The gold rushes of the 1850s brought tens of thousands of people to the Bendigo area from all over the world, each seeking fortune and a better life — and with them came the winemaking know-how of the old world. The first vineyards in the region were planted in 1856, and provided at least some solace to those who failed to quench a thirst for gold. The surprising quality of the wine produced was evident from the start, and by the 1873 Vienna Exhibition an early Bendigo hermitage is said to have made one judge declare incredulously that “no colonial wine can be that good”.
In more recent times, a wine renaissance has taken hold in the Bendigo and Heathcote districts, beginning in 1969 with the establishment of Balgownie Estate. Winemaker Tobias Ansted has set his sights on re-establishing Balgownie as one of the icons of Victorian wine production, and to that end has seen substantial investment put into the estate by the new owners, who bought Balgownie a couple of years before Tobias started there at the end of 2000. The vineyard has been extended and equipment improved or replaced. The original vines were run down, and a lot of time and effort has gone into getting these back into shape. “These old vines were managed economically rather then for quality, with machine pruning and that sort of thing,” says Tobias. “But vineyards need attention, not to have costs cut all the time.”
With new plantings, and getting the original vines back on track, Balgownie has increased production three-fold. The new plantings still focused on the varieties that put Balgownie on the map in the first place — cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. “They have been the mainstays of Balgownie since the beginning,” says Tobias. “We’ve probably gone slightly in favour of shiraz. It is definitely the grape that does well here, but also it is what the export markets see Australia as doing uniquely well, or that central Victoria does well.”
The winery has found that these two varieties keep contingencies covered, as one will do very well in some conditions but the other will rise to the occasion under other circumstances. This can be an important consideration around Bendigo, as being just that bit further north than, say, the Macedon Ranges, the climate can be slightly warmer. “The hotter years present a bit of a challenge to us,” says Tobias, “but you’ll find that shiraz doesn’t tend to suffer as much in the warmer conditions. But if it goes a bit cooler, cabernet will come to the fore. So each year, depending on the weather and conditions, both of these predominant varieties will vie for top place.”
There are many who would put Balgownie already in wine icon territory. Equally iconic wineries in nearby Heathcote, such as Wild Duck Creek and Jasper Hill, figure largely in central Victoria’s wine hall of fame. And to the west of Bendigo, Passing Clouds Winery is widely renowned for superb wines, and its winemaker Graeme Leith known for his comfortable approach and great ability.
But many budding and hopeful icons of the future dot the Bendigo and Heathcote landscape. Sandhurst Ridge, a close neighbour to Balgownie, was founded by four brothers who had grown up with wine. Paul Greblo says that making and enjoying wine was something he was used to seeing as a natural part of living in a large immigrant Italian family. His approach to winemaking is equally straightforward –— let the vineyard make the wine and interfere with the process as little as possible.
Original plantings were small, around five acres, but another 15 acres have been put in since. “We planted more shiraz, more cabernet, and recently we’ve planted some nebbiolo as well,” says Paul. “We’ll make a straight varietal out of that. Personally I gravitate to more savoury wines, and a lot of the Italian varieties are like that, and go so well with food. They are not so fruit driven, but not austere either.” Paul says that it was largely Gary Crittendon in Dromana that pioneered a lot of the Italian varieties, and that the wine appreciating public seem to be starting to like the difference. Sandhurst Ridge hopes to be in a position to satisfy this growing market.
Old Loddon Wines, also nearby, started life in 1987 growing grapes for neighbouring winemakers, in particular Graeme Leith at Passing Clouds. Owner Jill Burdett says that after eight years it dawned on them that they may as well be making some wine as well, and in 1995 made their first vintage. Old Loddon continued to supply Passing Clouds until this year, when a fruit glut made this unnecessary. Jill has been running the place by herself since her husband went his own way in 2001, but has not shied away from the traditional (and labour intensive) winemaking methods she has had to learn along the way. “Graeme has been a great teacher, and has really been my mentor in winemaking,” she says. Old Loddon has a small cellar door, and the next challenge is to get its wines out to the public. But getting bigger would be a mixed blessing for Jill. “I like being boutique,” she says. “There are plenty of bigger wineries, but I can do other things with my grapes that they won’t — make blends, or single varietals that they normally wouldn’t try.”
One of the interesting aspects of the Bendigo and Heathcote regions is that they comprise a very large area over all, which is also very diverse in terms of wine styles. Just a little north and it is noticeably warmer, but 20 minutes south, around Harcourt, harvest time can be six weeks later due to cooler temperatures.
