I first encountered Marcus Satchell and his ambitious single-vineyard pinot noir project at a Young Gun of Wine tasting on a rooftop in the heart of Melbourne. He was passionately detailing the difference in character between his three sites or ‘dirts’, as they are affectionately known, in the heart of South Gippsland.
Almost three years before restaurants were struggling with lockdown restrictions and pivoting to takeaway, Satchell was ardently trying to convince Melbourne sommeliers that Gippsland pinot was worthy of more attention than it was getting. Never backing down from a challenge, he and his partner Lisa Sartori now have two labels to their name, a new cellar door in the heart of the industrial estate in Inverloch (the first of its kind in the area) and plans to move their winery to the back of their cellar door space. Clearly, they’re doing something right.
Originally starting in 2012 as a team effort with Stuart Gregor and Cam Mackenzie (both of whom left the project early on to focus on their successful Four Pillars Gin brand), the idea of producing high-quality, single-site pinot noir from exceptional vineyards around Leongatha took several years to come to fruition. As did Satchell’s take on how to market the project and Gippsland itself.
“It’s a massive region, with around 50 or 60 producers in it but we’re all spread out,” says Satchell. “The journey from here to East Gippsland takes about three, three-and-a-half hours – that certainly presents some really big challenges from a marketing point of view.”
Not only is Gippsland one of Australia’s largest grape-growing regions, it’s also one of the most climatically diverse.
“I need gumboots to go outside it’s so bloody wet. East Gippsland tends to get long periods of dry … we get persistent, long periods of rain, depressive rain.”
Distinct differences in climate between production areas, as well as a lack of producer collaboration, has led to many winemakers suggesting that Gippsland should be split into subregions.
“Thinking about Gippsland as one region is really, really hard. The wines bear some resemblance, but they are very different,” Satchell says.
But after years of local wine growing associations and wine shows, as well as observing the success of Tasmania’s wine marketing across such a large area, he has come to the conclusion that Gippsland can be better represented.
“I think for the moment, let’s just work on getting people to even talk about Gippsland wine, let’s get [those wines] into the conversation.”
His focus on community representation and consumer-friendly marketing are philosophies he picked up during a vintage with one of California’s original ‘Rhône Rangers’ and winemaking pioneers, Randall Grahm, formerly of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz.
“It was one of those moments in my life that I look back on and go, ‘I am so grateful to have had that experience at that time’,” Satchell says.
Aside from being exposed to Grahm’s fearless approach to the unknown and his undying enthusiasm to engage people in wine, Satchell’s time in California was spent experimenting with alternative varieties and whole-bunch fermentation – the kind of ideas that would enter Australia’s winemaking repertoire just a few vintages later.
“It was amazing, some of it worked and some it didn’t. There was this overwhelming sense of learning. What I love about the Australian wine industry is that sense of community, the knowledge and sharing of information. The ones who share the most … they’re often the ones who are pushing the boundaries and are making the most interesting wines.”
Before Bonny Doon, Satchell found himself among a community of young winemakers during the Victorian viticultural boom of the 1990s in the heart of the Yarra Valley, working at Yarra Ridge under stalwart Rob Dolan, and alongside winemakers like Rob Hall, Caroline Mooney and Tom Belford.
A few years later, he was helping Dominique Portet – who had just moved to the Yarra himself – set up the winery that still houses the Portet label. It was there, making everything except pinot, in the boutique but ambitious production that was Portet at the time, that Satchell first envisaged having his own label.
Fast forward almost 20 years and there isn’t a site of note in South Gippsland that Satchell hasn’t worked with – not that you’ll hear him bragging about this fact, nor about his time spent working for Phillip Jones at the acclaimed Bass Phillip.
“I’m not the most knowledgeable person in South Gippsland, but having had that experience with the most iconic producer – right through to actually making and tasting wines from start to finish from all of those sites – has built up this understanding of my patch of dirt.”
It took 15 years of winemaking for Satchell to secure the three sites he now works with and to allow him to challenge previous misconceptions about the consistency of the region’s wines.
“The climate is right, the temperature is right, the potential is off the charts. There is zero reason for Gippsland to have a reputation for inconsistent quality. We should have a reputation for making absolutely scintillating pinot every year whether it be hot, cold or in between.”
