29 Aug 19

Something different: Harris’ new Mitchell Harris Wines bar in Ballarat.Just 20 months ago, winemaker John Harris was nursing grapes.

What followed next saw the Victorian winemaker down on all fours, pincher pliers in hand, removing nails embedded in ancient linoleum. It’s a long story but the short version is he had returned home to Ballarat, settled down and was giving something back: a wine bar, to be precise.

A wine bar hardly seems to fit the bill of anything worthy of cultural ”giving something back” significance but those who have walked the streets of Ballarat in search of a bar that a) isn’t attached to a hotel, b) doesn’t serve VB, c) pours local wines from the surrounding areas and d) not only manages a degree of sophistication but opens lateish will rejoice.

There are precious few to be found (hats off to them).

The promise that’s always been there – Ballarat is at the epicentre of the western Victorian wine industry – has hopefully, finally been realised.

”This is to be the hub for western Victorian wines,” says Harris, who opened the doors to his Mitchell Harris Wines bar in the town’s north in February.

But first there was 120 years of dirt and grime – as well as metal, wood, car parts and canvas that had been thrown into the underground cellar and strewn across another two floors – to remove from the space that Harris and his partners – his wife, brother and sister-in-law – were planning to revive.

Ever so slowly, an intrinsic beauty was revealed.

With a clean face, the building – a two-storey, red-brick former motor mechanic and canvas merchant outlet – glows warm and spacious. A long bar to one side, a small kitchen, a cellar full of local wines and even some groovy urban-style art – by Melbourne street artist Vexta – help fit the bill of a smart drinking establishment. And there’s definitely no VB or Carlton Draught served. For that you’ll have to go next door to the Peter Lalor Hotel.

Wine-education classes are held on Monday and Tuesday nights and Harris is even toying with presenting a hands-on winemaking course out back in the old stables. The former Domaine Chandon sparkling winemaker, a practised performer of the art of sabrage – the not-so-delicate opening of a champagne bottle with the slash of a sabre – might even throw in a few how-to lessons.

Upstairs is a function area, with views over Ballarat, just the spot for a future rooftop cinema perhaps?

The idea of a hub for western Victorian wines is hugely appealing, especially to local winemakers looking for a greater foothold in this part of the world so dominated by beer taps. There’s the Grampians and Henty to the west, Pyrenees to the north, Macedon Ranges to the east and Geelong to the south. And closer to home there are the wines of Ballarat, producers such as Tomboy Hill, Eastern Peake and emerging newcomer Alex Byrne of Byrne Wines.

Supporting them is Harris with his own Mitchell Harris label, sourcing fruit from Macedon and the Pyrenees. Conveniently, his new bar doubles as his cellar door.

With two separate winemaking stints at Mount Avoca in the Pyrenees and eight years at the Yarra Valley’s Domaine Chandon, he’s more than familiar with the surrounding regions’ grapes and wine styles.

His first releases cover a lot of territory.

The flagship – or at least a wine worthy of the name – is an aged sparkling, the 2008 Sabre with Macedon Ranges- and Pyrenees-sourced pinot noir and chardonnay.

With just 300 cases produced, it’s destined not to receive the kind of sales coverage it deserves as an exciting addition to the genre. Ballarat’s gain, I guess. It’s in the more generous aperitif style – ”I always wanted to make one,” says the maker – with impressive flavour complexity going on in the glass, from savoury quince through to citrus rind with driving, restless acidity.

”I can’t believe no one hasn’t come up before with the name Sabre,” says Harris, who has trademarked the term. His own handmade French sabre, a Laguiole, presented to him when he left Chandon, is often called into action. Harris has a quick hand action, a few slides of the large knife up and down the neck of the bottle and then instant decapitation accompanied by just the smallest surge of bubble. The 2010 Sabre, an unreleased youngster yet to undergo its final sweet dosage addition, newly opened with a slash of the Laguiole, was amazingly fresh and maybe just a little Chandon-like in elegance. Having learnt at one of the country’s leading sparkling makers, Harris is a supremely confident sparkling maker. His next project looks like being a multi-vintage sparkling rose´.

The Mitchell Harris table wines share a food-friendly ethic: nothing too brash, acidic, oaky or overpowering. Still, among a core line-up that includes an easygoing savoury 2012 sangiovese-pinot noir rose´, a well-structured 2010 Pyrenees cabernet and a tight ball of 2011 Pyrenees shiraz, there is the odd, well, oddity.

For his sauvignon blanc, Harris opted for an alternative to what he calls the ”fruit tingle and battery acid” wines out there. It’s a way-out-there winemaking expression for the Mitchell Harris 2012 Fume sauvignon blanc, the kind you might find increasingly being exercised in New Zealand – natural ferment; full contact between the wine and its dead yeast cells, pulps and seeds; and a little new, a little old oak – producing a wine waving a wildly herbal, savvy flag.

Destined to source grapes rather than grow his own, Harris works out of the Pyrenees Ridge winery down the road at Lamplough.

This year’s vintage coincided with the grand opening of the Mitchell Harris bar, an exhausting time all round for the family man.

But he has no complaints.

”I’ve never worked harder, never been poorer and never been happier.”

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