Just add water…

Coaxing crops out of the big dry land of the Mallee around the Sunraysia district has been the vocation of Lance Milne’s family for generations.

A long line of horticulturists have grown fruit and other produce in one of Australia’s richest agricultural areas since the Milne family secured some blocks of land in 1913 when the area around Merbein was being opened up to irrigation development. Over four generations, the Milnes have been involved in growing pretty much every crop produced in the area at some time.

The rapid increase in demand for wine grapes in the 1990s naturally laid an opportunity at Lance’s feet — growing quality fruit was something he could do, and he had 660 acres of land available adjoining the irrigated areas. “So I took the plunge,” says Lance, “and commenced development of what is now 80 hectares of vineyard in 1998.”

The first grapes he picked, in 2000, were mostly destined to go to bigger winemaking concerns in the area, but Lance kept a small batch just for himself and made some wine, which he says was more or less done just out of interest, as a hobby and only intended for himself. Now it is well known that every home winemaker makes “good” wine – the more extreme examples have that “fig jam” flavour – but Lance found himself getting encouraging feedback from anyone and everyone who tried his homemade wines. His natural green thumb proved true once again, and seemed to have imbued Lance with a native knack in the vineyard. It was enough to set him on a tangential career path when another circumstance coincidentally came into view.

But first, a brief history lesson.

The Murray Darling is a vast region that incorporates north west Victoria, which is known for its long sunshine hours, low humidity and large, flat and dry spaces. The soil is unique to the Murray River system and is known as calcareous earth, which generally supports vigorous growth and high yields. Around Mildura, little growing season rainfall makes irrigation a necessity. It was recognised many years ago that the rich soil of the area could produce some very special horticultural results — if only there were adequate water.

The Chaffey brothers were a couple of Canadians who had great success establishing irrigation systems in California, and who came to Australia to repeat their success in 1887. The very flat land required the Chaffeys to install massive primary lift steam-driven pumps on the Murray River just upstream from the township at a place called Psyche Bend. As well as messing around with pipes and pumps, the Chaffeys recognised that wine grapes might do very well in the area, and they planted 150 acres. Their first vintage was made in 1891 in very primitive conditions (they had been very busy, after all, pumping water all over the place) but by the next season they had built a brick cellar.

They named their winery Chateau Mildura, and it was part of Victoria’s table wine boom of the late 1800s, but also saw that market’s crash after Federation. Chateau Mildura survived by incorporating operations with another company, Mildura Wines, in 1910 and producing brandy and fortifying spirit. This role lasted until 1955, when brandy operations moved to the company’s (now Mildara Wines) other establishment at Merbein. Chateau Mildura then became the production centre for Mildara’s famed sherry range until production ceased in 1996, although it continued to store and mature sherries until it was sold — which is where Lance comes back into the picture.

A short time after his first winemaking foray, Beringer Blass, one of the biggest concerns in the wine industry, put up for sale the original Chateau Mildura winery, which it now owned. Once again, Lance found himself “taking the plunge” – he bought the place and set about making wines to go under his own label. “It was a property I had always had a fascination for,” he says. “A lot of people start off with a back-shed type of operation, and build up from there. But I realised that to be successful in this region – I mean we haven’t got a huge population base and are not close to Melbourne – you’ve got to have something that attracts people. Having the very first winery in the district did give me something towards securing that attraction.”

Of course Lance modestly forgets to mention that his wines have subsequently added to this attraction as well. Taking part for the first time last April in the Victorian Wine Regions Showcase series at Federation Square in Melbourne, Chateau Mildura had two of the highest scoring table wines and nabbed a silver medal for its shiraz viognier.

But back at the outset, he realised that jumping into a full commercial operation takes more than an historic building and crossed fingers. First of all there was the equipment – “you need all that bright, shiny stainless steel stuff” – and Lance had also decided that he could do with more experienced winemaking capacities. “I didn’t want to inflict my own mistakes on the public,” he says. “You forgive your own mistakes, but out in the commercial world people are less forgiving. They’re not your friends, and they won’t be so polite.” So Lance found Neville Hudson, another local who has 30 years’ winemaking experience across numerous vintages in many Australian regions as well as overseas.

Getting grapes was no problem, as by then his original plantings were producing (the vines that were at first intended to supply other wineries). “Further plantings from 2001 were not on stream,” he says. “But I had 60 hectares [under vine] so I could have my own fruit straight away.”

But one problem that Lance and Neville had to deal with, and which is probably not helped by the warmth of the Sunraysia region, was how to properly control temperature in the winery. “I needed to get the refrigeration right, especially for the whites,” Lance says. “And even for the reds, the temperature is important. If you ever come across a red wine that has a slight stewed fruit flavour, it means it got too hot during fermentation. You can feel the heat that is generated in fermentation. We try to keep it at less than 28 degrees.”

The old winery came with some antique winemaking equipment, which Lance has put to good use in a museum incorporated into the cellar door — he has a long abiding passion for the heritage of the area. “A few of the older concerns around came up with some very interesting pieces, which they have allowed me to put on display. I’ve also bought a fair bit here and there, so I’ve got a good display now, all related to the local wine industry – decanters, goblets, a couple of quite old historic trophies from the 1800s.” Lance has opened up some unused huge cement tanks and arranged glass cases and other displays in his museum for visitors to view. Once you have been through the museum there is a discount on wine sales, and you can even souvenir a wine tasting glass.

Lance has obviously put a lot of thought into Chateau Mildura’s branding, and has sought to tie his labels into the history of the winery and the district. The shiraz voignier goes under the winery’s Psyche label, which harks back to the Chaffey’s steam pumps, which consequently also became known as psyche pumps. The chief engineer for the Chaffeys, who married one of their daughters, imported a steam launch named The Psyche.

Lance says that Mildura was originally set up as a Temperance colony with no hotels, and the Chaffeys had hoped the populace would adopt the more European habit of drinking fine wine in moderation. The predominantly English settlers however brought with them the preference of the times for spirits, and there was soon a strong trade for such drink into the colony. A history on the district from the 1930s in Lance’s possession made reference to “the notorious smuggler of Psyche Bend”. For his mail order range, Lance has adopted the label Psyche Smuggler.

Having taken enough “plunges” to last a lifetime, Lance is content to sit back and see how things go. “I’m not going to grow on a huge scale,” he says. “I’m happy with things now, and hope that a large part of my efforts will be at the cellar door.”


This article first appeared in Victorian Lifestyle Property magazine.