The first two ‘dirts’, Berrys Creek and Tilson Vineyard, both feature deep red volcanic soils; Berrys’ northern aspect results in a pinot with a generous spice profile and broad fruit spectrum, compared with the sour red fruit and crunchy acidity produced by the easterly aspect of the smaller Tilson vineyard.
The third and the furthest south, Holgates Road, is the central block for the project, responsible for the most structured and finessed pinot of the three. Shallower, sandy soils lead to less vigorous vines and smaller berries, giving the wine greater structural density, as well as a distinctive saltbush and dried sage character. Holgates Road is also home to a fair portion of the riesling vines Satchell uses to produce his off-dry ‘The Dirty Rizza’, while 2019 has seen the addition of a fleshy, generous and textural chardonnay to the portfolio.
With Australia’s record bushfires devastating large swathes of vineyards in Eastern Gippsland earlier this year, plus the threat of smoke taint heading into harvest, Satchell says they dodged a bullet.
“I still don’t understand how we did it,” he says. “My heart goes out so much to the people out in East Gippsland … I feel like in South Gippsland, we’re in a bit of a bubble, I just feel incredibly blessed.”
With yields already down due to terrible weather conditions during the previous spring, 2020 certainly won’t be a record-breaking vintage for Gippsland, but Satchell is quietly confident it will produce incredibly age-worthy pinot.
“They’re quite perfumed, and long and fine,” he says of the 2020 pinot noirs. “It was one of the coldest vintages we’ve had, a properly cold but fabulous vintage despite low yields … the wines that we do have are looking pretty smart.”
As for now, the warm industrial space that serves as Dirty Three HQ has been adopted by visitors and locals alike as a neighbourhood hangout – with pre-lockdown crowds giving Satchell the opportunity to ring in some of his old music contacts to play live in the space.
“There are some really strong parallels,” he admits, when talking about before wine, when music was his main passion. “There’s this amazing balance between science and art. You can write it down in the notes and then you play it, but often not exactly the way the notes are. The unexplained, it’s the unexplained in wine too and that’s what brings the beauty.”
I pause before asking if the renowned Australian band of the same name had anything to do with him calling his label ‘Dirty Three’. He laughs. “It was a definitely a play on the connection between music and wine and the flow between the two … but the whole idea behind the three was to have three different sites, three different dirts and to make the wines and tell that story. It seemed like a natural segue for what we were doing.”
Making connections – between wine and music, between producers and patrons, and within the community – is the lifeblood of Dirty Three.
“Between the bushfires and Covid and everything that has gone on in the last year, everybody’s gone, ‘you know what, we really need to support our local places’ because they’ve realised if they don’t, these places aren’t going to be there,” says Satchell. “The local support and the support further afield has been incredible.
“We’re not out of the woods and we’re certainly not anywhere back up to where we were, but we’ve been able to tick along.”
2019 The Dirty Chardy Chardonnay, A$39
Fleshy and generous, with notes of Golden Delicious apple, pineapple and butterscotch. Wild fermented in French oak on full solids, it’s textural and rich with ripe acidity pulling through to slightly saline notes on the finish.
2019 All the Dirts Pinot Noir, A$39
With plump strawberry and raspberry on the mid palate, this generous and balanced regional expression is characterised by juicy red fruit and soft anise spice, held in check by subtle bramble and toasted oak elements resulting in well-integrated, soft tannins and rounded mouthfeel.
2019 Dirt One Berrys Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir, A$60
The most expressive and savoury of the three single sites, this wine leads with an exotic spice profile of green peppercorn, smoked chocolate and nutmeg, laced together with dried violet and layered, earthy tannins. Blackberry and raspberry sour strap elements provide depth and generosity to this impressive varietal expression.
2019 Dirt Two Tilson Vineyard Pinot Noir, A$60
Super light-footed and aromatic, Dirt Two is fresh with crisp acidity and crunchy cranberry, sour cherry and mouth-watering Davidson’s plum leading the palate. Soft rose jelly on the nose is accompanied by notes of vanilla, jasmine tea and cool, mineral tannins on the finish.
2019 Dirt Three Holgates Road Vineyard Pinot Noir, A$60
The furthest south of the three vineyards, this pinot is characterised by dried sage, lavender and saltbush on the nose. Unctuous strawberry, blackcurrant and tea-tree undertones give depth and complexity to the most structured site expression, and a promise of impressive longevity with careful cellaring.
Prices as per the Dirty Three website.