People: Rivar Ferguson-Mayer
Place: Victoria, Australia
Grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
Farming: Organic
Production: 12.000 bottles

Not much introduction is needed for the cult name that is Timo Mayer. We visited his winery in December last year and managed to secure a miniscule allocation of his 'Bloody Hill' series, which is now tended by his son Rivar. The "bloody steep vineyard" of 2.5 ha gives grapes that are capable of producing wines of exalt elegance and purity. The signature of Mayer's winemaking style is his penchant for whole-bunch ferment. His wines have an ethereal quality, firm tannins and impeccable structure. This is pretty legendary stuff, so grab it while you can.

Rivar Ferguson-Mayer

"When I was a kid, I vividly remember my early days watching dad working in the vineyards and soaking in the captivating aromas of fermenting grapes, but despite being surrounded by all this, I didn’t really find any interest in working in the winery myself. As the years passed, my understanding of the winemaking process began to evolve. I gradually realized that winemaking was not just a simple agricultural endeavor; it was a delicate art form that required meticulous attention to detail and patience.”

Curiosity sparked something within Rivar, prompting him to delve deeper into the intricacies of winemaking, viticulture, and the subtle nuances of different grape varietals of the Yarra Valley.

"Gradually, I began to unravel the nuances of this craft. As my journey into winemaking continued, I decided to expand my horizons and head out to Germany where dad has another winery. It was there that I discovered yet another facet of the winemaking world - the emphasis on whole-bunch fermentation. The meticulous handling of entire grape clusters brought a new dimension to the wine. Now, my goal is to do a vintage at Domaine Takahiko in Hokkaido, where they engage in a very similar process in order to produce elegant, but savoury wines.”

It goes without saying that Pinot Noir holds an irreplaceable place in Rivar's heart. Its elegance, complexity, and the sheer depth of flavors it can produce have always ignited a fascination. Yet, Rivar's passion doesn't stop here. He cherishes the opportunity to work with a variety of grape varietals, each with its unique personality and challenges. These include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and Syrah.

"The essence of my winemaking lies in infusing each of my wines with a timeless, classic touch. However, I don't believe in adhering to a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach. In my Village range, I've noticed that the grapes tend to ripen at a slightly faster pace, so I embrace the opportunity to explore the nuances that these grapes offer. I de-stem three bins, preserving the purity of the fruit, while with the remaining bin, I opt for whole-bunch fermentation. This approach introduces a dynamic element to the winemaking process, giving each batch its unique identity.”

The Wines

Undoubtely, forging your own path in the world of winemaking can be an intricate and challenging endeavor, especially when your father stands as an iconic figure in the realm of Australian wine. In the shadows of such a towering presence, Rivar finds himself at a crossroads where he is faced with a compelling choice. While his Timo’s legacy undoubtedly serves as a source of pride and inspiration, Rivar wants to craft wines that have his own personal print.

"It's essential for me to underscore that my intention isn't to mimic my father’s style. I firmly believe that a wine should be a genuine reflection of its origin, capturing the essence of the vineyard and the grape varieties it comes from. At the same time, I am an ardent enthusiast of experimentation in the winery - I see it as a playground. This creative spirit fuels my desire to constantly refine and innovate my winemaking techniques. Whether it's varying fermentation methods, aging in different types of oak, or experimenting with blending ratios, I love the infinite possibilities to shape and enhance the character of the wine."

Rivar's commitment to organic viticulture is obvious. While he adheres to these practices, he has chosen not to pursue official certification - as he says “we just do what we do every day”.

"An organic certificate won’t change the way I approach my vines. I will keep doing what I’m doing with or without it. There is no room for synthetic chemicals in my vineyard. The only treatment I use judiciously is spraying the plants with copper sulphate, which I believe is necessary to maintain the health of the vines and achieve a delicate balance between encouraging vine growth and minimizing the competition posed by weeds and other plants.”

So why do these wines stand out? First of all, we find them to be some of the best value drops we’ve tasted in years. That combination of whole-bunch and destemming is just heavenly, especially for those that don’t like those “stemmy, green” notes dominating in the wines. They are savoury, but also have a BIG spotlight on the fruit.

"The Bloody Hill wines are definitely fresher than the Mayer range and that is what sets them apart. The two biggest challenges in the winery are controlling the volatile acidity (VA), but also working with whole bunches (they take so much space on the floor haha!). While VA is generally considered a fault when it’s apparent, it can actually lift a wine’s body and character when kept at low levels, so the essential task at hand is catching it on time. At the end of the day, both these elements add so much more complexity and flavor to the wines, it’s just a matter of bringing everything into sync.”

Rivar’s wines are a phenomenon in Australia.  The wines from his tiny estate are among the most sought-after and hardest to find at Australian restaurants and wine stores. All are drawn in by his delicate, savoury wines, his simple and unpretentious approach to winemaking, and his committed, diligent organic farming practices.

[Originally published in October 2023]

Aleksandar Draganic