A Winederful Chat with Timo Mayer in the Yarra Valley
I met Timo Mayer of Mayer wines at his vineyard in the Yarra on a hot morning in December. At the property his two friendly dogs greeted me and then Timo and I picked a few cherries, took a walk among the vineyards and tasted a few of his wines from barrel.
From what was once a cow paddock back in 1998, is now a home, winery and three hectares of vines (planting started in 1999) from which they make five wines from the estate, the first vintage being 2002. These are Chardonnay, three Pinots (the Chardonnay and Pinot are from the ‘Bloody Hill vineyard’) and a Syrah. They buy in Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Cabernet, Gamay and Merlot from the warmer part of the valley making a total of 2,500 cases (of 12 a year). They named their vineyard on the slope by the house ‘Bloody Hill’. You can understand the reason for the name if you too were walking up and down constantly in the vineyard for the three years it takes to make a crop. As Timo explained, they gave it a nice name, they could have called it something else.
Timo is charismatic and colourfully spoken. With his booming voice, he answered my questions so passionately and with such patience. No doubt he has spent years explaining about how he started the business with partner Rhonda and his focus on whole bunch fermentation. Listening to his detailed answers, I learnt so much more not just about the viticulture process but the importance of land, aspect and timing; when to pick to make specific styles of wine. It was a privilege to be able to also taste a few of wines in barrel. With his family background in viticulture and winemaking in Germany then working at De Bortoli and Gembrook Hill in the Yarra, Timo is highly experienced and his passion is contagious. Since 2017 Timo has been working full time on the Mayer range.
The team at the winery is made up of Timo and partner Rhonda who works in the vineyard. Timo explains that their son Rivar joined them two years ago and has his own label. He makes seven different varieties buying in grapes with the rosé made from the estate. They are a self-sufficient business selling what they make, an enviable position to be in but hard work and drive has been key to their success. As Timo explains, “We make our unique style. We rather make less than too much and try to make something different.”
I was keen to find out more about his whole bunch fermentation which they do for all their wines apart from two.
Why do you focus on whole bunch fermentation?
“We are a small operator and I just like the shit. It is a point of difference, it is a niche.”
They first tried whole bunch fermentation in 2004 with Pinot Noir (which they called ‘Bloody Hill Nouveau’ at the time). They then did it with the Syrah in 2009 and in 2014, they whole bunch fermented their Cabernet Sauvignon. At this time, Timo could only find two other examples Cabernet being 100% whole bunch fermented, in the world.
Timo is so passionate about whole bunch fermentation explaining, “You get that lifted crunchy berry flavour from the carbonic maceration. On the palate, you get a different tannin. All these wines are savoury, they have a drying tannin which is the wood tannin from the green stalks which dries up your mouth. There are two tannins; skin and stalk tannins.” They want the grape to do the talking and not the oak. For this reason, they only use old oak for all the wines apart from their Cabernet where it’s 25% new and the Mayer Pinot Noir.
Timo adds, “We figured out how to manage it (whole bunch fermentation). Rule number one is to have small ferments. I do half tonne ferments which is 300 litres. There is a risk of volatile acidity with whole bunch fermentation which is not what you want in a wine. But with smaller ferments it can be managed easier.”
As Timo explains, it is only possible to do whole bunch fermentation with ripe and good quality and healthy fruit. They hand pick and sort the fruit in the vineyard.
A small and effective winery at vintage
With his small winery, Timo, certainly makes the most of his space. With different grape varieties ripening at different times, he is able to use the fermentation space three times over at vintage time.
“We empty the barrels, add sulphur then bottle the next morning, then empty the next day and bottle it. We don’t need many tanks.” They use open fermenters for the destemmed fruit, have a little press and a small bottling line.
Mayer focuses on minimal intervention. They don’t use dry ice or use CO2. Instead they rely on natural CO2 from the fermentation.
Timo explains, “We make medium body wines with 12.5-13% abv. We don’t want anything higher. We want natural good acid where possible. We add minimal sulphur before bottling and only some acid additions if the PH is too high to avoid the risk of the wine going mousy or bretty. We do not fine or filter and we only intervene when necessary. I don’t want faulty wine. I don’t like brett or moussyness.”
Effects of COVID-19
Many businesses have seen the effects of COVID-19 first hand. As Timo explains, “We used to sell mostly to restaurants which was our bread and butter. But this year, we sold a lot of the production to bottle shops as many of the restaurants were all shut.”
Plans for the future
Timo and Rhonda are in the enviable position of being happy with their current production where half is from the estate and they buy in the other half. Rivar will increase his production up to 1500 cases so the growth will be from him.
Unfortunately phylloxera is now affecting Timo’s vineyard and many other vineyards in the Yarra Valley. He showed me some examples of vines that were suffering. It is tragic that Timo (and many other wineries) are having to pull out their vines then buy and replant with vines grafted onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstock.
In the meantime Timo and Rhonda will continue focusing on making the wines they love using minimal intervention. I wish them all the success and the next time I head out to a restaurant (with the easing of restrictions), I will be buying plenty of their wines.
Text written by Ruth Turnbull, Swanny Cellars’ Roaming Reporter.
About the Roaming Reporter:
Ruth Turnbull is the Roaming Reporter for Swanbourne Cellars. Having studied the WSET Advanced Certificate and WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits, Ruth has worked in the wine trade in both London and Perth for over 15 years. While living in WA, Ruth was a regular Panel member on the Liquor Barons Panel and managed the digital marketing for Swanbourne Cellars. Now based in Melbourne, with COVID restrictions easing, Ruth is meeting winemakers in order to highlight and share their story on the Swanbourne Cellars blog and social media channels.