The Grape & The Juniper: In Pursuit of the Perfect Drink
Grape harvest happens in the Yarra Valley from February to April. During these months hectares of chardonnay and pinot vines fill up with tractors, winemakers and teams of pickers, whose every action is dedicated to grapes. The air capsizes under the weight of stems, grape skins, French oak and yeast.
Harvest is the busiest time of the year for winemakers, and more so when you’re Andrew Marks. Andrew is co-winemaker at his family winery, Gembrook Hill, and captain of his own twin labels – The Wanderer, based in the Yarra Valley, and its Spanish double, El Wanderer. Somewhere along the way he started making gin too, under the name The Melbourne Gin Company (MGC). In recent years it’s meant considerable time spent with his nose stuck in a glass, interpreting the shifting fragrances of grapes, and native botanical distillates.
“The first thing you should know is that my wines and gin smell intoxicating,” explains Andrew, with trademark dryness. Go deeper into the bouquet of a Wanderer wine or on the volatile surface of an MGC Negroni and what you’ll find is perfume. “It is incredibly important for me that my wines are perfumed,” says Andrew, settling in.
I tend to think of wines as being feminine or masculine. The wines I aspire to make are definitely more feminine: perfumed, elegant medium bodied with plenty of character and length. For the MGC the nose has to be immediately beguiling, with an aroma that sucks you in and leaves you begging for more.
Scent is king, both for winemaking and in the world of gin. Winemakers have been known to insure their noses for millions. The sense of smell pilots our response when we drink – even more so than our limited categories of taste. “An appreciation of scent is of the utmost importance for me professionally,” Andrew explains. “With respect to the MGC most of the trialing was done by scent – there is too much palate fatigue tasting spirits otherwise. In winemaking the nose knows. But ultimately winemaking and drinking involve all the senses. Sight, taste, touch and even sound are important and guide us through the winemaking process and then enhance the drinking pleasure.”
The MGC gin is a nod to the classic London dry-style, where juniper and coriander botanicals dominate. But the spirit that Andrew makes is more than reverential and defines itself by local ingredients. There are a total of eleven botanical components in the mix, amongst them navel oranges, honey lemon myrtle and Yarra Valley-grown rosemary. “For gin-making I source fresh ingredients and distill them in pure alcohol, which results in a pure distillate infused with flavor. For example, when I distill rosemary I harvest it in the morning from my parent’s vegetable garden and put the sprigs straight into the still. I purchase organic navel oranges in season and peel them the morning of distillation. The peel goes in the still and I eat the fruit!”
It’s this kind of ease and straightforwardness that makes Andrew an ideal person to sit down and drink with. But even gin gets put to one side in favour of grapes and physical labour at harvest time. “Practically speaking for two thirds of the year gin-making and winemaking are compatible. But during the grape harvest there is no time for gin-making,” he admits.
So why does a well recognised, and already hard-working, winemaker opt to begin a second career as a producer of handcrafted gin? “It’s simple,” says Andrew. “I like drinking martinis.”
Most would reach for a bottle of Tanqueray No. 10, a lemon or an olive, and some dry vermouth at this point. Andrew, on the other hand, had a copper pot baine-marie still made to order in Portugal, shipped it to Melbourne, planted a juniper tree and started experimenting. “I spent pretty much a year playing around with different botanicals. There is no book on how to make gin so I had to develop my own techniques. It’s been a journey into alchemy.”
The process of making a highly fragrant gin from a neutral alcohol is one that the winemaker approaches hands-on. “My approach from the outset was to distill my botanicals individually. I wanted to understand the unique properties of each botanical before I tried to blend them together. This may be slightly unusual for gin makers, but made most sense to me as a winemaker intent on building a flavour profile.” The cataloguing of individual botanicals also mirrors a classic perfumer’s approach, where pure oils are blended together with a neutral carrier to create a rounded fragrance. As for perfumes, botanicals are at the heart of gin.
And grapes are at the heart of wine. The nose of wine is one that starts with grapes, and ends at an indefinite moment down the track – when someone picks up the bottle, uncorks and drinks it. “Grapes smell fresh when they arrive at the winery and then commence a transformative journey that continues until it ends up in your glass, who knows when,” says Andrew.
For the most part my role as a winemaker is to shepherd the fruit from the vineyard through the winemaking process and into the bottle with as little adulteration as possible. There are critical times during the process when a wines aroma is alerting you to a stage of production that may require some action. These moments and actions may all influence the final aroma of the wine.”
Things happen – aromatically speaking – inside the bottle too. Chemical reactions are what give rise to wine in the first place, and different types of reactions continue to play out in the closed environment of a wine bottle over time. External influences like temperature, movement and light can all change the way wine will taste, and smell, when eventually opened. “Wine certainly evolves in the bottle with time,” says Andrew. “In some ways it mirrors how we age. As we start to age the puppy fat drops away, then as we mature into our elder years we frequently thicken at the waist, and become a bit more savoury and mellow.” In the wine world, those characters are what connoisseurs will often wait for.
Fortunately, there’s no need to wait when it comes to MGC gin. It’s the kind of drink capable of instant satisfaction: once it’s been distilled with botanicals, pared back with pure Gembrook rainwater and bottled, it’s ready to go. The only real question is how to drink it, and for that Andrew doesn’t apply a strict rulebook. “I’m certainly not prescriptive about how any of my wines or gin should be drunk. I like to think they’re capable of being enjoyed in many different scenarios and that they can make a positive contribution to an occasion,” he says. “When it came to developing the MGC gin I did have three things in mind as measures of success, though. The Martini – the true litmus test for any gin; the gin and tonic; and the Negroni – for getting the party started.”
We are constantly surrounded by scents, and a surprising number of them are discoverable when you plunge your nose into a wine glass, or an old fashioned glass, and breathe in. These scents are what Andrew works with, and constructs, daily. He begins with the grape and the juniper tree and sometimes ends up a hundred permutations from there. “We live in a world of aroma and I think that once the olfactory senses are awakened they are always prowling on the alert for sensory adventures.” For a botanically minded, Martini-focused winemaker like Andrew, the next adventure may well be found in an olive grove, a paddock filled with lemon trees, or in the creation of a signature dry vermouth – all in pursuit of the perfect drink.
The Planthunter’s Cocktail Hour
We asked Andrew Marks to help us with cocktail hour at The Planthunter, and here’s what he recommended. “Given that I’m a winemaker who makes sparkling wine a la methode champenoise (we’re not allowed to say Champagne) this cocktail appeals: a variation on the classic French 75.”
The MGC 75
2/3 MGC gin
1/3 lemon juice
1 spoonful powdered sugar
A good quality Champagne or sparkling wine
Pour all the ingredients – with the exception of the bubbles – into a cocktail shaker, and shake well. Tip the resulting mixture into a tall glass containing cracked ice and top up with Champagne, or your sparkling wine of choice. Garnish with lemon peel if you feel like a blast of extra colour and citrus. Sip responsibly.