Mike was anything but conventional when it came to establishing Pierro. In fact, in many areas of the vineyard he went completely against the customary methodology.
While studying at Roseworthy he was influenced by the alternative and somewhat unfashionable ideas of Richard Smart, an advocate of canopy management and the controlled use of irrigation to reduce vine stress. Much of what both men preached and acted out has now become standard practise in many Australian vineyards.
From day one he has had firm – and sometimes contrary – views on vineyard management. Although it still remains controversial, Mike is pro-irrigation, believing that its limited and sensible use in the vineyard brings improvements in much the same way as the careful use of refrigeration in the winery.
He believes that the lack of water in the three months prior to harvest in Margaret River causes vines to close down for long periods during the day. Controlled watering, which averts this, will result in the finished wine having more aroma and flavour.
Unlike a number of other vineyards in the region he planted north-south orientated vine rows, which he judged would receive up to 20% more sunlight. He also introduced vines with half the normal width between the rows and two-thirds the breadth. This was to make the vines more competitive, balance their fruit yield and promote flavour intensity.
Soil, aspect, and a high number of vines per hectare are the critical factors for achieving high quality at Pierro. The vines all face the sun on the mid- to low slopes of the rolling gravel hills formed by the dissecting creek system.
The soils are moderately deep laterite gravel with interspersed granite, over ancient base rock with friable pink clay merging into a shattered rock layer. These granite soils are some of the most open, warm and well drained of our viticultural soils, allowing great root penetration and exploration.
Pierro was the original high-density vineyard planting in Margaret River and also one of the first in Australia. Vine density ranges from 4,000 to 5,500 vines per hectare, compared to a conventional Australian vineyard of 1,900 per hectare.
Mike emphasises the primacy of viticulture in determining wine quality. For him, winemaking involves team effort, with everything from pruning to hand-picking to bottling contributing to the character of the finished wine. Here is a man who doesn’t crush grapes; he hugs them into the bottle!
During his first vintage in Margaret River in 1979 Mike introduced two wine styles which have become the mainstay of winemaking in the district. He produced the first Semillon Sauvignon Blanc blend in Australia. The style is unique and refreshing, as it emphasises the fruit flavours and aromas in the wine, as opposed to the barrel matured style from Bordeaux.
This was the era of single varietal wines in Australia and blended wines were unpopular, but Mike persisted and refined the blend. By the 1980s a few other regional winemakers started to follow his lead, including David Hohnen at Cape Mentelle.
Today, that “few” has turned into a virtual stampede with literally hundreds of wineries across Australia seeking to emulate the popular style. Semillon Sauvignon Blancs are now the fastest growing category of white wine in Australia.
Similarly with red wine in 1979 Mike started the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends with a touch of Cabernet Franc and Malbec. This is now the pre-eminent red wine style in Margaret River.
Mike also continues to develop the winery with state-of-the-art technology. The winemaking philosophy has always been to combine the traditional hand made techniques of the Old World with the modern technology of the New World. Therefore all the fruit is picked carefully by hand and then chilled to 5 degrees centigrade before pressing to retain the fruit flavours and aromas. The fruit is then handled in the winery in small batches so each particular vineyard area can receive the attention it deserves.
The result of all this planning, design and hands-on innovation is amply expressed in the Pierro wines.
The Pierro reds are now among the very best in the region. Vine age has given the Pinot Noir greater intensity of flavour and the Cabernets improved richness, intense fruit characters and a velvety texture.
The winery is very highly regarded for the quality of its delicate, fine white wines – indeed, the Semillon Sauvignon Blanc remains one of the finest expressions of the quintessential Margaret River blend. The Pierro Chardonnay has been rated as one of the world’s best white wines.
As it turned out, this lovely Margaret River vineyard, first planted in 1980, now produces a delightful array of wines, including of course one of the world’s most coveted chardonnays.