Geelong - Surfing the Vines
Nick Stock waxes up his surfboard and his lyrical notes to reveal the myriad treasures of the Geelong wine region.
If you haven’t booted over the Westgate Bridge recently and delved into the Geelong wine region, you should, it has a lot to offer. It’s close to Melbourne, it has an array of stunning beaches, including some of Australia’s most famous surf breaks, a cute array of small towns dotted along the coast and some serious credentials when it comes to producing great wine.
I first visited the place for reasons other than wine. I was an eight-year-old kid who was obsessed by surfing and I came across from South Australia on a family holiday. I bought my very first surfboard in Torquay, a pintail single fin shaped by ‘Watercooled’ in the late 1970s. I’ve still got it today, partly for sentimental reasons and partly because the style fell back into favour, as things often do.
Vines of time - Geelong's wine history
From a wine point of view, Geelong has a deep history stretching back to the early 1800s when Swiss settlers established vineyards in the area, then a significant hiatus before others rekindled wine grape production throughout the latter half of the 20th century. This mirrors similar timelines to other Victorian regions like the Yarra Valley.
But in recent years it has been a bit of a sleeper. It can’t lay claim to larger scale producers or boast the huge concentration of wineries and cellar doors of the Yarra. Neither does it have the well-heeled army of weekenders with farms or the luxury beach shack scene of Portsea and Sorrento on the Mornington.
So what does the Geelong wine region have to offer the wine traveller? The answer is an awful lot.
Firstly, it’s a well-known fact that where quality wine is concerned, size isn’t everything and this is a region with smaller, mostly family-owned wineries totalling about 60 all up. This means that visiting wineries here is interesting and you’re often talking to the people that work in the vineyard and in the winery – the real faces behind the wines.
Secondly, it covers an incredibly diverse set of different soils and climates that stretch over a relatively large area of land. There are a number of wine styles possible and a spread of producers working with all manner of grape varieties and approaches across three distinct sub-regions.
The defined three
The Bellarine is a beautiful peninsula that juts out into the middle of Port Phillip Bay, surrounded by water, it is maritime in the extreme. Here you’ll find stunning ocean vistas as well as views back across to Melbourne. There are even prized outcrops of limestone over which the best quality fruit tends to be produced.
Bellarine wines are softer, more forward and more fruit-driven as the ocean has a moderating effect on temperature and keeps the vines moving along through vintage.
“We embraced the fruit forward styles of the Bellarine and that’s what we are making,” says Shadowfax chief winemaker, Matt Harrop, “In fact, we are only sourcing fruit from this sub-region.”
If you head down along the coast to the southwest from the Bellarine you head into the Surf Coast sub-region, home to some of the most epic surf breaks in the world including Bells Beach, an important annual stop on the World Surf League Championship Tour. This is an exposed, rugged part of the region and a newer frontier for winemakers, again, extremely maritime.
But the jewel in the region is the more inland area that sits between the township of Geelong and Ballarat known as the Moorabool Valley. It is warmer, drier and the soils are lean, meaning generally lower yields than in other parts of the region. It is tough country and site selection here is important to achieve quality.
The star varieties of the Geelong wine region are Shiraz, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and these are the ones that have historically led the way. There’s a thread of Riesling that runs through the region with Austin’s having claim to some impressive lineage and the Rieslings of Leura Park embodying a modern, generous and popular style. Beyond these you’ll find things like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris made in many places and some inklings of future success with grapes like Gamay and Tempranillo, if you look hard enough.
Without question, the high watermark for quality in the region has long been set by the Farr family. Initially by Gary who worked as winemaker at Bannockburn before establishing his own vineyard and By Farr label, and more recently his son Nick. Gary Farr’s love of Pinot Noir from Burgundy echoes strong in the wines he has made and he has forged a formidable reputation with his Pinot Noir wines across four decades.
The ‘Farr effect’ has cast a Pinot-tinged aura across the whole Geelong region, one that has seen almost every winery in the region attempt to make great Pinot. But the reality is that great Pinot comes from great sites and, whilst there’s a lot of easygoing, accessible Pinot to be found here, the best sites are on the volcanic soils of the Moorabool Valley.
