LEONGATHA South’s Phillip Sydney Jones has been chosen to receive the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in this year’s Australia Day honours, a tribute to his determination and ultimate success in the wine industry.
That success was achieved at Bass Phillip wines, a business he established, owned and ran from the 1970s until recently, being its original and long-term winemaker.
The honour was bestowed for service to oenology, the science and study of wine and winemaking.
“It’s nice to get official recognition that we achieved something with that wine business,” Mr Jones said of Bass Phillip wines.
The “we” acknowledges the contribution of wife Dr Sairung Wangspa, whom he married in 1986, and who played an important role in the business while having her own career as an ophthalmologist.
She was particularly involved in helping Phillip develop export markets with Wine Australia, the Victorian Government, and privately.
While Bass Phillip wines achieved fame with its high-quality pinot noirs, winning plaudits from wine writers such as James Halliday, such success was years in the making.
In fact, it was years before the business began selling wine.
Mr Jones planted the first vineyard in South Gippsland in 1979 but Bass Phillip wine didn’t hit the market until 1991.
In the early years of the business, Mr Jones continued to juggle winemaking with his existing employment in telecommunications.
That involved working with Telecom Australia Research Laboratories in the fields of digital networks, voice encoding, microelectronics, and business communication systems.
A move into management consultancy followed, with Mr Jones not involved full-time in winemaking until 1994.
His early vision for the vineyard was to operate chemical free, and without the use of machinery.
“In the first two years of managing the vineyard, we ended up overrun by blackberries,” Mr Jones said.
Much of his early focus was on achieving the dream of producing great Bordeaux-style wine, leading him to plant cabernet sauvignon vines extensively.
“All I got was the worst cases of powdery mildew and rank vigorous growth,” Mr Jones recalled.
The saving grace was the three rows of pinot noir, planted among the hundreds of rows of other grape varieties.
He said in the seventies it was difficult to buy good Burgundy-style (pinot noir) vines in Australia, with most of the good wines in the nation at that stage being shiraz or cabernet.
Yvon Vogel, later one of the founders of Melbourne dining institution France-Soir, proved influential after sampling Mr Jones’ first pinot noir vintage.
Mr Vogel told him it was the best pinot noir he’d tasted in Australia and to rip out his other grape varieties and focus on that.
That advice was heeded and ultimately led to many others acknowledging the high quality of Mr Jones’ pinot noir.
In 2010, Bass Phillip Reserve pinot noir 2003 was selected as the ‘best pinot in the world’ at an international pinot noir exhibition in Singapore.
Bass Phillip Reserve pinot noir 2010 was awarded Australian Wine of the Year in 2013 by the Australian Wine Companion (James Halliday).
However, Mr Jones’ Bass Phillip pinots grabbed attention long before those honours, immediately receiving high industry ratings upon their original public release in 1991.
In 2000, Bass Phillip’s top pinot noir was listed in the top ten Australian wines in the Classification of Australian Wines (Langton’s), along with the likes of Penfolds Grange, Henschke and Hill of Grace.
The publication has continued to list Bass Phillip Reserve pinot noir at that level since then.
Mr Jones has received various personal accolades, including the “French Flair Award’, bestowed by the French Ambassador to Australia in 2003.
While Bass Phillip wines was sold to a consortium of overseas investors in 2020, with Mr Jones no longer involved, he retains his desire to continue with innovative approaches to winemaking.
“I’ve always been a research and development kind of person, so we used many techniques that weren’t typical of Australian viticulture and that led to many failures and also learning a lot more about nature,” Mr Jones said.
He believes that approach served him better than simply following existing methods of viticulture and oenology without question.
Mr Jones said Gippsland is a challenging area in which to manage a vineyard, particularly following organic principles, as was the case at Bass Phillip wines from 1993.
“We’re still interested in finding better ways of managing a vineyard in this climate,” he said, describing the region as a “hothouse without walls”.
“It’s very hard, particularly in seasons like this, to keep fungal disease under control.”
Mr Jones and his wife operate a two-acre vineyard at their Leongatha South home.
While he’s long dismissed his initial notion of not using machinery, these days embracing technology, Mr Jones continues to focus on producing excellent wine, something his friends undoubtedly appreciate.