Empire of Dirt

It was always going to be hard for second-generation winemaker Rivar Ferguson-Mayer to separate any conversation about his wines from his well-known vigneron father Timo Mayer. Mayer senior is a force in Australian wine with a high profile as not only a plain-speaking rebel, but as a seriously fine wine producer.

“I wanted Rivar to do his own thing,” says Timo. “He’s been working hard here with me, also in Germany, has experience all over, but this was the project to sink his own teeth into.”

Empire of Dirt was born as a collaboration between UK-based wine importer Ben Henshaw of Indigo Wine with Mayers junior and senior, but Rivar takes the lead in the winemaking process. First release wines are striking and wholly under the influence of Rivar’s vision.

“I liked the idea of exploring sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon, which, for me, are historically significant varieties for the Yarra Valley,” explains Rivar. “I just liked the idea of getting further potential out of them, doing something a bit different.”

Pinot gris also finds footing in the Empire of Dirt range from Yarra. Imagination seems liberally applied here and the wines are singular and excellent as a result. While the shoes to fill may seem gigantic, Rivar has made an assertive step with his individual and unique range.

The wines all come from single sites, with the 2019 Empire of Dirt Sauvignon Blanc (A$25) coming from “the lemon farmer next door”.

“I imagine there’s an extra lemony note in there,” quips Rivar. Indeed, it seems the primary crop does pass on a citrusy lift.

First whiff smells like lemon juice in tonic water, though there’s a backdrop of tart, tropical fruits. The palate delivers a serious rendition of sauvignon blanc, feels tightly wound, lightly chalky in texture, with zesty acidity and a long, fine finish. While it drinks with complexity and charm now, I wager it will improve with age.

As an expression of the popular variety, 2019 Empire of Dirt Pinot Gris (A$28) is fantastic, complex and rendered interesting by its textural detail and sense of faint savouriness.

It’s medium weight but not cloying, shows lifted green and nashi pear characters, a lick of nuttiness, a light burr of talc-like mineral character. Of course, the perfume is ebullient, all floral and fresh pear notes.

Cabernet sauvignon is so often deeply serious from the Yarra Valley, so an expression that finds a new voice, and high quality, is compelling. The 2019 Empire of Dirt Cabernet Sauvignon (A$30) may be youthful, but that is the intent.

From a dry-grown vineyard, a portion is whole-bunch fermented. The result is a frisky and fresh wine, laden with cassis and violets but also sour cherry and amaro-like characters. Tannins are a fine mesh, acidity bright, it’s vibrant, crunchy and simply delicious.

Corymbia

Corymbia is one of the most exciting wine projects to emerge from Western Australia in a decade. The combination of a distinguished winemaking family, the reinvention of a much-maligned wine region, the unlocking of the potential of a mature vineyard and a general sense of creativity, have all contributed to a strong currency.

Corymbia is the newish project of Rob and Genevieve Mann. The Mann family, of course, are generational wine producers in WA, with a history of iconic wines and vineyards. Rob, formerly working with Hardys, Cape Mentelle and Newton Vineyard in Napa Valley, has returned home and made a mark.

The family vineyard in Swan Valley is dry grown and organically farmed. While winemaking draws on the Manns’ suite of expertise and diversity of influences, it has been pared back for Corymbia, letting the fruit and character of the wines take the spotlight.

That Swan Valley has been put on a pedestal is wonderful, and a celebration of older vineyards, unique soil profile and a general sense of generational endeavour is exciting for the region. There’s an undercurrent of winemakers amplifying the region’s potential, but arguably Corymbia is the current totem.


The wines under the Corymbia label have been outstanding. Multiple releases of chenin blanc have impressed, though the 2019 Corymbia Chenin Blanc (A$30) is the best so far.

“Our love for chenin blanc was passed down through the generations but was started by [grandfather] Jack Mann who created a chenin blanc-based table wine (Houghton White Burgundy) in 1937,” says Rob.

The 2019 is due for release March 2020, and is a racy, precise style imbued with a tug of phenolics and bright citrusy acidity. It features lime juice, minerally characters and a faint saline note in both bouquet and palate. It’s utterly delicious, refreshing, but also feels very complex and serious.

While shiraz may be a regional hero red variety, 2018 Corymbia Tempranillo Malbec Cabernet Sauvignon (A$40) shows a different take on the region.

“It’s inspired by the delicious medium-bodied reds our family made and drank from the Swan Valley over generations,” offers Rob.

Indeed, it is pitch perfect, medium weight, highly perfumed, and shaped with beautifully ripe tannins. It’s delicious, but there is also a sense of detail and interest. The wine offers layers of red and blue fruits in perfume and palate, underpinned by savouriness.

The 2018 Corymbia Cabernet Sauvignon (A$64) is a departure from the Swan Valley focus. The fruit is sourced from a single Margaret River vineyard and the wine is most notable for its brilliant tannin profile. It rolls deep with blackberry, dried herbs and anise characters, but it’s the tannins that seduce, epic in their tension, savouriness and length. It’s a serious and excellent cabernet.

Ngarto

This is a single wine that stuck out as so individual it needed recognition in these pages. Vigneron Erinn Klein is well known for his and wife Janet’s biodynamic Ngeringa farm out of the Adelaide Hills. Klein produces a broad range of high-quality wines under the label.

Chef Brendan Cato met Klein at Rootstock Sydney festival and ended up helping him out during harvests at Ngeringa. Fast forward to 2018 and Cato and Klein have collaborated
on their first release wine, a syrah that includes a lofty 10% of viognier.

“It’s more to do with producing a fruit-forward style, something that we found interesting and different,” says Klein.

The fruit for the 2018 Ngarto Syrah Viognier (A$45) comes from Ngeringa vineyards. It opens with floral, sweet scents and is very fresh. The palate follows similarly, with a slippery texture, just-ripe red berries, some floral mouth perfume and faint stone fruits. It’s shapely, supple and long, dusted with sweet spice and shows a slightly wild edge. It’s a wonderful expression, delightful, ethereal and intriguing.