But the Moorabool is a tough place. It is arid and stark and vines have to work hard. The Farr family long ago figured out just where the balance lies in getting Pinot vines to produce something magic and they find it consistently, with Pinot, as well as Shiraz and Chardonnay.
Another astute winegrower obsessed with Pinot is Ray Nadeson of Lethbridge Wines. Like the Farrs, Nadeson has his base in the Moorabool, but he takes grapes from across the region and is fascinated in the whole regional puzzle. His greatest success has been with Shiraz though and this poses a growing question as to whether Shiraz or Pinot Noir is the real hero wine for the Geelong region.
Others are experimenting with new styles and blends. At Shadowfax, whose winery is at Werribee and the first vineyard you come to en route from Melbourne, winemaker Matt Harrop is having some success with his ‘Minnow’. This mid-weight red is a blend of Shadowfax’s best fruit, this year made up of Mataro, Grenache, Cinsault and Mondeuse Noir. It is a brilliant example of the ‘sum is greater than the parts’ ethos with bright fruit flavours and complexity on the palate.
A story of soils
Perhaps it is not about the variety but more a question of climate and sub-regionality?
The Bellarine and Surf Coast sub-regions are always going to be hugely influenced by the sea and this means they will always run ahead of the Moorabool and ripen earlier. The wines are always going to be fruitier, softer and more accessible. The soils also tilt in the same direction and the predominant duplex clay loams will make easygoing wines across a number of varieties and styles.
The Moorabool Valley is drier, it is warmer and there’s a bigger swing in temperature from day to night away from the moderating effect of the ocean. It has a propensity to ripen grapes more slowly, to be harvested later and at lower yields. This, along with basalt-derived soils, means wines are generally more savoury, less fruity and the reds have a more pronounced tannin structure.
This all somehow fits the broader picture of the region, with the instantly enjoyable, easygoing wines coming from the laid back coastal areas where locals and visitors go to relax and the serious wines coming from more serious farmers who are further inland working with real intent and purpose. The terroir is really expressive here, it’s really on the winemakers to understand it and hone in on the right wines from the right sub-regions and sites.
I also like the idea that the Bellarine and Surf Coast wines are the ones you drink when you’re in the region, visiting from Melbourne for the day or on holiday and the Moorabool Valley wines are the wines you buy to take home and put in the cellar for deeper contemplation. It actually kind of works for everyone.
Geelong Cellar door checklist
Speaking of visiting the region, you’ll be pleased to know that cellar doors are plentiful and accommodating with most being designed and built in the last half decade to facilitate wine lovers and as a venue for functions – wedding in the vines with an ocean backdrop anyone?
Leura Park, Jack Rabbit and the curiously named Yes Said The Seal (along with the cidery Flying Brick, all part of the same family) are all quality destinations on the Bellarine Peninsula within easy reach of each other. They offer quality visitor experiences, and the wines and ciders are brilliant.
Scotchmans Hill has been a staple in the Bellarine for over 30 years. Their cellar door offers wonderful views across Port Phillip Bay and sees their highly rated Pinot Noir fly out the door as fast as their equally regarded Sauvignon Blanc.
Oakdene has a quirky cellar door tasting room, a solid restaurant, café and accommodation in the area too, and the wines are very good across the board.
In the Moorabool, Lethbridge Wines make a compelling offering for the more serious and discerning wine visitor; the wines are detailed and refined to very impressive heights. Del Rios of Mt Anakie and Clyde Park are wineries that are producing some of the best wines in the region, the former with Shiraz, the latter Pinot Noir.
Eat, drink and be merry
If you’re on the Surf Coast and keen for a bite, try Fisho’s in Torquay. Awesome fish tacos served alongside a rotating handful of Geelong region wines. Napona in Ocean Grove sees ex-Melbourne couple, Will and Kirsty Swinton’s tasty modern Australian bistro, while Captain Moonlight, above the surf club in Anglesea offers magnificent views and is a cool place to hang when the surf is up.
If you’re looking for serious culinary experiences, the Geelong region can provide that as well. Brae and Igni, two of Australia’s most highly rated contemporary restaurants will wow even the most discerning diner.
The thing is, the Geelong region offers a delicious array of wines and food and plenty of great locations to enjoy both. It’s a great excuse to visit, maybe enough for me to get that pintail out this summer.