Mike Fitzpatrick’s interest in wine began on the quaintly named Squitchey Lane in Oxford, England, where he lived while studying at Oxford University in the 1970s. It was here that he first tasted wines from Europe’s finest single vineyards.
With the taste of these great wines impressed firmly in his memory, Mike returned to Australia with his future wife Helen. After a successful football career, including captaining Carlton Football Club to two premierships, Mike began building his financial career, while his interest in the finest Australian wines developed.
When Mike met Dr. John Middleton and tasted the outstanding Mount Mary wines, he came to understand that Yarra Valley and its growing collection of winemakers could produce world class Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The Valley offers growing conditions a little warmer than Burgundy and a little cooler than Bordeaux—and boasts a long history of quality across the full range of classic varieties.
In the mid 90s Mike began to search the Valley for a suitable vineyard, with a view to creating his own single vineyard wines.
“I always wanted to be involved in a winery that was in the boutique style; in other words, big enough to make an impact, but small enough to allow for hands-on at every aspect of the wine-making process,” he said.
“Having spent most of my life in Melbourne, it was natural this place would be in the Yarra Valley. Not only is it a beautiful environment, it is proven to produce world class wines, from an array of locations across the valley. When Domaine Chandon put down its roots in the Valley that showed to me how the world’s best brands and winemakers rated the Valley.
“So, when the opportunity came up, in 1996 (basking in the glow of a Carlton premiership the previous year!!) to purchase the property, with its “old” vines already producing great fruit, and a great location for a tasting room, it was a natural fit. And, with such established vineyards as Coldstream Hills and Yarra Yering close by, it was clear this was great wine-making territory, or as the French say, ‘terroir’.
Naturally he named the place Squitchy Lane—somehow, along the way, the ‘e’ dropped out of the Oxford laneway!
“We wanted Squitchy Lane to be anything but ‘more of the same’ and I think with our range of Fume Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc—as well as some superb Pinot Noir wines—we have done that; our aim is to be innovative, without going outside the structure we know can work in our micro-climate at Squitchy.
“I must say it hasn’t been easy. Over 15 years, we’ve been able to survive bushfires, smoke, embers, sunburnt grapes, frost, downy mildew, drought and voracious birds; for all that, we haven't had many misses, although we didn't have enough fruit in 2013 to make a varietal Cabernet."
“I am very proud of what we’ve done over the last five or so years. The wines can proudly stand with the best of the Valley.”
Winemaker Robert Paul shares his views on Squitchy Lane wines:
Our grape-growing and winemaking philosophies at Squitchy Lane are directed solely towards getting the best fruit flavours possible.
We achieve this in the vineyard by:
- Our vineyard age. Most of our vines are older than 30 years.
- Our vineyard orientation. All our vineyard blocks face due north. This gives us maximum sunlight hours and protects us from cold southerly weather.
- Our crop level. All our blocks are managed to keep the amount of fruit to below 4.5 tonnes per hectare. While our vineyard has a great aspect and we get lots of sunlight, the Yarra Valley is not really a warm region so we need to ensure ripeness can be achieved without putting pressure on the vines. Low crop levels achieve this, as well as giving concentrated flavours.
In the winery, our approach is to take this great fruit and then:
- Treat it as gently and simply as possible. Whites are whole-bunch pressed (that is, they are not crushed before pressing) and reds receive only a gentle crush that allows a high percentage of whole berries into the fermentation.
- Reduce the amount of additives we use. White wines are usually fermented with wild yeast and receive no acid additions or fining. Reds in some years may need a small addition of tartaric acid and we usually use a cultured yeast to protect quality. The resulting wines are not fined.
When appropriate, we make an addition of sulphur dioxide to preserve and protect the wine.
- Use the best-quality French oak barrels. Over time, we have selected a handful of coopers whose barrels we trust. We know the results their barrels will produce and we work closely with them to ensure integrity and consistency. If that means visiting them at their workshops in France, then that’s what we do.
- Give our wines some bottle-ageing before release. It’s long been our belief that here in Australia we drink a lot of our wines too young. Even twelve months can make a big difference to the overall flavor and drinking experience so we like to let our wines rest for at least six to nine months months after bottling before we even consider releasing them.
My winemaking philosophy is pretty simple. I see myself as the link between vineyard and winery. It starts in the vineyard and finishes on the bottling line and I need to be involved in every part of the process.
When the seasons are kind it’s easy. 2013 comes to mind, a year when it all fell into place (other than a low crop of the Cabernet grapes). It’s the difficult years that put you to the test. 2011 is the most recent example and I am proud the wines we made in that year are showing very well now.
I don’t set out with a fixed idea of how the wines should taste but there are some dominant themes:
- Consistency and house style is vital. I want the consumer to be able to recognise our unique style.
- All our wines should be, above all else, enjoyable and satisfying to drink. Reaching for the second glass should be an almost automatic response.
- Red wines should be supple. I am helped in this by the lovely smooth, sweet tannin profile the Yarra Valley climate gives to the grapes.
- Cellaring potential is necessary.
- Balance—of flavours, oak, maturation characters, acidity and so on. Once again, the Yarra Valley and our site come into their own here. We can obtain full ripeness at relatively low alcohol levels and this gives our wines an innate sense of balance and freshness.