AND SO THE JOURNEY BEGAN
Pioneering cool climate Pinot Noir in the Adelaide Hills
Ashton Hills is a three hectare, dry-grown vineyard that lies in the Piccadilly Valley sub region of the Adelaide Hills on a ridge just below the summit of Mount Lofty. The estate was founded by Stephen George in 1982 and since that time it has built a reputation as one of Australia’s finest proponents of pinot noir and cool climate whites.
Stephen’s pioneering work at Ashton Hills was one of the catalysts for the development of the Adelaide Hills as a wine region. In the early 1980s, the Adelaide Hills wine scene was very much in its infancy, with Brian Croser leading the charge but very little other vineyard development underway. Along with Croser, Stephen was one of the key players to put Adelaide Hills on the map with his resolve to produce the best pinot noir in the country from his site in the Piccadilly Valley. Buying the land from a market gardener, Stephen recognised its immense potential, often telling friends that “where apples and cherries grow, it’s a good pointer for producing classic European style wines”.
And so the journey began. Planting his vineyard at an altitude of 570 metres and with a south facing aspect that looks towards Mt Lofty, Stephen was drawn to the fact that the site was one of the coolest areas in South Australia. Determined that this was prime real estate for his winemaking vision, Stephen started with cuttings of pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling and soon established himself as a leader in clone development for the emerging region.
For over 30 years Stephen experimented with up to 26 pinot noir clones, ultimately settling on five key clones that now make the acclaimed Reserve and Estate Pinot Noirs from Ashton Hills, plus a range of awarded sparkling and still wines. Eight carefully cultivated rows of riesling also remain in the Ashton Hills vineyard, producing a highly exclusive and limited Ashton Hills riesling each year.
Stephen has now taken a step back into semi-retirement to spend more time travelling to his beloved Burgundy, and has transferred his stake in Ashton Hills to Wirra Wirra Vineyards, with its pedigree in cool climate Adelaide Hills whites and quality McLaren Vale reds. Nonetheless, he continues to reside at his home at the winery and works closely at vintage with Liam Van Pelt, our Winery Manager, to continue the tradition of producing benchmark wines from the Ashton Hills site.
“[Ashton Hills] is the most distinguished site in South Australia for Pinot Noir; Stephen’s unremitting attention to detail has made Ashton Hills the one Grand Cru of the state.” – James Halliday
“Great news that Wirra Wirra has bought Ashton Hills. It’s like hearing that two of your best friends are hitching up: they could only have beautiful kids, no?” – Huon Hooke
Ashton Hills Vineyards, Piccadilly Valley
The Ashton Hills Vineyard provides the fruit for the majority of Ashton Hills wines including single vineyard wines in the Reserve Pinot Noir, Estate Pinot Noir and Riesling. As custodian of the vineyard for over 30 years, Stephen has harnessed the three key climate variables (humidity, temperature and rainfall) he believes are critical to the Ashton Hills site and developed a reputation for producing some of the finest wines from the Adelaide Hills.
Nestled in the Piccadilly Valley, the Ashton Hills vineyard is climatically different to the rest of the Hills, being significantly colder and wetter. At one of the highest altitudes in the Adelaide Hills the vines shudder through some of the coolest growing conditions in the country, with rainfall a whopping 1200mm a year, well over double that of the Barossa Valley. So whether it’s the lifted perfumes and elegant structure of the pinot noir or the crisp purity of the riesling, Piccadilly Valley’s bona-fide cool-climate imprint is a feature of the wines.
The vineyard has evolved substantially since it was planted in 1982, a time when modern viticulture in the Adelaide Hills was just starting to be embraced. The clonal development of the vineyard has been a critical element in the final blend of each wine, taking advantage of the individual character of each clone in a given vintage. Over the past 26 years, significant changes have been implemented in the vineyard, with the grafting or removal of nearly all other varieties to complete an estate that is dominated by pinot noir, but with a small parcel – just eight rows – of top notch riesling remaining.
