Australian Wine with Hints of Garrison

Mise En Place

Mise En Place grapes waiting for harvest in the Yarra Valley (Photo by Jana Langhorst)

Philipstown native in running for Down Under honor

Two years ago, Doug Lilburne moved to Australia and became a winemaker. For someone who creates a minuscule output, his impact is booming: He is one of 50 vintners there under the age of 45 who are candidates to be named the annual Young Gun of Wine.

Lilburne, who graduated from Haldane in 2006, and whose parents, David and Cathy, own Antipodean Books, Maps and Prints on Garrison’s Landing, began his culinary career working at the Garrison Market flipping bacon-and-egg sandwiches. His entrée into fine dining arrived when a mentor, David Perlman, opened OII in Beacon.

Doug Lilburne

Doug Lilburne (Photo by Bella Johansson)

“I enjoyed working with my hands and creating something,” he says. “The fact that people enjoyed it made me happy.”

He became interested in wine 15 years ago while interning at a high-end restaurant in the Florida Keys.

“I would watch with absolute amazement when the sommelier team would dissect a wine, picking its origin, grape variety and vintage without seeing the label,” he says. “I was hooked.”

Soon, he began “harvest-hopping” around the wide world of wine — an informal apprenticeship — stopping for a spell at a prestigious winery in California. “I didn’t get a degree for wine,” he says. “This was my school.”

By 2014, he was bouncing around wineries in the Yarra Valley in Australia, where he is now based. (His father is a native of the country.)

As the Young Gun competition suggests, a new generation of winemakers is refiguring the image of Australian wine, in part by adopting an organic, time-honored relationship with the soil.

To enter the contest, now in its 17th year, each candidate submits two commercially available wines for tasting. Along with the top prize, there are four specialty awards, including people’s choice. The winners will be announced on June 19.

Lilburne says he moved to Australia to create his wine because the bar for entry was lower than in California and he relished veering away from the country’s established vintners, who have made the country the fifth-largest wine exporter, surpassing even the U.S.

The big guns favored California-style grapes such as chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, then became known for mass-marketed fare, including Barefoot and Yellow Tail. At the other end of the spectrum, Penfolds wines, from a company founded in 1844, are prized by collectors around the world.

Cabernet grapes

Cabernet grapes with the destemmer (Photo by Jana Langhorst)

“The previous generation did all the work and we’re jumping on their backs,” Lilburne says. “But we’re looking to shift toward more sustainable farming and more energetic wine styles. Big, jammy reds are out of fashion amongst the new generation of drinkers, who prefer lighter, prettier styles.”

In his first endeavor, he and a partner created the brand CO, for co-fermentation. Their concoctions used grapes as a base and blended in harmonious orchard fruits designed to enhance the flavor and aromatics. Lilburne called them “orchard wines.” In the fields, grazing sheep replaced herbicides.

Next, he created the Mise en Place brand, grown on a leased 6-acre plot, where he experiments with pinot noir grapes and rosé styles. His latest release blends Syrah and Touriga Nacional, a floral grape varietal that originated in Portugal.

The winery is named for a French cooking term that means “to put in place,” Lilburne says. “I had to experience everything in my life before I got here and it felt right to start making wine, so everything is in the right place to commence the next chapter.”

His promise to create “honest” wines rests on growing grapes organically, using wild yeast and adding sulphites — a preservative often blamed for headaches and hangovers — only when necessary.

At the moment, Lilburne is producing 400 cases a year. To augment his income, he visits Melbourne wine shops to represent the wares of a company that imports honest wines from around the world. He calls it “the edgy side of the business.”

Amid all the innovation and experimentation, Lilburne is still finding his groove. “I’m a few years away from having my wines and styles locked in,” he says.

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