Grampians Wine Region: A Patchwork of History
Posted on March 25, 2017
On my last trip to Melbourne, I had the pleasure of venturing out further to explore the Grampians wine region in Victoria. With its dramatic backdrop and boutique wineries it is the perfect place to spend the weekend.
It has been five years since I’ve seen my old friend Topsi Wallace but it feels like yesterday – the sign of a real friendship. Or the sign you are getting old. Or probably both. We studied Viticulture & Oenology together at Lincoln University, and now she’s now an Assistant Winemaker at Blue Pyrenees. A 1.5 hour journey from on the train from Melbourne, I arrived in Ballarat where we enjoyed a vino at local institution Mitchell Harris Wine Bar and a delicious feast and tamarind Mojitos at Catfish Thai.
It is always odd when you wake up to your surroundings when you arrive in the thick of night. I woke up in Avoca to foreign bird caws of raven cries, cockatoo screech and kookaburra cackle. Dry yellow grass and gum tree line the barren paddocks, this is unmistakably in rural Australia. I was greeted with strong coffee as I watched the morning antics of cute birds, willy wag tails. The two activities were a) exploring the amazing walking trails of the Grampians or b) wine tasting around the local cellar doors. Needless to say, we chose the latter. When you love wine as much as we do, there is no such thing as to much. So the big conundrum then is, but which wineries do you choose with so little time? Can we do five in half a day?
The Grampians wine region is best known for some of Australia’s oldest Sparkling wine production but they’re also famous for cool climate Shiraz and reds that hold acidity and many an age worthy Riesling. Its a little more off the beaten track that other regions in Victoria but nevertheless home to some iconic wine producers: Best’s Great Western, Mount Langi Ghiran Estate and Seppelts to name a few. It seemed only fitting to visit those at least. We had Montara and Taltarni on the agenda too, before heading back to Blue Pyrenees to check some base wine ferments where Topsi is Assistant Winemaker. It was a wine tasting marathon, they’re was a lot of beautiful vistas, and a lot of spitting. First stop: Mount Langi Ghiran Estate.
Mount Langi Ghiran Estate
Mount Langi Ghiran , which in Aboriginal means home of the yellow-tailed black cockatoo, was no exception to the sheer beauty of the region and proved to be my highlight vista of the day. The sweeping vineyards before you rest on the sloping face of hill by Mount Langi, and opposite is the ominous outline of Mount Cole looming in the distance. At 922 metres altitude, they have the coolest conditions in the whole region as the two mountains create a steady flow of cold air and throw shadows promoting slow ripening conditions. Thus their wines retain acidity and have a distinctive character: reds show bright cherry, spice, eucalyptus and a refreshing finish, whilst their whites are aromatic, floral, soft palate ending with a touch of minerality.
Planted in 1963 by Italian immigrant family, the Fratins, aimed to create their little piece of Veneto. The grapes were sold to Seppelts in Great Western until in 1980 they decided to found the winery with help of consultant Trevor Mast. Six years later him and his wife purchased the estate and in an 1994 issue of Wine Spectator it was next to Penfolds Grange and Henschke’s Mount Edelstone Shiraz. 15 years later the Rathbone Wine Group purchased it, along with complementary wineries Yerring Station and Xanadu.
There are three brands; Billi Billi, Cliff Edge, Spinoff and Langi. A common thread with the granite soils over red clay and the cool climate is their aromatic intrigue and simple elegance their wine range. Despite this most we tried were made to be drank young, a couple of splendid reds really standing tall above the rest.
Scents of elderflower and white flower abound, fruit aromas feature ripe peach predominantly. There is a flinty flavour, lemon pith, medium acid and dry mineral finish making it very pleasant but well in need of some ageing time.
Spinoff Barbera 2015, 13% v/v, $45
Cherry, light red berry fruit, and macerated strawberries are the first sign that there may have been some carbonic maceration here. 14 months in oak and lees stirring – there’s more cherry, spice, medium palate and tannin but lacking persistent finish.
Mast Shiraz 2014, 14% v/v, $45
Red berries intermingle with eucalypt and white pepper on the nose, a silky warm fruit washes over, its black currant complemented by mind and vanilla, but its sweet fruit and elegance leaves the tannin wanting. A lovely tribute to previous owner Trevor Mast who passed away in 2012 but inspired the current wine quality at Langi.
Langi Cabernet Sauvigon 2014, 13.2% v/v (not on price list or website)
You always expect an Aussie Cab to be over-bearing and big, so this was a welcome surprise. A not unpleasant aroma of soap floral dances with menthol and pepper – an unlikely party. Stunning balance of black fruit, acidity and elegant finish, means its drinking excellent now but will also develop complexity with age.
