News that Yarra Valley winery Giant Steps sold to US-based Jackson Family Wines in late August flags the growing international respect and demand for high-quality Australian cool-climate pinot noir and chardonnay. It follows the sale of Bass Phillip earlier this year to a consortium of offshore investors including Burgundian Jean-Marie Fourrier.
Giant Steps has been widely recognised for consistently over-delivering on wine quality for some time, asserting itself into the top echelon of Australia’s pinot noir (and chardonnay) production with outstanding showings from vintages 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Founder Phil Sexton sold the sub-brand, Innocent Bystander, to Brown Brothers in 2016, a move that dramatically reduced the scale of the Giant Step’s operations – down from 850-900 tonnes to around 350 tonnes. More recently, the winery site was sold to an investor in 2019. Meanwhile Sexton moved to reinvigorate the Matilda Bay Brewing Company brand with Carlton & United Breweries; Sexton founded Matilda Bay in 1983 and sold it to Carlton in 1990.
Giant Steps concurrently started talking to Jackson Family Wines about a global distribution solution for the brand and this conversation, along with an interest in cool-climate Australian pinot noir and chardonnay, led them to inquire about purchasing the Giant Steps business outright.
With Sexton refocusing on brewing, the sale of Giant Steps is timely and the backing of the Jackson Family comes with the opportunity to further invest.
“We have our sights set on some more plantings in the Yarra,” winemaker Steve Flamsteed says.
“This move creates the vehicle for Jackson Family Wines to have a footprint in Tasmania, which they have made clear they want to do.”
It also extends the efficiency of the winery: there’s a well-established route for Tasmanian grapes onto the Australian mainland via overnight refrigerated trucks and the plan at Giant Steps is to move to 40-50 tonne Tasmanian intake as soon as possible. They’ve been sourcing from the Coal River Valley's Nocton and Clarence House vineyards for the past three years and Flamsteed says they are looking for another in that same area. Along with Flamsteed, Sexton remains in a general manager role, while vineyard manager Ashley Wood, and sales and marketing director Samantha Isherwood,
are also staying.
“This is actually pretty exciting,” Flamsteed says, “From what I’ve seen and heard the Jackson Family are great people, really personable, and their outlook feels very genuine. I think this is a great new stage for Giant Steps.”
The 2019 Giant Steps Yarra Valley Pinot Noir (A$38) is a staple of rich cherry fruit, spice and succulent, mouth-filling flavour. It also represents outstanding value.
Stepping into the single vineyard realm, the 2019 Giant Steps Primavera Vineyard Pinot Noir (A$65) is an explosively flavoursome pinot that offers a brightness of cherry and strawberry fruit on the nose and palate that is instantly appealing. This is precise, crunchy with plenty of flavour.
The 2019 Giant Steps Applejack Vineyard Pinot Noir (A$65) is complex, with strawberry, cherry and pomegranate aromas leading to a palate with concentration, length and a sleek acid-driven structure.
The 2019 Giant Steps Sexton Vineyard Pinot Noir (A$65) is similarly nuanced but built on a more tannin-driven structure. While it has youthful complexity to offer, this is the wine that will really develop over the next five or more years in bottle. The fruits are more in the blueberry and dried cherry zone, with foresty, earthy hints and intense cherry fruit flavour delivered in layers of fine, long tannin.
The Giant Steps Tasmanian pinot project has evolved well, with the 2019 Giant Steps Fatal Shore Pinot Noir (A$75) delivering a convincingly generous and drinkable style that will improve and develop further over the next five or six years. There’s already good early complexity on the nose with rose-like florals, cherry and blueberry fruits, and earthy characters. Rich fleshy texture is pinned in place with bright acid structure.
The highly credentialed Burgundy winemaker François Millet has been chief winemaker at Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé in Chambolle-Musigny since 1986, a role that sees him preside over choice holdings of Grand Cru sites like Les Musigny, Chambertin Clos de Bèze and Bonnes Mares. He has made pinot noir in New Zealand at Prophet’s Rock since 2015 and is now releasing a small amount of wine under the eponymous François Millet & Fils.
It is a family affair with Millet, wife Michelle and their two sons, Julien and Adrien, involved. The wines are vinified in the cellar beneath the family home in Chambolle-Musigny and these first four wines are from the 2017 vintage – a source of very drinkable reds in Burgundy with good typicity. All grapes are de-stemmed and fermented in open-topped vats with a very careful élevage and no new oak.
The 2017 François Millet & Fils Bourgogne les Rues (A$138) is impressive for the detail of tannin it offers. It has a fresh, focused red fruit core of aromas, and flavours in the raspberry and red cherry zone. There’s a 2017 François Millet & Fils Volnay (A$243), which has a distinctive blue fruit and violet nose with sous bois notes, too, smoothly layered, plush tannins carry good depth and are polished.
The 2017 François Millet & Fils Gevrey-Chambertin (A$315) delivers a brambly, earthy impression with some youthfully reductive meaty notes, plenty of red cherries and sappy characters. The trademark polished tannins are nicely tamed and it has a silky and refined feel.
The top wine is, unsurprisingly, from the home village of Chambolle-Musigny and from a parcel that sits just at the northern end of Les Musigny. The 2017 François Millet & Fils Chambolle-Musigny Les Fouchères (A$399) is complex and energetic with florals, red cherries, some sous bois notes and wild raspberry fruit, too. Tannins are finely honed and have a sense of both precision and power. In fact all four of these debut wines bear the stamp of Millet’s deft structural touch.