“The world of Australian pinot noir has been turned on its head over the past decade or so, in terms of who are the sought-after producers. Certainly there is more competition than ever and quality is generally through the roof. Ashton Hills was outstanding way back in the 1990s (and) has never had a lull.” – Campbell Mattinson
“Ashton Hills is a source of high-quality and genuinely complex, enchanting Pinot Noir.” – Nick Stock
Cemetery Block – Adelaide Hills
In addition to the Ashton Hills estate, Stephen has partnered with the late Jim Grigg and his vineyard next to the cemetery near Uraidla in the Piccadilly Valley, to make the Ashton Hills Piccadilly Valley Pinot Noir. As the site is warmer, drier and has deeper soils, the fruit at Cemetery Block is typically picked a couple of weeks earlier and the wine showcases the character of the site with more muscle and ripe fruit flavour than the higher and cooler Estate vineyard. The contrast is distinctive and compelling and makes for a brilliant pinot noir blend.
Wendouree Vineyards – Clare Valley
To round off the range with something a little different, Stephen has consistently sourced fruit from Wendouree’s acclaimed vineyards in the Clare Valley to make a spectacular Sparkling Shiraz. Wendouree is one of the most famous red wineries in Australia and a place that Stephen knows well, given he has been making the wine there for over 40 years. With the pedigree of Wendouree and Stephen’s winemaking finesse it’s no wonder that the Ashton Hills Sparkling Shiraz has been endorsed as one of the country’s sparkling reds, receiving the kind of accolades usually reserved for the most preeminent table wines. It captures a depth and intensity of fruit with an amplitude unmatched by most of its competitors.
The Adelaide Hills is Australia’s most vibrant cool climate wine region and it is acknowledged internationally for its distinctive premium wines, viticulture and stunning scenery.
The region is located in the Mount Lofty Ranges east of Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia. Stretching in a narrow band approximately 70km long, the highest vineyards are sited between 600-650 metres altitude around the sub region of Piccadilly which Ashton Hills calls home. The Adelaide Hills are universally acknowledged for their distinctive cool climate wines, viticulture and scenery.
“South Australia’s Adelaide Hills is another potentially fine Pinot-producing area, led by the complexity and structured freshness of Stephen George’s work at Ashton Hills … A recent trip round the Adelaide Hills, for example, introduced me to excellent wines from Stephen George at Ashton Hills (Riesling with unusual vinosity and structure […] and Pinot Noir with perfume, poise and architecture).” – Andrew Jefford
Capturing the true expression of this unique site
Despite his modest protest to the contrary, Stephen’s winemaking CV is an enviable one, with his life’s work at Ashton Hills complemented by four decades of winemaking at Wendouree, one of Australia’s most revered and unique wineries. The contrast in style between the elegant and delicate wines of Ashton Hills and the extraordinarily powerful wines of Wendouree could not be greater, and yet Stephen has managed to achieve resounding success in both.
Following 30+ vintages at Ashton Hills, Stephen has become recognised as one of Australia’s finest makers and growers of pinot noir. His philosophy on the winemaking process is very simple, with a focus on minimal intervention and movement of the wine. The winery itself has an earthen floor and what is best described as “limited” winemaking equipment. Grapes are all hand-picked and gently destemmed, via a small customised, gentle destemmer that keeps as many whole berries as possible. Fermentation involves open air tanks and regular hand plunging with temperatures monitored and managed utilising the cool night time temperatures common during harvest. Skins are then basket pressed and the wine is made without any sulphur additions until bottling. The red wines are raised in a combination of new, aged, neutral French hogshead barrels.
“Stephen George wears two winemaker hats: one for Ashton Hills, drawing upon an estate vineyard high in the Adelaide Hills, and one for Wendouree. It would be hard to imagine two wineries with more diverse styles, from the elegance and finesse of Ashton Hills to the awesome power of Wendouree. After years of selecting the best pinot noir vines to provide grafting material, in the spring of 2011, all of the white vines (other than riesling) were grafted to pinot noir, the outcome is that Ashton Hills now has 2.65ha of pinot noir, and 0.35ha of riesling.” – James Halliday
LIAM VAN PELT
Liam’s career at Ashton Hills started with vintage 2019 as an assistant winemaker, cellar hand, barista and right-hand man to Stephen George. After receiving the nod from Stephen post-vintage for his wine and coffee making skills, Liam was appointed winemaker at Ashton Hills. On any given day Liam can be found pruning the vineyard, working cellar door, making wine with Stephen or spending time in trade.
