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Castagna Wines - Cult Wines & Legends

If you are an Australian wine lover and haven’t heard of Castagna, don’t be surprised.

Julian Castagna and his family, located just outside the Victorian Alps town of Beechworth, produce a small range of high quality, biodynamic wines that fly well below the radar.

They aren’t in any of the chains and to find them you will have to visit one of the handful of independent wine shops scattered around the country or be sitting in a restaurant looking at one of the few special wine lists that carry them.

There is no cellar door that you can ‘just visit’, you have to make an appointment. And, if you are not on his mailing list or buy directly from his site that often has ‘sold out’ next to his products, you will struggle to find them.

It’s no accident that these wines are not easy to find. A filmmaker earlier on in his life, Julian understands the value of having to dig to search something out, get to understand and eventually cherish it.

The Genesis range, like all the Castagna wines we tasted, presented somewhat of a conundrum. Old wine that tastes young?! Australian Shiraz that tastes like France?! 

Julian’s Path

Like most Australians full of youth and wanderlust, Julian ventured to Europe, searching for his path. After a stint in Spain, he found himself in London, working in film and advertising, and hanging out with people who were into the wine scene.

“I got absorbed,” explained Julian at a recent tasting of his wines at his kitchen table. “They didn’t know very much but pretended to know a lot.

“So I started reading, going to tastings and the guy that I worked for who had a lot of money, said “buy me wine” so I did.

“So when I went anywhere to taste, I was treated very well, and got to taste a lot of wine because I spent a lot of money…that’s where it all started.”

Julian eventually made his way back to Australia to make a film that didn’t get off the ground, so he continued with advertising in Sydney and began buying, travelling and exploring the wines of Australia.

After a while he became disenchanted with the advertising world and began asking himself questions about his and his family’s future.

“I was sitting in boardrooms and they were paying me so much money that it was a sin,” Julian explained. “But they weren’t listening…research and numbers were becoming more important than experience and creativity and I knew that was the precursor to ‘not’ working.

“So I asked myself, ‘What do I know? I know two things. I know wine and film, so if I’m not going to do film maybe I’ll do wine?

As he explored, he discovered a lot that he didn’t like, but a chance meeting with a glass of Giaconda Cabernet piqued his interest and led to him forming a relationship with Giaconda’s Rick Kinzbrunner and Beechworth.

“I kept coming back to two places; Margaret River and Beechworth, he explained. “I really didn’t want to come back to Victoria having grown up here, but I was wrong.”

Putting down roots

In 1996 Julian and his wife purchased land just outside Beechworth, planted vines and built a house.

“The intention was to make something really great, but I didn’t know what type of wine I wanted to make,” remarked Julian. “For me the wine that I wanted to make came from the land.

“I came here, looked at the land and it seemed to me the wine that would work here would be Sangiovese and Shiraz.”

Driven to make wines that were taken seriously, one of the many decisions Julian took to was biodynamics. “I believed and still do, that wine with character comes from the vineyard, not the winery,” he explained. “Biodynamics as a complete way of farming made so much sense.”

Julian is not evangelical about the methodology or its underlying principles. He simply sees it as common sense. It’s a refreshing attitude, given the fervent advocacy behind the current perception of biodynamics and its connection to the natural wine trend.

The Castagna website says it best. “The land is farmed biodynamicaly using Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic principles. We believe this is the best way to achieve optimum fruit quality that best expresses its terroir. Our intention is to make, as simply as possible, wine which is an expression of the place where it is grown.”

The Wines

On a cold, wet and foggy Beechworth morning, Wine Selectors Head of Product, Matt White, and I were treated to a spread of wines that showed just how special Castagna is in our wine industry.

The 2002 Allegro Shiraz Rosé was first and it was, quite simply, a revelation! Most Rosés fall over after about five years, but this wine, with 15 years under its belt, was aging incredibly. It had some developed aromatics and a little colour development, but it was still showing primary fruit with a fresh vibrant mouthfeel.

The wine had the kind of flavours and complexity that you get in vintage Rosé Champagnes and a palate length that went on and on. When asked how this was actually possible, Julian grinned, shrugged his shoulders and remarked, “It’s the vineyard,” and left it at that.

Next was the 2010 Ingénue, a 100% Viognier that had some delicate and pretty blossom florals, preserved lemon and beeswax aromatics that you see in only a select few Australian Viogniers. On the palate, the wine was all structure and complexity, with tight but flowing lines of grapefruits, rock melons, ginger and almonds. Again, the youth of this wine defied its age.

Two vintages of Julian’s Un Segreto Sangiovese Shiraz came next and the seven year span seemed hardly noticeable. The Sangiovese is weighted in the majority with 60% and the savoury, mid-weighted mouthfeel was a signature for both wines. The aromatics were sweet and perfumed with dusty red fruits, cassis, sour cherries and white pepper spice. In the mouth, both were fine yet complex with mocha, cocoa tinted red fruits, both stunning wines that again showed youth, despite their age, with class to match.

Next were two examples of Julian’s La Chiave Sangiovese. Generally, Sangio is not taken too seriously in Australia and is known mostly as a fleshy, ‘drink now’ food wine. But, like the age potential of Castagna wines previously sampled, these wines defied normality. They had the juicy, tar and cherries hallmark of Sangiovese, but there was a density to the mouthfeel that was juxtaposed with restrained, earthy flavours. These were delicious wines that could have you thinking you were sipping Brunello.

Biblical proportions

Three examples of Genesis followed and if there was going to be red wine that showed you what was possible with Shiraz from Beechworth, these wines would have to be at the top of the list. Julian’s intention is clear with Genesis in that he wanted to emulate the best Shiraz in the world and for him, these are the great wines of France’s Rhône valley.

Like the medium weighted, fine and perfumed wines of Côte Rôtie, Genesis has a small amount of Viognier co-fermented with the Shiraz, but the wines show characters from other great Rhône regions. The 2005 had the gnarly grunt and structure and spice reminiscent of Cornas, the 2004 had the earthy complexity and slippery mouthfeel of Hermitage, and the 2010 had the dried herbal aromatics and tight, complex black fruited layers and youth that had not decided whether it was Côte Rôtie, Cornas or Hermitage.

We rounded out the tasting with Castagna 2009 Sparkling Genesis. This is the same wine as the still Genesis, but it has spent two years on its lees and has been treated with a nicely balanced dosage that keeps the acid in check and the tannins slippery. Quite possibly the best in the country, this wine has complexity and depth in spades and the savoury, medium-bodied fruit makes for a compelling and delicious mouthful of bubbly Shiraz.

The Genesis range, like all of the Castagna wines we tasted, presents somewhat of a conundrum. Old wine that tastes young?! Australian Shiraz that tastes like France?! Beautifully crafted, insightful wines using weird farming practices from someone with no training? And from a place that is not considered a major region?

It’s a beautiful, inspiring story made sweeter by the wine that underpins it.

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