Mandurang Valley Wines started life as quite a few vineyards do — a hobby that turns into an obsession. Owners Wes and Pamela Vine, fledgling grape growers in 1976 with a passionate interest in wine, originally planted what they called a “fruit salad”. Their first wines included a blend of cabernet, shiraz and merlot, and single variety wines of riesling and chardonnay.
They made their wine for their own consumption, but by 1992 the cellar was at bursting point. A temporary licence allowed them to sell some bottles to the public. All stock was sold in one day, and so the Vine’s future direction was sealed.
“I suppose a lot of regions will say this, but I really think this is a genuine winemaker’s region,” says Wes. “You can come into any winery, meet the family, and the people who actually own and run the place, who grow the grapes, make the wine. It can be quite a personal experience.”
Wes has also noticed quite a big change over the last five or so years in the make up of his customers. “People have become very knowledgeable,” he says. “The questions they ask are getting very specific. And a lot aren’t necessarily coming in to find a bargain. They are looking for something different, a wine that stands out from the mass products, and I think winemakers around here can give them what they want.”
Blackjack Vineyards, owned and run by the McKenzie and Pollock families, has had vines in the ground since 1988, and they are now at an age to produce consistent and balanced fruit says Ian McKenzie. “The French I think will always argue that you get more depth and complexity from older vines,” he says, but adds that what the region really needs is in fact more vines. “What we probably lack is a critical mass of vineyards in one area. That would give you the feel of a Barossa or Yarra Valley. But then again, I’m old enough to remember when the Yarra Valley only had two vineyards, so give us time.”
Up close and personal seems to be the point of difference around Heathcote and Bendigo. LynneVale Estate for example also offers homestead style accommodation overlooking the estate’s vineyards, and can even arrange a tour of surrounding vineyards as part of a weekend package.
Likewise, a visit to Mount Burrumboot Estate can be a cosy and intimate experience, and can take on a very holistic flavour. The wine, like the food there, is all grown, hand made and nurtured on the estate. Organic practices are followed as far as possible to allow the vineyard, the terroir if you like, to have the biggest say in the bottled product.
Burnt Acre Vineyard supplies many regional outlets with its shiraz and riesling, with small amounts of grenache, mondeuse and voigner, and is finding that its trademark fruit concentration and soft tannins continues to find favour.
Barfold Estate also makes hand crafted wines in small fermenters that result in intense colours and flavours. Its first release Heathcote grown shiraz won three medals, and the winery has continued to deliver the goods.
Such is the range of choice in fact, that the wine enthusiast can be perplexed by too many options. Help is provided however through the “Vine to Vintage” wine touring map for the Macedon Ranges, Bendigo and Heathcote regions. Everything a wine aficionado needs to know is included, and the maps are available at visitor centres or by calling 1800 813 153. Jack Rasterhoff, who heads the Vine to Vintage committee, says that the premium red varieties of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon are becoming more recognised further afield as being impeccably suited to central Victoria. “Heathcote, as a shiraz region, is becoming more and more important, and is being recognised all over the country” he says. “In terms of brand awareness, the name Heathcote really rings true.”
It is a recognition that Jo Millard of Milvine Estate, and also as president of the Heathcote Winegrowers Association, is keenly aware of. Jo and husband Graeme grow nothing but shiraz, and have no plans to plant any other variety. Their winemaker is Jono Mephom from nearby Heathcote Winery. “We do very well with our shiraz, and it seems to like our climate and our soil,” says Jo. “If things go well we may source more fruit from nearby vineyards, but we wouldn’t go outside of the Heathcote area — we are determined to stick to Heathcote, and it has paid back our faith in the area.”
Stephen Shelmerdine has seen very dynamic growth over this region in recent times. He has a wide ranging view of the development of the region’s wine styles, having two vineyards at opposite ends of the region — Merindoc Vineyard, on 40 acres at Tooborac in the south, and Willoughby Bridge Vineyard, 135 acres at Colbinabbin in the north. “There has been quite a proliferation of new Heathcote brands in the last few years,” he says, “and by very committed people. But obviously these young vines are just the beginning of a new chapter in the story of the Heathcote region.”
What is starting to become evident, Stephen says, is the emergence of sub-regions. Soil types can change markedly across the area, from deep rich red soils to more granite-based soils or grey clay loam. Add the different micro-climates and temperature variations, and your serious winemaker has quite a challenge.
Certain varieties will suit particular areas, or one variety, shiraz for example, will produce different styles across the one region. “So Heathcote shiraz in the future will never be just one style,” Stephen says. “That’s good for us, and it’s good for the consumer and everyone else.” The job ahead is to work out which varieties and which locations will produce wines with a particular point of difference. “But Heathcote is more than just shiraz,” he says. “People are trying a lot of other varieties that promise to do very well.”
This article first appeared in Victorian Lifestyle Property magazine