After completing his bachelor degree in Oenology at Adelaide University in 2010, Liam spent time in Chianti and Sardegna. He returned home and has made wine at Adelina/Some Young Punks and Grosset in the Clare Valley, Thomas Wines in the Hunter Valley and d’Arenberg, Geddes Wine and Chapel Hill in McLaren Vale.
Liam was selected to undertake the Len Evans Tutorial in 2015 and has judged at many national and regional wine shows.
'Unremitting attention to detail'
Ashton Hills produces three pinot noirs in a style that reflects the region’s strong similarity to Burgundy. Production levels have stayed true to the boutique nature of the winery’s beginnings.
“Ashton Hills is the most distinguished site in South Australia for Pinot Noir; Stephen George’s unremitting attention to detail has made Ashton Hills the one Grand Cru of the state.” – James Halliday
Ashton Hills Reserve Pinot Noir
Following the maturation period, a few barrels are carefully selected as being the “best of the best”, highlighting the finest expression of pinot noir from the estate and with the potential for significant ageing. The Reserve is the pinnacle of the range showing lifted perfume notes, and a depth of flavour, character and length that should live beyond 10 years in the bottle. While displaying many of the traits associated with the Estate Pinot Noir, the Reserve sees more new oak and tends to carry greater weight and structure, providing the “bones” for extended cellaring. By its nature, quantities are very limited from each vintage.
Ashton Hills Estate Pinot Noir
The Estate Pinot Noir is sourced purely from our five preferred clones. The pinot fruit is destemmed via a small, customised, gentle destemmer that keeps as many whole berries as possible. The fruit is then basket pressed, and the wine is made without any sulphur additions until bottling. Some whole bunches are included, and the percentage varies according to the style of the vintage. The pinot is then matured in one and two year old barriques prior to bottling. It is designed to be enjoyed upon release, however careful cellaring will see the wine evolve handsomely for at least another five years.
Ashton Hills Piccadilly Valley Pinot Noir
The Piccadilly Valley Pinot Noir is a blend of fruit from premium Piccadilly Valley vineyards, topped up with a parcel of Ashton Hills reserve/estate fruit. The result is typically a medium bodied palate with the influence of Piccadilly Valley providing juicy fruit from the warmer climate, along with fine structured tannins that are typical of the Ashton Hills Vineyard.
Ashton Hills Riesling
Ashton Hills crafts a limited amount of riesling in a signature European style with lightness of body and delicate intensity. Winner of the Best Riesling at the Adelaide Hills Wine show in 2001, 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2018, the Ashton Hills Riesling offers a tactful alternative to the stronger acidity of the Clare and Eden Valley rieslings. In a region whose reputation for world class riesling continues to blossom, it is a wine made in a style that is quite unique to Ashton Hills.
Ashton Hills Piccadilly Valley Chardonnay
Commencing in 2017, we released the Ashton Hills Piccadilly Valley Chardonnay from fruit chosen off the Chapel Valley block adjacent to the old cemetery in Piccadilly Valley. The following year we added Chardonnay from the Quigley Block, a stones’ throw from the winery, so although no longer single vineyard, this chardonnay is crafted with texture and character, which are hallmark traits of the original AHV Chardonnays.
Stephen George’s take on this cult style is, without question, one of the titans of the genre. Given that its fruit is drawn from one of Australia’s most revered vineyards in Wendouree, including a healthy portion from vines planted in 1919, perhaps this will come as no surprise. Highly awarded – the 2010 was runner up for Sparkling Red of the Year in Tyson Stelzer’s 2018 Australian Sparkling Report, and crafted from only the best vintages, there’s no denying this special wine’s breathtaking complexity, texture and balance.
Sparkling Pinot Noir
Ashton Hills is justly respected for the class of its sparkling white wine, which are only produced when the vintage conditions allow. Produced in limited quantities, the Ashton Hills Sparkling Pinot Noir Rose has a purity of taste, finesse and a clean finish that is typical of the style and the region from which it originates.