Langi Shiraz 2014, 14% v/v, $120 SOLD OUT
The some 53 year old vines here and it is just sublime. There is red through to blue fruit aroma profile, lifted aromatics, cigar box, and a hint of tabacco. Concentrated mid palate is reminiscent of bright fruits, vanilla but seamless finish poised with balanced acidity and length, it will age very well.
There’s an undeniable charm and welcome home feeling when you arrive at a small shack of a cellar door perched on top of a hill, the people within laughing and talking. Such is the effect of Montara and the woman that was working that day. Its then you realize that the last cellar door was a little cold in comparison and it certainly, even when you try to be objective, affects you’re overall experience of a place.
Due to the success of Best’s winery many followed suit and in eventually created what we now know to be the thriving Grampians wine region. 1970 the McRae family started Montara, planting vines right on the slopes of Mount Chalambar. Now owned by the Stapleton family, six siblings have taken over to really invigorate the style of winevmaking here.
Gold Rush Riesling 2015, $23
Elegant and young, there’s a citrus garden of lemon and orange zest on smell. I can taste some skin contact on the palate, with grippy edges, finishing clean, balanced and refreshing.
Gold Rush Pinot Noir 2015 $25
80% whole bunch press brings you the vibrant summer berry and nettle aromas. Then 40% new oak for 9 months brings you elegant tannins flowing over my palate like silk. There’s ethereal softness is juxtaposed with refreshing minerality making this an all together delight.
Gold Rush Shiraz 2013, $25
“Examplary of the Grampians (wine) region, this is a medium bodied Shiraz,” showing blackcurrant, dark chocolate, fully ripe underpinned by morello cherries and dusted with characteristic white pepper. The medium body is lacking though, since the hole in the middle calls for either more post ferment extraction or time in oak. We know sometimes a wine is in limbo; I hope that’s the case.
Gold Rush Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, $25
This is from vines that were replanted as recently as 2008 due to a vine disease. Only on its fourth vintage, the wine is full of pepper, dark forest fruits, smokey- cedar- toast aromas. The palate is deep, brooding and inky with fantastic acidity. Another great Cabernet from the Grampians wine region.
Chalambar Road Reserve Grampians Shiraz 2010, $70
One of those, if I was not so broke, I would definitely have purchased this beauty. It’s sourced from oldest vines in Montara planted in 1972. Bacon, menthol and a phenomenal profile of fruits are showing from red-blue-black. This continues to the palate, where its beautifully concentrated, ripe and generous fruits, finishing with cedar, spice and toasty oak. This was an absolutely stunning wine where 40 year old vines really speak volumes, and the wine still has so much legs on it yet.
A long time ago, in 1851 Joseph Seppelt started Seppaltsfield in the Barossa. Meanwhile, during the 1857 Ararat gold rush, Jean Pierre Trouette formed a business with Anne Marie and Emile Blampied to plant St Peters Vineyard in what today is the Grampians wine region. So the story goes, The Great Western winery was formed by Joseph Best in 1965 using ex miners to dig tunnels below the winery grounds known as ‘drives’, in which he would begin the Australian sparkling wine production was born. In 1918 the next generation of Seppelt, the family in the Barossa took the helms and named it The Great Western. Two or three owners later, by 1982 it was an iconic winery for both sparkling wines and Shiraz.
Although today the winery is known as Seppelt, it no longer bears any connection to the Barossa producer with the same name. Whilst they intend to uphold the highest quality adn, sadly Treasury Wine Estates sold it and the the winery has been made redundant. Local businessman formed a tourism operation to keep the historical ‘drives’ open to the public for tours and maintain the 150 year old history which forms a cornerstone of the Australian wine industry.
Walking down the drives, is an eerie experience. Endless racks of sparkling wine bottles line the walls, which make you feel as if you could be deep in Europe somewhere – its a piece of history the New World of wine lacks. As they’re not yet disgorged yet they are ‘technically still in production’, but they’re forgotten. There’s a thick black fungus that clutches to every bit of wall, hanging in drapes around the lights and combined with the ‘natural’ cellar temperature that gives me goose bumps, it’s also like a stage for an unwanted horror movie. But the mystique goes one step further, because it’s quite an accomplishment for any New World Wine region to have 150 years worth of history, and today I got a snap shot into what it was like to produce wine without modern refrigeration and automated machinery.
Great Western Riesling 2016
Lime, nectarine, floral aromas take shape here, and you can even smell a schist like minerality underneath. It does not disappoint, with astringency, tenstion and gripping yet beautiful acidity working in together. Old Riesling vines cover a sloping hill, its red clay over granite – again terroir that really shines through.
