The early settlers brought old-world wine making to a new country, and knew what to look for to meet their needs. Today’s winemakers are finding that the same qualities are still imperative to make really great wine.
When the early explorers trudged their way across western Victoria, they were particularly struck by the breathtaking beauty of the Grampians, and were impressed by the similarity the nearby countryside had to a particular region of the old world – so similar that they called the area the Pyrenees, after the mountain range dividing France from Spain. Many years later the visual similarities were to prove prophetic, as the region was found to replicate not only the soil types found in the south of France, but also climatically resonated to the wine making conditions found there.
Walk into the pub at Moonambel, just north of Avoca, and you are likely to see just as many glasses of red at the bar as the amber fluid. Local wines are sold by the glass, from a wide selection of wineries across the region, so shouting a round is not as simple as it used to be – but no one is complaining.
The final curving loop of the Great Grape Road – which starts in Ballarat, sweeps through Avoca and St Arnaud before heading towards Stawell and Ararat – takes in some of the finest that viticultural Victoria has to offer. The climate is strongly influenced by the proximity of mountain and forest ranges, resulting in cooler temperatures than surrounding districts and more cloud cover. The growing season is long, with budding between September and October and harvest time as late as June. The result is classic cool-ripened qualities – and the region’s trademark deep fruit flavours.
One regional claim to fame is just how long wine has been made there, with Seppelt Great Western and Best’s Great Western both dating back to the mid-1860s. In fact Best’s is one of the oldest continuously operated wineries in Victoria, and has had only two owners, the Bests and the Thomsons. More than four hectares of original plantings still exist as a sort of living museum of old varieties, some of which remain un-named. Owner and chief winemaker Viv Thomson is a fourth generation vigneron, and is keeping the tradition alive with the help of generation number five.
Today, there are many more vineyards taking advantage of these unique growing conditions. Something of a renaissance took place throughout the Grampians and Pyrenees from the mid-1960s and early 1970s. Blue Pyrenees is among the more established of these, and is one of the biggest vineyards in the area, with about 180 hectares under vine. Winemaker Andrew Koerner has worked in the Barossa and Hunter Valley, but says what impresses him most about the Pyrenees region is its versatility. “We have a cool enough summer to be able to produce some outstanding whites, but we still have great strength in reds,” he says. “We’re pretty much frost-free, and the soil is very old. It’s a tough mean soil, and is low yielding as it’s less fertile – much like the great regions of France.”
One of the secrets to Blue Pyrenees wine, says Andrew, is that the grapes are picked and quickly crushed, if not within minutes. “Much like any chateau, the process of making wine starts from the moment the fruit is plucked off the vine,” he says. “That’s when the winemaking process starts.”
One winery that takes this theory to heart is Montara. The vineyard is smaller, at around 14 hectares, but is big on letting modern technology help traditional winemaking. The grapes are machine picked and crushed out in the field – in fact the time between harvesting and crushing, says winemaker and owner Mike McRae, is deliberately kept to a minimum. “It’s like when you bite an apple, it pretty much starts to oxidise right away,” Mike says. “It’s all about retaining the flavours and freshness, and we do that by not only picking them quickly but crushing them and having that in a tank – all in around 30 seconds.”
Taltarni is another of the more established players, and has been making its distinctive rich reds for many years. More recent plantings have included chardonnay and malbec, but winemaker Leigh Clarnette says however that it is shiraz that has been central to the winery’s success, and for the region as a whole. “Shiraz has always been our stalwart variety,” he says, “or indeed the backbone of a lot of vineyards in the area.”
The region has often been touted as being impeccably suited to this particular variety, and to back up the area’s claim to shiraz fame, winemakers throughout the region combine forces each year and offer a sample of their best shiraz blended in one barrique – a smaller 225 litre oak barrel. Not all offerings are included, and the judgement of which gets into the blend is left to an independent judge. Such a small offering, around 25 cases, naturally creates intense demand, but if you are lucky enough to be around when a barrique shiraz bottle is opened, you will be in for an exceptional wine tasting experience.
David Jones, a second generation winemaker and grower, and principal at Dalwhinnie Wines, has been central to the barrique concept from the start. “The barrique idea came about as a way to promote the region as a whole,” he says. “A lot of the time you get wineries competing for market attention, but we wanted to show that the region itself has so much to do with making really great wine.” Very much at the forefront of Pyrenees wineries, Dalwhinnie has stayed out in front on what David calls the “solid” varieties, such as shiraz.
Mt Langi Ghiran is one Grampians winery that is helping put the region back on the international map. The initial planting’s fruit was sold to neighbouring winemakers, but the strong following that its grapes drew encouraged the vineyard to begin making their own wine – and they have never looked back. In fact, the Rathbone family, who also own Yarra Valley’s Yering Station, have lavishly refurbished the winery, and will open state of the art facilities there later this year.
Summerfield Wines has also found that it is the more solid varieties that keep the awards coming in. “It’s more gratifying to push one successful barrow than try too many different things,” says winemaker Mark Summerfield. More than trying to model his wines on something that is perceived to be “French”, Mark says foremost it has to be the fruit that drives the style. “That’s what ‘new world’ winemaking is all about, making these very good clean wines,” he says. “And we’re very successful at this style.”
A relative newcomer to the area is Horvat Estate, run by Gabriel Horvat and his wife Janet. They have met an Australian challenge with a European sensibility, and the success they have had in doing so is only set to continue. Gabriel says they “went through all the varieties” before settling on shiraz as best suited to their purposes. “We weren’t going to go into wine production, and had originally only planted the vineyards,” he says. Having worked previously at Taltarni, and also doing a stint at Dalwhinnie and Sepplet Great Western, they decided to take the plunge. Horvat Estate has also recently secured the fruit grown on many neighbouring vineyards, increased production from 20 to around 100 tonnes, and has had to double the size and capacity of the winery to cope.
While everyone is chasing the newer, perhaps trendier regional wines, it is certain that sometimes the areas that have been producing great wines for many years are overlooked, and lose their turn in the spotlight. “People forget that these regions have survived for a good reason, and have proved over many decades that they are capable of producing outstanding wines,” says Montara’s Mike McRae. “Of course with the newer niche areas, only time will tell if they’re still there in 50 or 100 years.”
This article first appeared in Victorian Lifestle Property magazine.