Healesville, a Yarra Valley town an hour's drive from Melbourne, attracted me not only for the wines, but also a visit to Innocent Bystander, where Phil Sexton makes Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in the steely style currently in vogue. His Giant Steps label, which focuses on single-vineyard Yarra Valley wines, often rates among my leaders for Chardonnay.
More than the wines intrigued me. The modern building is an architectural award winner for its angled placement, green certifications and distinctive long swaths of wooden slats on the exterior. The 70,000-case cellar door (Aussie talk for tasting room) also bakes artisan bread, makes pizza, sells cheese and pulls some of the better espresso in the neighborhood. Dipping into the lunch menu is rewarding.
Sexton came to wine via beer. He started Little Creatures, a favorite of Aussie hopheads, in Perth (Western Australia) and also makes White Rabbit, a Belgian-style ale, in a brewery adjacent to the winery in Healesville. He got into wine by founding Devil's Lair, the Margaret River winery now owned by Treasury Wine Estates.
Devil's Lair Chardonnays turned my head for their heady richness and expressiveness. Giant Steps is the polar opposite. Tasting mini verticals of two single-vineyard wines, I was struck by the tight structure and nerve of the Tarraford Vineyard bottling, showing green guava and passion fruit in 2010, grapefruit and melon in 2008, a hint of preserved lemon in 2005. Sexton Vineyard displayed more openness, with spice to the grapefruit and mineral in 2012, a hint of smoke in 2009.
"We never add acidity," said longtime winemaker Steve Flamsteed. "We try to grab the fruit in that citrus-melon zone. When it goes into white peach, yellow peach or nectarine, it's gone past it. Those end up evolving into tropical flavors, which we've seen in later-picked Yarra Chardonnays in the past."
Giant Steps reflects the best aspects of Australia's shift in style in Chardonnay toward more bracing characteristics. Too many others come off as thin, ungrateful, pouty wines. Not Giant Steps. They're worth seeking out.
Sexton and Flamsteed make another wine that lit up my eyes: Innocent Bystander Syrah, the French moniker a tipoff that it's intended to be a lighter, fresher style than what's labeled Shiraz. The 2012, tasted at the winery, struck me as taut and sleek, its 2 percent Viognier helping make it pretty. Tasted blind back in the U.S., I found it fresh and expressive, layered with delicate hints of sandalwood, black tea and mint around a lithe core of blackberry and licorice. A real deal for $20.