The Pinot pioneers
Pinot Noir’s reputation today is so absolutely established in the minds of Australian wine fanatics that you have to use your imagination to understand how radical a step we took back in 1985, when we decided to plant 10 acres of Pinot Noir in the Adelaide Hills.
While the great wines of Burgundy had always been famous, few recognised that for Pinot Noir to flourish in Australia, it would need to be planted in regions very different to the hot, dry and flat lowlands traditionally considered best suited for vines.
For Pinot Noir to succeed here, it would require the planting of a site that was not just extreme but, by the industrial logic of the 1980s, foolhardy and even downright dangerous. At least, that’s what the locals thought!
Mount Carey: the perfect site for Pinot
The Whisson Lake Vineyard is the highest commercial vineyard in South Australia at more than 615m above sea level. It's truly vertigo-inducing, east-facing slopes of Mount Carey dominate the Piccadilly Valley just as the hill at Corton dominates the vineyards of Burgundy.
Westerly winds consistently blow in off the Southern Ocean and up to a 1.5 metres of rain may fall here in a typical year. Winter snow is not unknown in this frigid part of South Australia. While Adelaideans swelter on hot summer nights, just 10kms away at Mount Carey a jumper and jacket are usually a life-saver.
This was just the kind of site where Pinot Noir could – and would – prosper.
From bare hillside to world-class Pinot producer
When Mark Whisson first laid eyes on the Mount Carey block in 1985 (glancing at it from the seat of his Ducati while heading to work at the Petaluma vineyards), it was just a bare hillside used for cattle grazing – no house, no vineyard, barely even fences. After bringing Bruce Lake on board as a partner (hence the curious ‘Whisson Lake’ name for a property that has no lake), the pair planted our first 10-acre Pinot Noir vineyard in 1985.
That same year, Mark designed and started building the iconic wooden homestead that still features on Whisson Lake labels today.
By late 1997 Mark had planted our five-acre Pinot Noir bottom block. In 2003 Bill Bissett joined the vineyard ownership and management team and in 2010, Mark’s new wife Andrie joined the business, too.
As the years wore on and the vines sent their roots further and further into the bedrock under our soil, attitudes also changed. Winemakers realised that Pinot Noir was indeed a possibility in Australia and that our extreme Piccadilly Valley site creates wines of unusual aromatic intensity and tannin structure.
A new era dawns for Whisson Lake
Over the years, our small Pinot Noir crop has gone to some of South Australia’s most prestigious wineries. We were the only Pinot growers ever to be offered a Penfolds Grange grower contract and since 2001, we’ve continuously sold fruit to the world-renowned d’Arenberg winery in McLaren Vale.
We’ve always held a few tonnes back each year to create our own wines, too. Through the 1990s up to 2001, several famed winemakers produced our wines in certain vintages, including Jeff Grosset from Grosset Wines, Clarendon Hills’s Roman Bratasiuk and David Powell from Torbreck Wines. From 2008, Boovability’s Tom Munro served as our official winemaker, before Andrie Whisson took over the reins in 2016.
In early 2017, we said goodbye to Bruce Lake and Bill Bissett, long-running Whisson Lake partners who decided to step into retirement. And so begins a new era for Whisson Lake, with Mark and Andrie Whisson now solely at the helm as owners, viticulturalists and winemakers.
We’re now focused on finding and defining the boundaries of our hillside’s subtle terroir differences, which are magnified by Pinot Noir. With traditional Burgundian winemaking styles as our cornerstone, we create incredibly different Pinot Noir wines from fruit growing within just a couple hundred metres of one another.