Meet the Maker, Mark Walpole, Fighting Gully Road Beechworth
Meet the Maker, Mark Walpole, Fighting Gully Road Beechworth

Mark plays the long game in the endless pursuit of vigneron perfection. With an incredible wealth of knowledge, experience and sheer wine wisdom, we love chatting to Mark!

Mark plays the long game in the endless pursuit of vigneron perfection. With an incredible wealth of knowledge, experience and sheer wine wisdom, we love chatting to Mark! He has so generously shared his valuable time for a chat with us. Very few people with as much knowledge are as humble and grounded as Mark is - a truly inspiring winemaker, among many other hats he wears.

The visionary vintner behind Fighting Gully Road, Mark Walpole, is quoted as saying that he has never been content with the status quo, and goes out of his way to do things differently. It shows. He’s widely regarded as one of Australia’s most talented viticulturalists, and his projects up on the Beechworth plateau reveal an extraordinary array of grape varieties - some of which are barely pronounceable, let alone recognisable. Ehrenfelser, Odola, Saperavi… all grapes grown at Fighting Gully Road, and used in Walpole’s remarkable blends which take the familiar and turn them on their head.

Of all the varieties, Sangiovese has Mark's heart. The recent fires in Australia saw bushfire smoke completely destroy the grapes of the Fighting Gully Road vineyard. The pilgrimage to Tuscany to make a replacement Sangiovese, was frustratingly thwarted by Covid. This saw Mark's friend in Italy, Alberto Antonini, heed the desperate plea, and a Chianti was born. Despite many a roadblock, the plan for Australian Chianti was unstoppable.

You can find Mark Walpole in the gorgeous town of Beechworth, in North East Victoria... We had a chat about vines, wine, ghosts and the impending vintage 2022...

You make wine in an abandoned mental asylum in Beechworth. Is it haunted?

Haha! I do. We have only had one weird experience here from memory. As we were moving in and converting the space into a winery, we had only moved in a few Chardonnay (white wine) barrels. The next day I came in, and there was red ‘wine’ (I think)  splashed over the white Chardonnay barrels. Very puzzling, and spooky.

You should do a red Chardonnay?!

Funny you should say that. There is a vine seedling that I’ve trained up a wall at the winery. Looking at the leaf (using ampelography techniques) it looks like a Chardonnay vine, and I’ve sent it off, and it is in fact Chardonnay (!) – a self-pollinated Chardonnay seed.  What is really interesting here - judging by the lignification of the wood - is it looks as though it’s going to have red grape bunches (!)

You’re one of the world’s greatest viticulturists. As a ‘vine doctor’ what do you love the most about what you do?

I wouldn’t say that I’m ‘one of the greatest’, but, I did win an award recently a the AAWS Alternative Varieties show – Viticulturalist of the Year. This was based on the points awarded, and as such, my wines are awarded being the ‘the most successful exhibitor’.

I’ve seen you grafting vines! You’re a ninja with a knife and some surgery tape!

I was up in the nursery grafting the other day, and I realised that I just love working with plants! In a previous life, I worked with animals and sheep, but propagating and planting new things – is truly amazing. From a viticultural point of view, it’s actually all about preparing land, propagation and cultivation. From cuttings to propagating them in a nursery, and going from there… all the way to the glass. A true vigneron does everything from start to finish.

Start to finish? Not just ‘making wine’...what tasks?

The whole gamut. Planting, spraying, slashing, thinning, weeding, and then of course winemaking. The whole thing. A little I feel is often understood from consumers. It is a lot of work. Vignerons do everything. Including driving everywhere for screwcaps or grapes! In 2020, as I lost all of my own grapes due to the fires, I had to drive to Renmark (2000km round trip) to pick up Mourvèdre for my rosé! That was a road trip. I got to the spot, and had to help pick it all just to get it back to Beechworth in time, and then, I had to unload it and process it all. Pure exhaustion. But, the grapes can’t wait...

What’s 2022 looking like for wine this year?

It is exciting this year! It’s been wet and late… Late frost, there is huge powdery (mildew) pressure and downy (mildew) infections. Then the next challenge is of course botrytis. We will pick early mid March, which is pushed out by a month compared to last year. If it stops raining, it will certainly have benefits for flavour development. But, the next challenge is of course harvest. We simply don’t have the workers to pick the grapes this year.  And what’s worse, if you look at our federal government’s own website – there is no perceived shortage of labour in agriculture. I think we will just have to wait and see, but I am saddened that crops will be lost due to negligence, there is much needed help required in the fields.  If you want to help pick grapes, let me know.

What is your all-time favourite grape variety?

To grow? Definitely not Shiraz (!)  Chardonnay is pretty good to grow … despite botrytis. Also, Cabernet Sauvignon is great. It’s just a shame not enough folks are drinking it. I do achieve consistent yield for Pinot Noir, and despite its reputation as ‘fickle’ its actually relatively easy to grow up here. We have never had ‘rot’ (powdery or downy) so I find it is pretty straight forward to grow.

To drink? Sangiovese – as an Italian food lover, it is just such a wonderful food wine.

Celebrity crush?

What are you trying to say? What variety would I like to crush? Nebbiolo is great to crush! I started a project with Fred Pizzini back in 1990. I asked him, ‘can I buy some Nebbiolo from you?’ He said ‘No, but we can make a wine together?’ And that started with Nebb (sic). It was the start of the Pizzini journey. We made lots of interesting varieties… Schiava, we made that for a few years. I guess we drank a lot of Barolo and Barbaresco together back then, and what I realise about Nebbiolo, you have to grow it in a climatic window, it’s a real challenge, and not everywhere suits it.

Is it all about grapes for you? What else do you grow?

We grow truffles and walnuts, and over the last two years I have planted an oak forest! So I have expanded the trufflery from hazelnuts to oak. Give it 50 years, and someone will love my forest! It’s a great way to carbon offset to achieve carbon zero, but most people are planting Australian natives (for example) I haven’t yet heard of anyone planting French trees for an oak forest.

Will our Good Pair Days wine community be able to visit you one day?

Absolutely! After vintage please (May 2022 onwards) If you do go to Beechworth, you can contact me directly via my website with a request to visit. My ‘Covid’ project was in creating a little cellar door, so I converted a space as a tasting area. We can accommodate anyone! Drop me a line.

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