Heathcote is a region known for its ripe and powerful shiraz, but over the past two decades, wineries have been embracing other varieties at an increasing pace. One such producer is Vinea Marson, run by Mario, Helen and Madeleine Marson, which focuses mainly on indigenous Italian grapes. Through their little patch of dirt, rustic cellar door and deep connection to their heritage, the Marsons are creating la vita bella in central Victoria.
With a great-grandfather who made a living as a winemaker in the Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the country’s north-east, and a father who continued the tradition in their Melbourne backyard, Mario Marson spent much of his formative years surrounded by grapes. The Italian tradition of incorporating wine as an integral part of a family meal – particularly if that family has produced the wine themselves – was strong in the Marson household.
Following the completion of his HSC, Mario went on to study agricultural science at La Trobe University, where he eventually became more interested in viticulture – no doubt helped in part by a trip to Italy after deferring his second year. A case of fortuitous timing saw Mario land his first job, at St Huberts, after approaching them right after their vineyard manager had resigned.
In 1979, Mario met Helen at Melbourne’s Abruzzo Club, and while she wasn’t brought up in a wine-drinking family, she loved the traditions practised by Italian migrants. It was through Mario that she was able to “expand her tastebuds”.
Adjusting to life as a winemaker’s spouse took some time. She recalls waking at 3am one morning, all panicked that Mario still wasn’t home. With a quick phone call to another winemaker’s wife, she discovered that very late nights are pretty normal during vintage.
These lengthy hours became even more common when Mario began working with Dr John Middleton as assistant winemaker at Mount Mary in 1983, a vintage that coincided with the Ash Wednesday bushfires and the first time that many Australian winemakers started to see the effect of smoke on grapes. In 1986, Mario was offered the chance to set up a new winery, Long Gully, in Healesville, where he remained until 1989. A chance meeting with Middleton presented a new opportunity: to come back to Mount Mary but to take over the winemaking duties while Middleton stepped back.
Mario regards the years at Mount Mary as very influential in his winemaking approach for many reasons. Working at this outstanding winery allowed him to fully appreciate the confluence between the technical and creative aspects of winemaking. In 1994, Middleton sent Mario to do a vintage at Domaine de la Pousse d’Or in Burgundy, which also became an important time for Helen and their three children: Laura, and the twins Madeleine and Emily.
While Mario worked, Helen and the girls spent time with uncles, aunts and cousins in Friuli, as well as travelling around Tuscany, Burgundy and Switzerland. Mario also spent time at Isole e Olena in Tuscany, where he saw the new things being done with sangiovese by winemaker Paolo de Marchi, and in the Collio sub-region of Friuli, exposing him to the white grapes friulano, pinot bianco, malvasia istriana and picolit.
On returning to Australia, Mario was determined to find some land to plant his own vines; however, it wasn’t until 1999 that they found a 600-acre property in Heathcote that was being subdivided. All six parcels subsequently became vineyards. The bulk of the vines were planted over the next two years, with shiraz, viognier, nebbiolo and sangiovese the main varieties, along with small plantings of barbera and refosco dal peduncolo rosso. Different clones of sangiovese and nebbiolo came later.
Another opportunity arose when friend Neil Mulcahy (owner of Daisy’s Garden Supplies) was looking at buying land in the Alpine Valleys region. The site already had some barbera planted and Mulcahy wanted to add some whites, such as sauvignon blanc. Mario suggested planting prosecco and the four Friulian varieties mentioned above, and offered to buy the fruit.
Friuli winemaking traditions feature heavily in the wines of Vinea Marson, particularly the use of extended skin contact for white grapes such as friulano, which naturally has a high phenolic content. Mario recalled going to dinner with a famed winemaker in Piemonte (who shall remain nameless), and after trying Mario’s own nebbiolo, the winemaker exclaimed: “This isn’t Barolo.”
While inspiration may come from Italy, Vinea Marson’s wines are not trying to simply emulate Italian versions, instead showing what can be done in their own corner of the world.
Helen has been at Mario’s side for much of his career, undertaking various roles such as overseeing the finances, doing deliveries and managing the cellar door. Since 2015, Mario and Helen have been joined by daughter Madeleine, who stepped in at short notice when they were short a cellar hand for vintage.
Madeleine is currently completing the wine course at Charles Sturt University, and says she feels privileged to be able to apply her learning in the family business. From a young age, she knew that there was “something special” about what her dad did in the winery, and while she was, “quite frankly, pretty bad” at the beginning, she “didn’t realise I’d love it as much as I do”.
For some time now, Madeleine has been involved in Heathcote Women in Wine, an organisation focused on increasing the visibility of women in the industry, which in some ways still has a bit of a “blokey culture”. Her hope is to one day “not be known as a female winemaker – I’m a winemaker”, and Heathcote Women in Wine is just one of many outfits around the country endeavouring (and succeeding) to do just that.
Seeing Mario and Madeleine work together in the winery, you gain an appreciation for the shared story of their wines and the long history of traditions that bind them. While trying to do things differently, they are always focused on creating excellent wines. Even though Mario believes his wines “will never win trophies”, where they succeed is in enhancing the experience of food while telling a story about their origins. Meanwhile, Madeleine’s role has been not so much to challenge the methods of her father but to find ways of making their efforts more efficient.
One of the ways in which Vinea Marson is doing this is through adopting a more sustainable approach to viticulture, such as using cover crops and mulching, and the planned reforesting of parts of the property (including certain species suited for growing truffles). The day of their final use of herbicidal spray in the vineyard actually coincided with the successful acquisition of funding to help them move towards more sustainable practices, and 2022 will see the installation of 90 solar panels on top of their newly built winery. Recycling has become a recent (and tasty) exercise, with nebbiolo grape skins, must and lees sent to That’s Amore Cheese in Thomastown, which uses them to wrap their Drunken Buffalo cheese. And yes, it’s as delicious as it sounds.
In terms of the future, Mario would love to plant some ribolla gialla, which would then become the fifth grape in their exquisite white blend Grazia – alongside pinot bianco, malvasia istriana, friulano and picolit – and he believes that nerello mascalese may grow really well on the rich Cambrian soils. Shiraz was initially planted as an “insurance policy”, as Mario “wasn’t game enough to really stick my neck out” by only planting Italian varieties. However, the success of their venture spurred them on to plant more barbera and to explore which other indigenous Italian grapes would thrive there.
On a warm summer’s day, looking out from the cellar door over the bocce court and vineyard, you can almost feel like you’re in an Italian winery, and the superb wines and hospitality of Mario, Helen and Madeleine make Vinea Marson a true Victorian paradiso.
Wine to Try
2018 Vinea Marson Grazia, A$28
Delicious, textural and savoury, this blend of pinot bianco, malvasia istriana, friulano and picolit is showing wax, honey, ginger, toasty and nutty notes, with some cucumber freshness. Eight months on lees gives it palate weight and the savouriness makes it a great food wine.
2019 Vinea Marson Rosato, A$28
A 75/25 blend of sangiovese and nebbiolo, this dry and delectable rosé presents a mix of primary fruit (cherry, raspberry, redcurrant) and savoury characters (herbs, leather). It’s silky, vibrant and utterly delicious, either by itself or with dishes such as antipasti or fish.
2017 Vinea Marson Sangiovese, A$38
Smooth and flavourful, the benefits of an excellent vintage are plain to see in this ripe and constantly evolving wine. Cherry, raspberry, tomato leaf, liquorice and plum gel beautifully with leather and earthy tones in a supremely balanced and quite youthful wine. Still has many years ahead of it.