Seppelt Shiraz St Peters 2014, 13.5% v/v, $68
Planted in 1863, these Old vines still stand and unaffected by phylloxera. Since 1964 this wine has been produced only in exceptional years, from volcanic red brown soils of St Peters and Imperial vineyards. Here is a wine that is warm red fruits, succulent, medium bodied and chocolate, elegant finish that will develop for at least 6-8 years to come. If wine could give you a hug, this would be a giant teddy bear.
Seppelt Chalambar Shriaz 2015,
A combination of Grampians and Heathcote fruit, there’s a hint of chocolate and herbaceous edge. Sweet vanilla and fully ripe, succulent fruits fill the mid palate. Fine finish of red berries, medium ++ tannins and acidity all work in harmony. Heathcote is warmer, also has the red-brown Cambrian soil of the area but more basalt which usually out the tannins, the Grampians fruit adding the red fruits and acidity.
Seppelt Mount Ida Shiraz 2012, Heathcote
Unlike any others from the day, it has a very pretty nose intensely floral. The wine starts a little hot but has excellent structure – intense, dark chewy tannins and crunchy fruit profile. There is a savoury edge which shows its going into secondary development and sublime for drinking now.
Best’s Great Western
A few years ago I was working as a Junior Sommelier in a restaurant in Melbourne, theirs is one of the first Australian Rieslings that really made me stop and think very seriously. Shit that’s good. Were the words I believe. So it was a massive thrill for me to visit this icon.
In 1967 Henry Best purchased some land in Great Western called Concongella. By 1907, Best’s was one of the first in Australia to trademark his name. Once he passed away, the winery was purchased Frederik Pinchon Thomson, and five generations of family tradition ensued. In 1975 the first external winemaker would be Trevor Mast, who became one of Australia’s greatest winemakers, going on to purchase Langi Ghiran afterwards. Its amazing how in this region, their history is interconnected like a patchwork frame for the future.
What were experimental blocks for different varieties has now become field blends from the non-irrigated site – very exciting for the wine geeks out there. The Concongella Blend 2016 a mix of 19 white varieties, is all floral and has a funky finish. The Nursery Dry Red 2016 features 14 varieties, it is full of raspberry, sweet cherry cola, vanilla and intrigue – it doesn’t know what its doing, but the palate is pleasant enough and it beckons me.
Best Western Riesling 2016
On the nose a burst of turkish delight, peach, orange, blossom. There’s high acidity, racy palate and tension that makes for serious ageing potential. When I tried it I went to my “Happy Place” – this is what its all about.
Bin 0 Shiraz 2014
96 Point for James Halliday. Black currant nose, and dark fruits on palate. It has medium body, balanced with fine tannins, in a finish that goes on and on. Post ferment maceration has certainly given it the structure, deft hand in oak treatment meaning there’s already some interesting secondary development of aromas.
Pinot Noir vertical – 1995, 1997, 1999
The 1995 is barely holding on. Its old, soft and nutty nose – whilst the palate is supple and interesting I think its withering up on the other side of the bell curve. The 1997 has fresh, slightly macerated strawberry nose, light balsamic and a palate lacking fruit still pleasant enough. The 1999 had interesting and woody aromas, dark fruit and still cloying tannins, the oak pulling it through.
Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
Black currant, lengthy dark fruits, chocolate, vanilla and spice are all having a party and promises to explode on tasting. The tannins were really tight and chewy, but there’s excellent length meaning this little number is too young but will probably get seriously good with at least 5 but up to 10 more years.
After our day tasting around the Grampians wine region, we headed to Blue Pyrenees so that Topsi could monitor and taste base wine ferments (for sparkling wines). Its the beginning of harvest and a lot of tanks are already full. Nothing could prepare for me the acidity- real eye popping stuff. But as they yeast bubble away, you could see the tutti fruity, pineapple and tropical aromas forming. I certainly had palate fatigue and not having lunch was catching up with me, but luckily some of the grape juice was sweet and a welcome reprieve.
I cannot help but marvel at what a great day that was. I only have a new found appreciation for the “Great Western” Grampians wine region. I love that no matter when a winery was founded, they all pay homage in their history . I’ve also been really touched by the beauty here. The vineyards, rolling yellow hills to lush forest, tall eucalyptus dotting the horizon, the mountains stay looming over like protectors of the boundaries. All the while the now bustling industry not only sets a bench mark for cool climate wine growing in Australia, but also makes its mark on the stage of international wine.
Dusk is upon us. The ravens cry, cockatoo screech are still heard in the distance, and as we drive a couple of roos bound past into the darkness like vagabonds. With purple stained teeth, and ravenous appetites for all things cheese, pate and dip like, we finally head home for our picnic dinner on the floor. We finish off with a Riesling from Mount Langi Ghiran and Sparkling Rose from Blue Pyrenees.
Its a long day trip home to Auckland in the morning, and I’m not sure I want to leave.