Kings of cool

When it comes to self-imposed life-changing choices, it is not unusual to find the best financial sense tinged with a sense of fun. So it was when John and Ann Ellis looked around for the best location for their own vineyard 21 years ago. Having a penchant for a spot of the sparkling, they focused their search on regions that were most suited to growing premium fruit for sparkling wines, and their quest took them naturally to the Macedon Ranges. Their Hanging Rock Winery has gone on to become one of the biggest and most well-recognised of the region.

The Macedon Ranges is arguably the top cool climate wine growing region in Australia, particularly suited to growing grapes that have a firmer acidity, which is valued by sparkling wine makers everywhere.

But today, Hanging Rock has more to offer than bubbles. The winery’s marketing manager Henry Screen says that it soon became clear they were not going to make a living just from premium sparkling wine. “It’s too much of a niche market,” he says. “You need other varieties if you are going to grow the business.” But the trouble with cool climate growing is that yield can be tricky to maintain, as seasonal variations can cause quite dramatic changes in the quantity of fruit produced. “Not quality, but certainly quantity,” says Henry. “We wanted to make other wines, and as it’s too cold here to grow shiraz for example, John decided that we needed a vineyard in Heathcote. And we haven’t looked back.”

The 20 or so acres of vines at Hanging Rock produce the fruit for their sparklings, pinot noir and chardonnay, but the rest of the 1500-odd tonnes of fruit that the winery processes, some 50,000 cases, are sourced from its plantings elsewhere, although they are nearby, or from other growers. Apart from wanting to offer more varieties at the cellar door, it was also a straightforward move to make due to John’s winemaking experience. He was the foundation winemaker at Rosemount Estate, and later at Tisdall Wines and had also worked at wineries in South Australia. Ann is the daughter of Murray Tyrrell, so wine most definitely runs in the family bloodline. With their experience, they were able to step straight in and make quality wines from many varieties.

The cellar door has a significant role to play for Hanging Rock, and is a very solid part of its turnover. And there is no denying that the proximity to the natural geological feature of the rock itself plays a part in that – after all, what is a picnic without a nice bottle of wine, still or sparkling?

Characteristically, the Macedon Ranges climate is one of cool autumns through April and May, which makes for a steady ripening of fruit, (although getting to full ripeness can sometimes be hit or miss – 2002 was a disastrously cold summer). Generally the area’s vineyards are elevated, with a range of altitude between 400 to 650 metres, although the average is a little more than 500 metres.

Along with elevation, a winemaker’s textbook definition of cool climate includes a high diurnal range – the gap between the peak daytime temperature and the low of night. It is in fact one of the characteristics that sets apart the Burgundy region of France and Oregon in the US. It is not unusual to find comparisons made between these areas and the Macedon Ranges, especially in relation to chardonnay and pinot noir.

It was the challenge of pinot noir that brought Phillip and Jeni Moraghan to the area when they established their Curly Flat Vineyard. “Phillip wanted to make pinot from the start, mainly because it is difficult to do right,” says Jeni. “You can distinguish yourself with a good pinot, but you need the right soil, the right climate – and you need to put in the effort.”

Pinot is a grape that seems to respond especially well to that high diurnal range, the extreme shift between day and night temperatures. “You get that big difference here. The days can be hot, but are followed by nights that are very cool,” says Jeni. “And this is the more classic example of cool climate viticulture, as opposed to other areas that claim cool climate status but really have a strong maritime influence as well.”

Being near the sea has the effect of moderating temperature extremes, an influence not found around the Macedon Ranges. But while cool climate can be conducive to certain varieties and styles, it can also be challenging in other aspects, such as getting grapes to reach full ripeness. So rather than being purely at the mercy of the climate, it is for this reason that a lot of sparkling wines are produced in the region. “Grapes for sparkling wine don’t need to be as ripe,” says Jeni. “That’s why a lot of people aim to make sparklings, to allow them to have more control.”

The “Lyre” trellising employed at Curly Flat also helps eleviate the ripening problem. “Even in a bad year, like 2002, we didn’t have to worry so much about that,” says Jeni. A lot of the Curly Flat label goes to the restaurant market; in fact 50% finds its way to Sydney. Their second label, Williams Crossing, will more likely leave via the cellar door.

But it is also the experience, not just the wine, that motivates Bob and Barbara Nixon at their Gisborne Peak Winery. First planted more as a hobby than a career in 1978 (and it’s still meant to be a hobby – “definitely a matter of the tail wagging the dog here,” says Barbara) the vineyard grew row by row over the years until there was enough wine coming out of their plantings to warrant knuckling down and moving it out the door. “So we had to build a cellar door,” says Barbara. “That’s nestled right in the middle of the vines, and it gives us 90% of our sales, so it’s very important to us.” John Ellis makes the wine, but it is all grown on the estate.

As the Nixons see it, one of the differences between Macedon Ranges and other larger wine producing areas is the variety of things to do. “I know how wonderful, say, the Yarra Valley is,” says Barbara. “Around every corner there’s another great winery, and you know they’ll be open. But what it is also beginning to lack is an element of special character.

