There must be something in the rarefied atmosphere of Victoria’s Alpine region that brings out the stubborn individuality of the area’s winemakers — maybe it’s the steep slopes that makes them dig their heels in.
When Angelo Ceccanti started making wine on his property in the Kiewa Valley, he was determined to make a wine that he would enjoy drinking himself, not just a style of wine that he was told might sell better. In his opinion, the wine available in Australia at that time, the late-1970s, was not promoted as a drink for relaxation and enjoyment but was seen more in terms of social status. But wine, to Angelo and his wife Moya’s way of thinking, belonged more on the family dinner table than in a crystal goblet.
And when John and Diz Adams set out to make their wine at nearby Tawonga Vineyard, the style of shiraz they were after was determinedly contrary to that which wine marketers were calling for at the time. Personally, the Adams liked pepper and spice on the palette rather than the then more popular pluminess.
Of course, Angelo knew that to make decent wine you have to start with decent grapes. He had grown up with wine in Italy, and had travelled the Tuscan countryside with his wine merchant father, who was also a viticulturist and wine adviser. In fact, his father would sit little Angelo at the table, hand him a glass of wine and see if his son could tell him where it was grown.
So when the Ceccantis found a property in the Kiewa Valley, they knew the land suited their needs. Coming from an area of Italy famous for its chianti wines, Angelo found that the soil type, the climate — and the altitude — were all similar. Their aim from the beginning was to reproduce the style of the chianti region’s wines, and they have had great success doing just that — despite the “expert” advice that to do so would mean failure. “We went against a lot of advice from the start,” says Moya. “Australian wines were mostly heavily wooded until then; big and heavy. But we believed in the fruit…why would you hide the fruit flavours with wood?” Although they age the wine in oak barrels, it is more for the micro-oxygenation it gives than the influence of wood.
Since picking the first crop, the Ceccantis have been improving, trying different methods, and getting used to how their grapes react (and losing the lot to bushfires one year). Their son Danny came along, grew up, and is now also intimately involved in winemaking. Both Danny and Moya have had formal winemaking training, but Angelo hasn’t. “It was important for him to keep his instincts,” says Moya.
Last year, Ceccanti Wines was invited to bring its wine over to the city of Lucca in Tuscany for its deGustazione program — an annual festival of food and wine. “We were surprised to be invited,” says Moya, “and very proud as well.” They started to get orders from Italy because of the exposure, and now have a distributor over there. Interestingly, Moya says, some growers over there have now even started to pull out their San Giovese vines to plant shiraz. It has been satisfying to prove the experts wrong.
However, people still come into the cellar door with the same old expectations, the same ideas that had currency not so long ago. “People march in saying ‘oh I can’t drink red wine’, but then they’ll walk out with six bottles under their arm,” says Moya, “because they had a taste!” The latest taste adventure to come from the Ceccanti estate is its wine-filled chocolates. Surprisingly complimentary in tastes, the “Ceccanti Truffles” are filled with a condensed merlot, and are an inviting addition to the cellar list.
Back at Tawonga Vineyard, it seems that John Adams had also stood at the crossroads between what the “market” expects and the type of wine he would rather make.
John had been making wine for many years before he decided to go the whole hog, get qualified and go commercial. From about the early 1980s, he and his wife Diz had put in a few varieties to see how they went in this high country. This took quite a few years to get right, but the investment in time has paid off, although the Adams still aim to keep the venture small and manageable to ensure maintaining a quality they have come to expect. And only making around 500 cases a year also allows John the chance to travel to France every vintage to make wine there. “It’s a very different operation,” says John. “They’ll be making a million and a half bottles, and they bring me over specifically to make wine for the British market.”
The French it seems can’t bring themselves to detour from their traditional, “French-style” winemaking methods, so they bring over guys like John so they can meet the demands of the lucrative UK market. “It’s surprising, but you also find that happening here,” John says. “A lot of wines are made for the market, but I like to make wines to suit myself. We’re lucky that the style of shiraz that I enjoy making, and drinking for that matter, is a style that Tawonga has made its reputation on.”
Reputation, for Joseph and Lena Birti at Kancoona Valley vineyard and winery, is something that has been built upon for the last 260 years. The Austrian Empress Marie Terese in 1744 rewarded the Birti family for excellence in winemaking by granting them a crest, a version of which appears on the Kancoona Valley label.
Situated in the uppermost reaches of the Kiewa Valley in a natural amphitheatre, Kancoona benefits from the thermal breezes that rise from the Kiewa River throughout the growing season, helping to keep their vines disease and insect free. The grapes are handpicked and the wine is handcrafted by using a combination of traditional and modern winemaking techniques. The wine is matured in oak barriques, which are smaller than the usual barrel.
Up at Annapurna Estate, Ezio Minutello is also convinced that the wider wine-appreciating market is getting a little tired of being told what it should be drinking. “We think a lot of people are steering away from the bigger companies,” he says. “If you try a Jacob’s Creek today, and you try it in 10 years time, it’s going to be the same wine. But people want to taste the years — because each year is different, so you should expect the wines to be different.”
Ezio says the wines of Annapurna Estate (which has one of the highest vineyards in Victoria) are not made to a recipe, but are the result of giving their best winemaking shot to each year’s grapes, and seeing what the result can be.
Sometimes the results can be surprising. “For instance, one year we had a merlot during a bad bushfire year that was very smoke affected, so we couldn’t put that out, although we sold it here,” Ezio says. “Of course we dropped the price drastically, but also selling it only at the cellar door meant we could explain to people what had happened.” That wine however was a hit when served with the smoked fettuccini at the Annapurna restaurant. People also bought it to serve at barbecues, so in fact this wine sold out very quickly.
The relatively recent, and ongoing, conversion of disused railway tracks to bicycle paths has had surprising benefits for the greater Alpine area, with an onflow to the region’s wineries. Darren Murphy, Rail Trail Project Officer, says the trails get around 40,000 users a year, with 50% of people coming from Melbourne, but also around 20% from Sydney. A smattering of the Alpine region’s wineries are dotted along some of the trails, and it is not unusual to find a few bottles of wine in the backpacks of homeward bound riders.
The make up of people coming to the area has been evolving over recent years. John Adams at Tawonga has been in the area for around 20 years, and says back then it was mainly just a stopping place for skiers. “After the high plains and surrounding areas were gazetted as a national park it was really put on the map,” he says. “Now people don’t just come up here for the skiing. They come to ride bikes, they hang glide, they hike, ride horses… We get more people in summer than in winter.” After all that physical activity, today’s Kiewa Valley visitors will naturally have built up a thirst…
This story first appeared in Victorian Lifestyle Property magazine