By Melissa Walsh Photo Yanni
He is an industry icon, pioneer of the peninsula wine region, founding member of the Mornington Peninsula Vignerons Association, has mentored winemakers with his experience, wisdom and gentility, and still retains a humility that only the most talented can afford. He is of course, Nat White, the man who has had a profound influence on the wine industry, since planting the first vines with his wife, Rosalie, 44 years ago.
“Our story began in 1965 when we were youthful dreamers. We travelled to London after we had married quite young and spent eight months camping and discovering wonderful parts of Europe,” said Nat and Rosalie from their home in Flinders. “We fell in love with the little rural villages and family wine estates, particularly in France, Germany and Italy.”
That first sojourn would set off a continued interest in wines particularly the Burgundy region where the couple discovered a love for pinot noir.
“There was very little pinot noir grown in Australia. In fact it was almost unheard of here. Red wine meant shiraz and cabernet, and anyone who knew of it saw it only as a component of sparkling wine,” said Nat, who was then on a single minded path to find a way to grow the grapes in a southern Victorian vineyard.
Ten years after their visit to Burgundy, the first vines were planted at Main Ridge in 1975.
“We had done extensive travelling, worked overseas and interstate but came back to Mt Eliza to build our dream house and raise our two children,” said Rosalie. “We became aware of a backwater called Red Hill with rich soil that grew apples, cherries and strawberries and it was only 25 minutes from where we lived on the peninsula. On an outing one day we discovered a north-facing, 12 acre failed lemon orchard which had no road access and was very affordable at $25,000.”
That lemon orchard would eventually become the site of Main Ridge Estate, the first licensed winery on the Mornington Peninsula, but not before a lot of hard work.
“Our weekends soon became consumed with physical labour as we carried our babies, tools and picnics through a neighbouring property, initially building a wooden shed for shelter and storage, planting a trial row of vine cuttings and harvesting some lemons,” said Rosalie, who was never afraid of hard work.
“Our first crop was picked in 1979 and crushed in a mouli in our garage in Mt Eliza. We agreed the first vintage was as good as the finest burgundy,” Nat said with a laugh. “What we did realise was that the region could grow pinot noir and chardonnay. We sold our first commercial vintage in 1980.”
One thing the couple had their heart set on was quality and not quantity, after travelling to the charming vineyards in Burgundy and tasting the outstanding wines made on modest properties.
“We had a conservative plan to establish one acre of vines every year for six years,” said Nat, who had been studying the Wine Science course at Charles Sturt University which provided knowledge and contact with other aspiring winemakers. “It was also a great help to discover other experimental vineyards popping up in the area with the McCulloghs, Myers, Keffords, Kewleys and Stoniers who got together to eventually create what would become the Mornington Peninsula Vignerons Association.”
A combination of bravery and passion of one winemaker was the catalyst for the flourishing wine industry on the Mornington Peninsula. Nat gave up the security of a public service civil engineering job soon after planting the vineyards.
“Rosalie and I had limited capital but huge determination to create the vineyard we always wanted. We worked day and night, studying and increasing our understanding of the land which we truly believed was perfect for pinot noir and chardonnay,” said Nat, who at 78 has only just finished working as a consultant at Main Ridge Estate, which he and Rosalie sold to the Sexton family three years ago.
“We celebrated 40 years at Main Ridge Estate in 2015 and it was time for someone else to take the reins so it was sold just as our house in Flinders was being built; a bitter sweet time as Main Ridge Estate has become the hub of our Red Hill community and has seen so many celebrations at its versatile cellar door. Those memories will never fade and we are often there as our successors, the Sexton family, have become wonderful friends,” said Rosalie.
These days, Nat plays golf and Rosalie works at the kinder down the road. “We love gardening and catching up with friends and will continue to travel widely so are definitely enjoying this stage of our lives too,” they said.