Sometimes it’s hard to believe our luck. Not only is Victoria home to some of the best wines our great country can produce, but many of the wineries that make these superlative tipples are within cooee.
A comfortable hour-and-a-half drive north west, and it’s an easy drive as well, puts you right at the start of the “Great Grape Road”, a wine touring route that takes in the wine regions of Ballarat, the Pyrenees and the Grampians – and all the great wineries that these regions are home to. Significant labels along the Great Grape Road include Taltarni, Blue Pyrenees, Warrenmang, Montara, Mt Langi and of course Great Western, to mention but a few.
Stretching from Ballarat to Halls Gap, then over to Avoca and back, there are about 40 wineries to enjoy if you have the time and energy – plenty of choice for the avid wine aficionado and plenty of variety along the way.
The Great Grape Road emanated from the logical motivation of the wineries in the three regions to get together and provide more for the wine appreciating public to enjoy. The initiative has also provided the public with more of a critical mass, if you like, and fits with our natural inclination to want more choice. Of course each region has its own characteristics in terms of climate and soil, and naturally the wines that result from that.
But from Ballarat, at the gateway to the Great Grape Road and like a kid just inside the door of a lolly shop, it was hard to go past the first temptation that came our way.
Rod Stott is owner and winemaker at Dulcinea winery, just north of Ballarat. The location is ideal in that people hunting down wines on their way to the Pyrenees or across to the Grampians pass right by his winery – although why a wine buff would drive by Dulcinea without stopping is anyone’s guess.
Eastern Peake Winery, south of Ballarat city, is owned by Norman Latta. Although a little off the main road, Norm says this can be better, as the people who come to the cellar door are probably looking specifically for wine. “This is an advantage for us,” he says, “in that you’re dealing with people who are actually into wine, and not just looking for something to pass the time of day.”
Through traffic is one thing, and perhaps wines of the Pyrenees and Grampians may enjoy a little more recognition at retail outlets, but the wines of the Ballarat area have more going for them than people realise.
“The thing with Ballarat is that people have an impression of it and its climate,” says Norm. “But actually during the growing season Ballarat is a very sunny place. It has about 1600 hours of sunshine, and you can compare that to Mornington (Peninsula) which has about 1400.” It is sunny but not hot, and has rather a cooler, longer growing season, which Norm says is very important to allow the grapes to develop better flavour.
More sunshine is of course an advantage, but there is a price to pay. “It’s very nerve wracking,” Norm says. “Come the end of April you’re running out of sunshine, and if you’re looking for great characters in the fruit you’ve just got to leave it hanging there. And then you worry about rain and mould… but then again, one great thing that Ballarat has is great autumns. They are very dry. I have just learned to be patient, and let nature take its course.” There are of course all the technical measurements to help – Baume levels and acids – but basically Norm looks for flavour. “My final indicator is to bite into a grape,” he says.
The oak component of Eastern Peake is very subtle. Norm doesn’t use new barrels, and he doesn’t shave the inside of the barrel staves to expose the wine to new oak either, which he says a lot do. “There is a lot of cherry oak Pinot around, and people have this ingrained idea that this is a characteristic of the grape,” he says. “But as a grape grower, why would you want to mask the great flavours that your fruit has.”
But there is a big benefit in maturing wine in oak, which Eastern Peake adheres to. Even though a winemaker may not be chasing a lot of oak flavour, there is the micro-oxygenation from the slightly permeable barrel that is very important. “If you get very simple unwooded Chardonnay and compare that to barrel fermented Chardonnay, it’s an enormous difference.”
Since last year, Norm has been using screw tops on all his wines – and he is a solid advocate of them. And to him it’s not simply the odd corked bottle either. “I would say that even in every dozen bottles there’ll be one that has been robbed of character – one bottle that just goes ‘dumb’, even though there’s no really perceptable cork taint,” he says. “And okay we don’t really know what screw tops will do to reds. I mean we know what they do to Reisling – nothing. And that white experience should tell us something.” Norm maintains that screw tops retain the fruitfulness. “Someone once said ‘there’s no great old wine, there’s just interesting old wine’. Now maybe with screw tops there will be great old wine.”
The Dulcinea story is an encouraging one, in that Rod Stott has found unusual success in finding niche markets for his wine and supplying these. The Dulcinea name of course ties in with the Don Quixote story, which has struck a chord with a lot of people making inquiries. And like tilting at windmills, Rod has taken on the big boys of wine – and he did it his way.
“I don’t go out there trying to compete with the big guys,” he says. “I try and find the smaller markets, and have a relationship with those people.” Rod is off to Japan soon, for example, just to see the person who sells his wine there. “We’ll have dinner, he’ll have an interpreter there, we’ll talk about if there are any problems – which there won’t be. I’ve got another guy who wants to distribute wine in China, so I’m going there to talk to him about it.”
Dulcinea makes a total of about 5000 cases a year, including the wine that Rod makes for other growers. A lot of smaller growers in the area don’t necessarily want to make wine, but are willing to make a deal to supply grapes and get some back as wine. “What you find is that a lot of people put some vines in but then don’t pursue that to any great degree,” Rod says. “So we can help them, and they can help us.”
Smaller wineries such as his really need to “get off their butts” and do the legwork, says Rod. “They’ve got to find their own little niche markets. I load up the stationwagon and go to Daylesford, to Melbourne. I’ve got about eight places that have rung up and I haven’t touched them yet.”
But Rod has found that it’s far easier taking 60 dozen on a pallet down to a container to send overseas. To get that order of course you’ve got to do the initial legwork. “But it’s small, and manageable. We send wine off to Fiji, for example, to a resort there. They had only taken 20 dozen a year, so I said why don’t they also move some to the next resort, the next island. So they put another order in for another 20 dozen.
“How it all came about was that someone had been through Daylesford, tasted the wine, was from the resort, and they got in touch and ordered some. And so it grew from there – just from people coming into the winery.”
The cellar door accounts for around 50 per cent of his business, but Rod would estimate that about 10 per cent also comes purely from internet contact. Norman Latta concurs in the importance of the cellar door for smaller wineries such as his.
The Great Grape Road may have something to do with it. And having come across gems such as Dulcinea and Eastern Peake, one naturally wonders what lies just around the next bend.
This story first appeared in Victorian Lifestyle Property