Category Archives: Winery Visits
I’m not sure if it was just the jet lag but there was a surreal feeling returning to Italy, the place that had the most profound impact for me on my big trip a few years ago. After some 18 hours in transit and only six hours sleep on a plane in two days, I collected my Fiat 500 (the same car I had last time) from Malpensa airport and set off for Alba in Piemonte.
It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these posts, so you’ll forgive me for being a bit rusty. For various reasons the last time I got out of Melbourne was way back at the beginning of May. It certainly was lovely to get back to regional Victoria, particularly to do what I actually started this blog for; visit wineries. Thankfully there are no shortage of wine regions within an hour of the city, and Macedon was at the top of my list. As the coolest region for viticulture (currently) in Australia, I was very interested to catch up with a number of producers to explore some elegant wines. I had only visited the Macedon Ranges once before, many years ago, and had visited Hanging Rock Winery.
Having worked in the Yarra Valley you would think that I knew the region pretty well. Well think again! For one thing it’s not that easy to get out and see a lot of other stuff whilst working, particularly when you don’t even live in the region. For another thing, the Yarra Valley is probably one of Australia’s largest regions geographically, but at the same is disparate and quite sparsely planted. There are many areas that I am still yet to explore outside of the valley floor. The other thing is that the Yarra Valley is possibly one of Australia’s most dynamic regions for wine, constantly reinventing itself with new wineries and winemakers almost every year. For me the exciting thing about this is that it is also one of Australia’s oldest regions, and was the first to gain international recognition back in the 19th century. It was re-established in the 1970s after almost 100 years of ignominy and since then has continued to evolve and develop while maintaining its boutique image. My quest for the day was to visit producers who have only had their own brand for ten years or less but are turning heads for their style and expression that is challenging preconceptions both of the Yarra Valley and Australian wine.
Back in 2007 renowned Australian wine commentator and educator Campbell Mattinson published a book entitled “Why the French Hate Us – the real story of Australian Wine.” I’m very ashamed to admit that I haven’t actually read this book but I have certainly heard wonderful things. It is on my pile of shame. The interesting thing is that it isn’t just the French but Europeans in general who hate us, without even understanding Australia that well. I had more producers in Europe than I can count expressing interest in working vintage in New Zealand and Chile than this big brown land, and even more reducing Australian wine to simple fruit driven mass-produced and marketed brands. The simple fact is that Australia produces a minute amount of wine compared to giants like France, Italy and Spain, less than single regions in North & South America, and yet we are the fourth largest exporter in the world. Clearly we are doing something right. In truth the world hasn’t even seen the best wines and regions that Australia has to offer as they are still being discovered. Something that has recently been discovered is that the pre-Cambrian soils in the Heathcote region of Victoria are the oldest in the world. Another reason to hate us.
No other region in South Australia does wine marketing better than the McLaren Vale. They have been producing quality wine there longer than any other region in the country and this has been well communicated all over the world. There are great soils, a stable climate and sufficient old-vine material to make a European blush. Brands cover the whole gamut; iconic, commercial, boutique and cult. Their wine tourism is some of the most sophisticated I have seen, not to mention diverse in terms of cellar door offerings. Yet when I first visited in early 2011 as a trade guest I left as underwhelmed as I had already been. In some ways this is because I felt that not only were they focusing on varieties that are so common in Australia and the world, but they were also producing them in an outdated and inelegant way. These are not wines that excite me, nor are they particularly exciting younger consumers who crave difference, particularly from wines their parents drank. The thing that did excite me was the number of producers starting to work with alternative varieties, experimenting and diversifying to find different expressions and compliments to the environment. A shame that so little emphasis was placed on this on our program. For this reason I was interested in returning to visit some producers who are focusing on new vines and wines in a somewhat stale wine region.
Some places have all the luck. Firstly the Barossa Valley is undoubtedly Australia’s most recognised wine region, with studies showing that it is one of the only ones that consumers in the United Kingdom and United States can actually identify. Located within an hour from the outskirts of Adelaide it also has the benefit of hoards of wine tourists walking through every year, compared to unlucky fellow SA vignerons in the Clare Valley or Coonawarra. The Barossa Valley also has one of the longest traditions of continuous winemaking tradition dating back to the mid-19th century, and has the vines and facilities to prove it. The subject of change is quite touchy, whether it relates to new techniques, new varieties or new clonal material. With generations of heritage passed down and a huge investment in promoting the supremacy and uniqueness of old vine wines it is hard to break free and try something different. Evolving markets filled with disinterested consumers for the kind of wines that Australia has become synonymous with, not to mention climate change means that new thinking is not only a good idea but mandatory for survival. There are a select few that aren’t winning friends in the region but are gaining a cult following for their wines that break the mould, particularly in terms of alternative grape varieties.
Something that surprised me on my trip was when I met people who had been to Australia had not been to my hometown of Melbourne. Of course I am biased but I couldn’t understand why, considering it is consistently voted as the most livable city in the world, has a rich and diverse culture and history, is the home of sport, nightlife parks, and most importantly cuisine. When I thought about it I realised that Melbourne doesn’t have astounding attractions like Sydney, beaches like Perth or the Gold Coast, opals like Cairns or Uluru. It is hard to know what to do in Melbourne if you aren’t familiar with it and you are unlikely to find those hidden gems that are the hallmark of Melbourne. It is also quite spread-out and not easy to get around without a car. The best thing to do is to know someone there. The real problem though is that the climate is very different this far south and the weather can be a bit disappointing and certainly not what you expect of Australia.
I think it’s time for an embarrassing confession. In spite of the fact that I have now travelled all around the world visiting almost 100 different regions I have actually been to very few regions in Australia, of which there are almost 50. What is possibly worse is that there are about a dozen regions within a few hours of Melbourne alone, only three of which I had visited outside of work. I have had the chance to visit the major wine regions in South Australia, thanks in some part to working in the trade previously and being invited, and also visiting some regions around Adelaide with my father before I left. There is now only one state in Australia that doesn’t produce wine, and that is the Northern Territory, so there are still four states I still haven’t visited wineries in. Returning home I was determined to remedy this and the first new region to visit (finally) was the King Valley.
When I was young my grandparents owned a holiday house that our family made use of at least twice a year, particularly during summer. The house was pretty old, the beds weren’t very comfortable and worst of all there was no television. In spite of this I always looked forward to holidays there. The house was in Rye on the Mornington Peninsula between Rosebud and Sorrento, and I have fond memories of beaching, fish & chips and the summer carnival. They sold the house when I was in my early teens and suddenly there was a hole in my heart where those experiences used to be. Once I became interested in wine that hole was filled in a different way when I discovered it as a wine region. Over the years I was introduced to many other wines and regions in Australia, especially in the Yarra Valley where I worked for quite a while, but Mornington always remained my favourite region in Australia. So it seems fitting that the first region I visited since my return was to the Mornington Peninsula.
|At Main Ridge Estate, my favourite producer in the world|