Luke with Smudge

You can tell a lot about a winemaker from their cellar. Luke Lambert’s is a modest brick building housing the large oak foudre he uses to age his wines, a large dining table and a very high end Italian meat slicer. Luke is softly spoken and thoughtful, he travelled around Europe after finishing school, developing a taste for lighter-style wines that were unique to the places they came from, and Italian charcuterie. He was particularly taken by the wines from Barolo, more on his love of Nebbiolo later.

“The Yarra is a pretty good place to grow grapes”, he began, “it’s as warm as Tuscany so there’s low disease pressure, but ripening can happen quickly, so you can get heat shrivel”.

The last few vintages (2021-23) have been relatively cool, influenced by a La Niña weather pattern. Luke says he judges a year by how many days go above 38-40 degrees centigrade and there haven’t been any during the last three vintages.

Denton vineyard where Luke buys Chardonnay, Syrah and Nebbiolo. Luke in the winery.

Luke sources Chardonnay, Syrah and Nebbiolo from a vineyard called Denton, it’s a steep north facing sunny cone on a granite outcrop. The owner has undertaken some improvements to the site over the last five years : he stopped using herbicdes, cultivating under the vines instead; he’s started to add organic compost; and plans to plant more cover crops; and he employed additional staff to manage this extra work.

Luke says the vines are happy and healthy, less stressed, and he can see the farming changes coming through in a darker fruit profile which he can taste in the 2021/22 vintages which he describes as “more serious wines”.

What’s the next step for the project?

Luke has planted a vineyard over the hill in the Yea Valley, between Yarra and Beechworth. We drove up a long track to the top of the site – an east/north-east facing amphitheatre at around 400 metres above sea level, sheltered from the wind and hotter late evening sun. The site had been home to sheep since the 1950s, Luke and his wife Rosalind cleared the trees and brush themselves. He ripped the ground to 1m deep to loosen the compacted ferric-limestone soil, and planted a range of seven different Nebbiolo clones to see which suits the site best. Nebbiolo as a variety is prone to mutations, Luke thinks this might be due to the thin skin which allows strong UV light to reach the seeds.

Tasting Luke Lambert’s Nebbiolo over lunch. Luke in the Sparkletown vineyard.

The vineyard isn’t irrigated, and after three dry years, even having planted on drought resistant rootstocks the vines have been slow to establish. He said he might harvest some fruit next year, the bunshes will be small as the site’s unirrigated, so it will produce a more muscular wine. “If you’re serious in Burgundy or Barolo you wouldn’t touch the fruit for eight years”. He thinks it’ll be 20 years before the wines are where he wants them to be, definitely a project for the next generation.

In the meantime we’ve just received a shipment of the 2022 Syrah and 2021 Nebbiolo. The Syrah, which is 80% whole-bunch, has dark blueberry fruit and a touch of tar, it has a fine but firm tannin structure balanced by fresh acidity. 2021 was a good yielding year for Nebbiolo so we’ve secured a larger than usual allocation of this unicorn! He lets his Neb spend a little less time on skins than would be traditional in Italy, to get the fruit intensity and fine tannin he’s looking for. The wine has a lighter framework than you might expect from Piedmont, similar to the more Alpine style of Valtellina/Gattinara. Luke’s ’22 has the trademark roses, fine structured tannins and dark fruit.