With Autumn upon us, the orchard lining the entrance to Meletos is heavy with apples. With the fruit ripe for the picking and made into beautiful cider next door at Punt Road winery, what better local seasonal produce to feature in our series?!
In the midst of vintage, the winery is abuzz and we’re thrilled that head cider maker Ben Gayfer finds the time to shows us around. In hi-vis jackets we walk out to the towering facilities. Weaving amongst the equipment and fork lifts carrying bins of grapes, Ben chats casually about his journey to Punt Road. “I’m a wine maker by trade. I grew up in the Rutherglen and have always been passionate about wines. Two years ago I was working casually at Punt Road, doing vintage and learning from head cider makers at the time, Behn Payten and Alice Houel. When they moved on to other projects, I was offered the role. It was an awesome opportunity and one I couldn’t turn down”.
Ben introduces us to ‘Della’ his giant fruit press. “She’s like something out of a sci-fi film isn’t she?” He grins. “Capable of juicing 48 two-tonne fruit bins per day, and extracting 10,500 litres of juice.” The pulp left over runs right into a trailer that is tractored to the back of the property where it’s composted. “We’re starting to introduce prunings from the property which will provide that extra carbon element the compost needs.”
Walking through the immense orchard, we take a closer look at the fruit. The cider is made mostly from dessert apples, but Ben plans on planting more straight cider varieties. From planting a tree, it takes three years before it bears fruit ready to use. An obvious question when you’re standing amongst it all is, whether there’s been a big improvement in yield since all the netting has gone on. “It’s an incredible display isn’t it? The netting was on before I started here but what I really noticed beside the obvious, was this slight microclimate it forms which is great for the fruit.” Driving through Christmas Hills at the top of the Yarra Valley, you can look out and see what at first looks like a huge lake, actually is all the netting of the orchard. Mostly covered, by next season the whole orchard will be covered.
Ben goes on to compare seasons, “Last summer was so hot that the fruit had to be picked really quickly, it had less time on the tree to develop its flavour. The searing sun degrades the natural acid in the fruit. This season on the other hand, we had a wet spring and a mild summer. The picking won’t be as frantic and the fruit is looking beautiful.” This is the same case for Punt Road’s vineyard which grows amongst the orchard, sharing about half of the 305-acre property.
Back inside the winery, Ben tells us excitedly of a project he’s been working on with inner city Spanish restaurant, Movida. A small batch farmhouse style cider to pair perfectly with Chef Frank Camorra’s beautiful menu. The success of the collaboration has resulted in an event for the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival that will be hosted outside the restaurant in Hosier Lane. He shows us some juice aged in old Punt Road white wine barrels. Our first taste is some amazing and rich juice that’s been in barrel for four years. Then we compare it to a year-old that’s got zippy acid and high alcohol. ‘This will be blended to form a backbone to some of our batches. Lastly he shows us something a little extra special. “You’ve gotta try this.” He says excitedly and hurries off into the shadows of the barrel room. What he serves up is nothing short of amazing. “How cool is that?!” He says with a proud grin. Some runs can have a super fast turn around, in some cases from pick to shelf can be as little as seven weeks.” We ask Ben if he think’s the consumers palate is changing. “Sweet ciders definitely aren’t ruling the market like they used to. There’s some really high quality dry ciders out there. Places like Daylesford Cider and Willie Smiths in Tassie are making some great stuff”. Ben is passionate about bringing in more aged and complex ciders to the range, “Experimenting with more skin contact and aging. Having some fun and seeing where it goes.”