“Here there are really boutique wineries, where you will probably be able to meet the winemaker. There are beautiful gardens, the most stately homes, charming villages, wonderful bed and breakfasts… We have a variety of things to see and do as well as wineries.”

Gisborne Peak boasts a very serious pinot noir (“our prince of the paddock”), but Barbara says their most “fun” wine is the unwooded chardonnay. “It’s affordable, it’s fresh, a real picnic wine. And it’s our biggest mover.” There is also a semillon, which no wine making book will tell you should be grown at 550 metres, but is a change for the cellar door.

Another innovation the Nixons are championing is the “Adopt a Vine” programme. After seeing a similar programme in the Sonoma Valley in California, they decided to try it here. People can adopt their own vine or buy it as a gift. A brass name tag with the “adoptive parents” name on it is hung on the vine, an adoption kit is sent out with a certificate and plant number and a discount coupon for the cellar door. It is a nice idea for the many thousands who may have always wanted to have their own vineyard (“and I can give them a thousand reasons not to”, says Barbara) or who are keen to learn more. When vines are trimmed back, for example, people are told their adopted vine has had a haircut, and they are welcome to help out at harvest time or at pruning.

The public’s predilection for knowing more about wine is echoed over at Ellender Estate. Jenny Ellender also says that people who come to the cellar door really want the whole experience. “They want to know how the wine is made, where it’s grown, and they want to take home the wine that was both grown and made on the premises.”

Of the people who head for Daylesford for a weekend, for instance, Jenny says their winery will get a big slice of Generation Xers coming in. “It’s the 25 to 35 year age group that come in and soak up the information,” she says. “They may not have known much about wine before, but they are just so keen to learn.”

Jenny and husband Graham were sensitive to the Swiss Italian history of the area when they planted, as well as climatic and geographical considerations. In the end it all fitted in quite nicely, as cool climate varieties were naturally the selection then as they are now. The Ellenders had not initially intended to make wine but when Graham, who taught dentistry at Melbourne University in a previous life, opened a dental surgery in Daylesford, the temptation to put some vines in was too great (“we have two oral sensations at the same place”, says Jenny.) Again, chardonnay and pinot noir were natural choices, and the future may see more of a concentration on sparklings, predicated both by a fondness for the bubbly and by the style of fruit that comes out of the vineyard.

Ken Murchison was convinced at an early stage of the truth in that old maxim that wine is made in the vineyard, not in the winery. In selecting a site for his Portree Vineyard, he studied not only climatic data but soil type. The research paid off, as his vineyard now grows on very deep, rich red volcanic soil that is very well drained and has no impervious layers beneath it. “Our vines are very deep rooted, and survive better in drought years with limited water,” he says.

Portree’s flagship chardonnay was planted in 1983, but it wasn’t until 1996 that he planted any pinot noir. “Up until then I hadn’t tasted an Australian pinot noir that excited me. But pinot is like that,” he says. “A great pinot is fantastic, but a mediocre one is just that. Eventually I found that it was the local pinots coming out of here that convinced me to jump in.”

Ken is finding that the region is slowly getting the recognition it deserves, although for those in the know it has been well-deserving for many many years, especially for the premium cool climate varieties.

The coolness is a challenge not only for winemakers but for the vines themselves. “It doesn’t hurt to make them work a bit,” he says. “Not that I believe in over stressing the vines either. But I find that I never have to de-invigorate them as they do in other areas. It’s no good having all shoot, no fruit, as they say.”

Back-breaking work is something that Barry Elliott has had to accept as part and parcel of his vineyard Chanters Ridge, made all the more ironic one supposes as this former orthopedic surgeon has been more used to fixing backs than breaking his own. For it has been an added challenge for Barry and his family to find that his land was peppered with large rocks. “We’re on a volcanic ridge, and there is a lot of basalt rock in it that we had to rip out before we could plant. What we seem to have is boulders that have rolled along with the lava flow,” he says. “When we put our bore in we had to go through 100 feet of solid basalt to get to the water.”

At 600 metres, Chanters Ridge is probably a little higher than most others in the area, is right on top of the main ridge, and so also a little cooler. But the smaller vineyard is all pinot noir. “I wanted to get to know one variety. I really wanted to concentrate on one,” Barry says. However having only one choice means the market for his wine is limited, he says.

Barry explains why he has focused on one grape. “We’re limited to what we can grow anyway, and with wine you’ve got to understand that as there are different quality wines, there are also different styles. While quality may be equally high between wines, it is the style that will make one or the other taste ‘right’ to you. That’s what I’m looking for.”

With both his and his wife’s families having a background of doing it hard on the land, Barry has gone back to his roots in one way. But the future is looking up, and this year’s pinot is looking just about right, he says.

There are of course many more wineries around the Macedon Ranges, larger and smaller than the few we have visited. The best can be found at both boutique and big wineries. The one sure thing is that there is no one king of cool, but many jewels to be discovered in the Macedon Ranges crown.


This article first appeared in Victorian Lifestyle Property mgazine.