bold award-winning wines. The difference in objective can result in significantly different wines.

All of our farming practices are geared around the idea that a plant can adapt to the place without lots of irrigation and without fertilisers that make the vine grow in a way that’s not true to that particular site. If you almost neglect the tree and force the vine to adapt, you might go through some early years of pain, but when they do adapt, the fruit can look dramatically different site-to-site. We truly believe this is something to celebrate.

We don’t use new oak, and we don’t add yeast or enzymes. It’s very much about allowing the fruit to express its own personality, becoming a vehicle to show what our patch of dirt is. To mask the true Yarra Valley flavour with northern hemisphere oak just doesn’t make sense.

We only have the township name on our labels, the grape variety is not even referred to for our top wines, simply the vintage, the place and, in the smallest font, our logo – accentuating that the key thing is place and all the other elements are secondary.

ON THE AUSTRALIAN WINE INDUSTRY

The way wine is made in Australia has changed; somewhere along the way we stopped talking about where the fruit was grown and what our land was expressing. That’s the thing that the great old estates do in Europe – they communicate place.

Having spent a lot of time in Europe, I know there’s a great amount of criticism directed at the Australian wine industry for just being furry animals on a bottle and not talking about soil, or what our patch of dirt is communicating. It’s not unusual for wine businesses in this country to change hands a few times, boiling it down to mere profit and loss, which is a really short-term vision. When you look at the respected estates in Europe, they are multigenerational and each new generation inherits the benefits and knowledge of the previous generation, giving them a foundation and history to work upon. That’s quite a significant difference in mindset. For the size of Australia, we have a range of climates and soils, but they’re all being put under one banner. So it’s really crucial to not talk about Australian wine in a generic sense, but rather all the states or regions.

ON BUSINESS

In the beginning, I thought I’d buck the trend and get the business up and running in under 10 years. We’re now in our 12th year and it’s taken all that time to feel like we’ve got our head above water. Key issues have been fruit security, vineyard best practice, understanding what to do with the fruit in the cellar and establishing the right distribution channels, all in what is an ultra-competitive, saturated market.

With larger wineries, it’s more common to buy the fruit or set up single vineyard estates. We’re a little unusual as we lease multiple properties and each vineyard then has different growing methods and varieties. Plus, we employ our own staff rather than bringing in contractors.

From a business point of view, it makes sense that we have the right people on board to tell our story in the right way. As a small business, the most exciting thing is having people with lots of complementary skills. There’s an ex-chef working in the vineyard, a guy who worked on wineries in the US who is running the bar, and two people who both had really respected roles in the industry are now working in the office. We’re just so fortunate to have this kind of talent, but there’s also lots of overlap so when we need help we can pull people from different areas.

Putting my name on the label was probably the big mistake I made in the beginning. At the time I wanted to show that it was a small business and had a real person behind it. It’s weird having Mac Forbes the brand; I would say it bothers me more than anyone else though. So even though my name is on the bottle, I’m really just a cog within the work that we’re all doing. Everyone who works here is equally important in telling the story of Mac Forbes.


ON INNOVATION

At Mac Forbes, we have our core range and then we have an experimental batch range, or EB, as we’ve colloquially coined it. EB is all about nurturing our capacity to try things.

If we see something in the vineyard or the cellar, we experiment and then we bottle it. And because it sits right outside of our core range, it can be really off-the-wall. The weirder the better.

These trial batches don’t always work out. An experiment we tried in 2005 didn’t turn out how we anticipated at the time, so we let the idea go. Then in 2009 when the fires came through, that experiment gave us a solution to deal with the smoke taint, so we were able to turn a tragedy into something valuable. For us as a small business, it means we’re able to have things up our sleeve to be agile and responsive, even in the face of adversity.

We need to keep nurturing all of our strengths, and a big part of that is trying new things and thinking outside the limits.

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