Henty, the Grampians, Pyrenees and Ballarat – there are plenty of tasting treasures to be unearthed in the wine regions of Western Victoria.
We need Western Victoria and its wine. We need its different taste and the perspective it brings: a balanced, middle-weighted, pepper-infused, mint-garnished, spicy, smooth, sometimes savoury, sometimes rustic kind of alternative taste.
Vineyards are vast and isolated here, attached by dirt roads to country towns and sometimes just the smallest of hamlets. Wines are made by men and women of the land, people like John Thomson at Crawford River in the Henty region, who talks of his “peasant genes,” and who has four generations behind him who have farmed sheep and cattle on the land. He and his wife Catherine branched into wine in 1975.
“I didn’t set out to grow grapes,” he says. “I set out to make wine.”
There was, he adds, more money in the latter. It’s a common enough story around these parts.
Western Victoria is a collective term for four independent wine regions: Henty, the Grampians, Pyrenees and Ballarat. This is home to Shiraz (plenty of it) and Cabernet Sauvignon (less of it) along with Chardonnay and a little Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir with a gaggle of Italian varieties bringing up the rear.
The Back Story
It’s the flagpoles out front issuing a kind of multi-national wave of welcome that stump first time visitors to Taltarni. There’s the Aussie flag to the forefront shouldered on either side by the American stars and stripes and the French tricolour.
What does it all mean?
Like a few wineries in Western Victoria, it’s all about history and foreign influences. Taltarni’s story involves a wealthy Californian owner who set up the operation in 1972, and his long-time French winemaker who laid the foundations for its enduring, elegant wine style.
The French were among the first to see the potential that lay in the Pyrenees, with Cognac-based Rémy Martin arriving at Avoca in 1960, ostensibly to make brandy, but wine quickly followed. They called their enterprise Chateau Rémy. We know it today as Blue Pyrenees Estate.
But the biggest influence on the region was gold. Discovered in the 1850s, it made towns like Ballarat and Great Western magnets for prospectors from around the world.
After the gold, people like Joseph and Henry Best stayed and moved into wine. Joseph built a substantial winery and used unemployed gold diggers to carve out underground cellars. It was the beginning of what came to be Seppelt, one of the biggest Sparkling wine producers in the country.
Henry Best planted vines fronting Concongella Creek at Great Western. But it was the purchase of the site by Frederick Thomson in 1920 that really saw the Best’s Wines story take off.
Western Victoria is a land of wide plains running smack up against some pretty spectacular hills and ranges, none more impressive than the rugged National Park that gives the Grampians its name.
Mountain walkers, climbers and cyclists really love this part of the world. With a range of B&Bs, hotels and camping sites to choose from, most make Halls Gap their HQ. Wineries like Mount Langi Ghiran and The Gap are just down the road.
Mount Langi Ghiran is best known as the producer of archetypal cool climate, peppery Shiraz, which first drew the industry’s attention to a budding new style in the 1980s.
How pepper gets into the wines of Western Victoria to such a degree that it might be called a phenomenon has only slowly been revealed by scientists at Melbourne University working with the winemakers at Mount Langi Ghiran (it’s got to do with a cool climate and wet seasons).
On paper, the region (19 vineyards, eight cellar doors) looks small, but its history and influence belie its size.
The Great Western sub-region was the commercial cradle of Sparkling wine production in Australia at Seppelt and is synonymous with a great Aussie icon, Sparkling Shiraz. Grampians Estate and Seppelt lead the pack, but for added gravitas, tour the Seppelt underground drives to feel the history and finish with a glass of spiced-up red bubbles.
One of the state’s great restaurants, the Royal Mail Hotel, can be found in a highway town called Dunkeld. Five and eight course degustation menus star local produce, alternatively there is an informal wine bar.
Or there are the local Mount Gambier wines to try, including up-and-coming Pinots, at Tosca Browns in Hamilton.
Henty is a developing wine region as far west as you can go before you bang into South Australia. Volcanic, gravelly soils over limestone are the key to some of the best Rieslings in Australia made here at Crawford River Wines.
And what a treat to find a one hat quality restaurant such as The Pickled Pig in Warrnambool.
Major Thomas Mitchell, the 19th Century explorer, was a bit of a romantic, clearly. He named this part of the Great Dividing Range, the Pyrenees, as the dense, blue-hued hills reminded him of the mountains dividing France and Spain. Given the hills outside the towns of Avoca and Moonambel rise to 800 metres compared to some 3400 metres in Europe, that’s a bit of a stretch, but point taken. This is a pretty part of the world.
It is here that the wine lover will confront the Pyrenean wine character known in academic circles as 1,8-cineole. The rest of us call it eucalyptus, aka, mint or menthol (the cineole is sourced from leaves and stems that find their way into fermentation), and it’s often found on either a red wine’s bouquet or flavour, or both. Its usual vehicle of choice is the Shiraz grape, which dominates plantings, but it can be found in any number of red wines.
That eucalyptus in wine should be such a powerful influence is not so surprising. Gum trees are everywhere around these parts. For those who applaud its inclusion in wine, it’s part of the land, a question of terroir.
The Pyrenean red winemaking style is understated, medium-bodied and earthy.
Best in Bubbles
And strange as it may seem when so many producers today seek the super cool regions like Tasmania for sourcing grapes for sparkling wines, the Pyrenees does an excellent job with bubbles.
Blue Pyrenees Estate 2010 Midnight Cuvee beat some of the country’s top Sparklings to be named World Champion Australian sparkling at the inaugural Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships in England in 2014. A 100 per cent Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs style, Midnight Cuvee’s success comes thanks to 10 years of refinement in the vineyard and winery by winemaker, Andrew Koerner. And, yes, the fruit is harvested at midnight at optimal coolness.
Taltarni is another leader in Sparkling wine, sourcing grapes grown on the estate in addition to Tasmania for its successful Clover Hill brand.
The region’s great white, whether for still or Sparkling, is Chardonnay. It has undergone changes over the last decade or more, moving away from a rich heavyweight to a more fruit-powered, streamlined number.
At Dalwhinnie, the importation of a Chardonnay clone from Champagne has served to highlight citrus and grapefruit qualities with sustained acidity and textural weight. It is a wine of great presence in the glass.
While Mount Avoca’s early reputation was built on Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz, I suspect that it is the Italians coming through – Pinot Grigio, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Lagrein – that now attract the drinker’s attention.
The adjoining region of Ballarat is smaller again, but its focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay indicates that it is heading in a different direction to its neighbour.
Eastern Peake Winery at Coghills Creek is a Pinot Noir maker par excellence, and is one of the few open for tastings seven days. Or, for a relaxed look at the wines of the west over a meal, head to Mitchell Harris Wine Bar in North Ballarat, part-owned by former Domaine Chandon Sparkling winemaker, John Harris.
Events Out West
Avoca Riverside Market - Dundas & Cambridge Streets, Avoca, on the fourth Sunday of each month.
Blue Pyrenees Estate Avoca Cup - Avoca Racecourse, Racecourse Road, Avoca, each October.
Grampians Grape Escape Food and Wine Festival - Showcases regional wine and fare during a month-long festival in April, culminating in the Grampians Escape Weekend tastings, auction, grape stomping and live music in Halls Gap.
Staying out West
Eagles Nest at Dalwhinnie Vineyard, Moonambel Redbank Chestnut Cottage
Mount Avoca Vineyard Eco-Luxe Lodges, Avoca
Warrenmang Vineyard & Resort, Moonambel
Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld
Boroka Downs, Halls Gap
Aztec Escape, Halls Gap
Links Retreat, Ararat