About The Winery

A.C. Johnston

1868 – 1932

Pirramimma was founded by Alexander Campbell Johnston in 1892 and has been owned and operated by the Johnston family
ever since.

The Johnston family arrived in South Australia in 1839 and in 1892 Alexander, the tenth of thirteen children, purchased 97 hectares of rich farmland adjacent to the fledgling village of McLaren Vale. He named his land PIRRAMIMMA, an aboriginal phrase meaning “the moon and the stars”.


ACJ memorial at McLaren Vale Oval

Alexander selected McLaren Vale due to the regions cooling sea breezes from the Gulf of St Vincent, the Mediterranean climate, rich diverse soil structures and quality drainage. ACJ’s original land handing was a mixed farm, with small planting of Grenache and Zante currants, a dairy, piggery, cattle, sheep, shearing shed and cropping land for hay and grain to feed the Pirramimma Clydesdales that tirelessly worked with us.

In 1914 ACJ expanded PIRRAMIMMA by acquiring the neighbouring Katunga winery and vineyards, the new acquisition helped fulfil the supply contract with W and A Gilbey in London, which for the next 50 years Gilbeys took Pirramimma wine globally under the Gilbey label. Thus furnishing the reputation that McLaren Vale wines live long and travel far.

Digby in the cellar
checking his Palomino

Digby Johnston’s (1909 – 1988) life was Pirramimma, his childhood revolved around taking his sulky to school and doing chores at the mixed farm, albeit the chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs, sheep, horses, cows or a myriad of other tasks. Digby studied winemaking under the revered Dr Fred Stoward, whom was Thomas Hardy’s nephew. He took over the winemaking and fortified production at Pirramimma in the 1930’s.

Digby’s passion was his beloved fortified collection, the Pirramimma Solera of fortified wine dates back to the early 1900’s, originally using Grenache, Shiraz, Mataro and quality pot still brandy.

Thanks to Digby’s experimental blocks, the Solera cellar now includes old Pedro Ximinez, Orange Flora Muscat, Dark Ports, Vintage Grenache Tawny, Aged Liqueur, Frontignan, a White Fortified and rare old Digby.

Geoff and Digby

Digby was a man of the land, he would hunt black duck, quail, pigeon, rabbit and hare at Pirramimma for home consumption. He was a keen fisherman and exceptional golfer, whom won the Gilbey Cup many times and played at Kooyonga every Wednesday. Digby grew his own fruit and vegetables, and loved his rose garden.

The local children new him as Papa Wine, as he worked most weekends at Cellar Door chatting with the regulars. Digby also learnt French and Latin, he kept methodical records at the winery, quiet and unassuming with a very dry sense of humour and wise intellect.

Thank you Digby.

Geoff Johnston

Winemaking at Pirramimma has been a family affair for over 126 years and is now in the capable hands of Geoff Johnston, a winemaking graduate of Charles Sturt University, grandson of the winery’s founder. Under his guidance, Pirramimma has seen many significant changes, including the construction of a 3100 square metre naturally cooled rammed earth barrel storage facility and the expansion of vineyards to 240 acres and 12 varieties.

Geoff is a winemaker with a world perspective, after a study trip to France, his interest for the Bordeaux grape variety, Petit Verdot was developed. Geoff planted a small trial area of Petit Verdot in 1983, which has since expanded to 35 acres of mature vines. Pirramimma Petit Verdot vintages have been award winning, prompting the prestigious European wine magazine “WeinWisser” to ask…….”is there any better Petit Verdot in the world”….?

In 2016, Geoff’s insight was vindicated, when the first release, the 2013 Pirramimma Ironstone Petit Verdot won “Best Red wine of Show” at the 2016 AWC-Vienna, International wine challenge, which attracted 12,826 entries. Geoff not only pioneered Petit Verdot in Australia, he was the first to introduce the Southern French variety Tannat to McLaren Vale.


Geoff in cellar
tasting old fortifieds.
Geoff checking colour
of Petit Verdot pips.

Geoff’s determination to reduce Pirramimma’s ecological footprint is taking effect, with the installation of a 100 kilowatt solar system already in operation, with another 100 kilowatt planned for the future. Geoff has extended his green footprint to his Adelaide Hills property at Kuitpo, by developing and installing a wine turbine to reduce the reliance on carbon emission electricity.

Also as a “Professor of Soil” he has spent over 25 years converting PIRRAMIMMA’s sterile land to a living organism.

Geoff must have been inspired by ACJ’s finch breeding history, as in his youth, he bred King and Stubble Quails. He was also an accomplished cricketer, a dogged batsman, hard to dismiss and a deceiving left hander tweaker who baffled the right handers.

Current Pirramimma custodians……Geoff, Louise, Andrew, Celia and Fronti (Border Collie lookalike)