Roots Run Deep in Rutherglen
Built on generations of tradition, the family wineries of Victoria’s Rutherglen region are ready to receive visitors with a warm welcome and a quality drop or two.
Families define Rutherglen. With hundreds of years of winemaking between names like Campbell, Morris, Chambers, Cofield, Jones, De Bortoli, Pfeiffer, Brown, and enough trophies and medals to sink the ships many of their ancestors arrived in Australia on, it’s a wine region where old school meets innovation.
Tucked into North East Victoria, near the Murray River border between NSW and Victoria, this tiny historic town (pop around 2,200), also pushes well above its weight when it comes to exceptional food and superb accommodation amid stunning scenery. Whether it’s a weekend break or week-long holiday, like a fine wine, Rutherglen is a place to savour.
Above: Planted in the 1880s, the elm driveway makes a grand entrance to All Saint's.
The label of the bottle of Shiraz in front of me is wrapped in history: ‘Dig gentlemen dig, but no deeper than six inches, for there is more gold to be won from the top sixthou inches than from all the depths below’.
“This was the advice given to my great, great, grandfather, John Campbell when he planted his first vines here in 1870,” reflects Jane Campbell, Managing Director of Campbells wines.
Gold was what first attracted the Scotsman to Rutherglen, and Bobbie Burns Shiraz is named after the nearby gold reef where he tried his luck.
Surrounded by walls of handmade bricks, lined with rows of red-faced giant barrels hand coopered over a hundred years ago, we’re snuggled into comfy chairs sipping the fruits of the labour of five generations. It’s like being welcomed into the home of a long-lost friend.
“Bobbie Burns was my dad’s creation,” says Jane, proudly. “He wanted a red wine that was fruit first and he then used oak to give it balance.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the iconic wine, vintaged from fruit harvested in 2019, just prior to the sad passing of Colin Campbell, OAM.
In addition to the Bobbie Burns, other Campbells labels pay homage to bygone days. The Barkly Durif is as big and bold as John Wallace, owner of the Star Hotel, who during the height of the gold rush announced he’d shout the bar if people agreed to change the town’s name from Barkly to his Scottish hometown – Rutherglen. The Merchant Prince Rare Rutherglen Muscat is perfection in a glass and named in honour of the ship John Campbell sailed on board to Australia and The Brothers Shiraz recognises the close relationship with Colin as winemaker and his viticulturalist brother, Malcolm.
“What happened in the past, helps shape our future,” Jane says. “We want people to come here and have an authentic experience. We have soil under our fingernails and wine in our blood.”
Although the Cofield family has had a presence in Rutherglen vineyards for around 100 years, it wasn’t until winemaker Damien Cofield’s father started his own winery in 1990 that the boutique label made a splash onto the wine scene.
“We’re a Sparkling house,” says Damien, who took over the reins as winemaker from his father in 2007. “When we first started making Sparkling Shiraz, there would’ve only been around eight producers in Australia, now there’s more than 500.”
The vineyard may be small, but there’s a lot happening here. After tasting the superb wine at the cosy cellar door, Damien takes us into the winery to show how they use the traditional method to create their Sparkling wines. The aroma of rich fruit fermenting away in vats is warm and inviting as Damien jumps excitedly from one piece of equipment to the next.
“Curiosity drives me. I love to delve into wine and try to figure out why it tastes a certain way and ask myself the what ifs.”
A new addition for visitors is glamping – safari style tents overlooking the vineyard. And to complete the picture, local institution the Pickled Sisters Café is next door. Dine in on country fare with a twist or organise a decadent picnic hamper and pull up a patch of grass wherever you fancy.
Left: Pickled Sisters Cafe specialises in local produce; Right: Winemaker Damien Cofield in his famlily boutique winery.
Three’s Not A Crowd
“Even if you’re selling every bottle you produce, you can never rest on your laurels,” says David Morris, whose great, great, grandfather, George Morris came to the region to seek his fortune in gold, but found it in baking bread, before establishing Morris winery in 1859.
“The thing about family winemaking is you need to take a long-term approach for the health of the winery. If you pick the eyes out of a vintage, you’ll be left with nothing to fall back on.”
Wandering amongst the ancient casks, on the ‘hallowed’ dirt floor of the winery, David’s passion for his craft comes through in every word. However, following the family tradition wasn’t a given.
“My dad [Mick], encouraged me to look at various options, but I kept coming back to wine,” he says with a laugh. “When I graduated from Agricultural College, he even said the winery wasn’t big enough for the two of us. He was right – dad retired one day and I took over the next.”
However, although the winery may not sustain two, the tasting bench definitely does.
“Now in his 90s, my dad’s palate is still good and we bounce ideas off each other.”
And with David’s son, Madden, already making his own wine, sometimes the tasting bench extends to three. “It’s such a pleasure to have three generations working together to achieve the best results.”
Left: Viticulturist Matt Partridge tending the vines at De Bortoli's; Right: Winemaker David Morris in the barrel room his great, great grandfather established in 1859.
New Kids on an Old Block
De Bortoli’s viticulturist Matt Partridge likens caring for around 170 hectares of grapes to being at the helm of the Titanic.
“I’ve got to try to miss the iceberg from a long way off,” he says.
Spending time at grass roots level with ‘the keeper of the grapes’ is fascinating; to understand the importance of undulations in the landscape; learn how to reduce pesticides; and see first-hand new varietals grafted onto old root stock. “It’s like a V8 powering a mini.”
Matt and winemaker Marc Scalzo aren’t brothers, but the synergy between them is special. They both started working at Rutherglen Estates 13 years ago, and have similar goals and aspirations.
Above: De Bortoli's vineyards stretch to the horizon.
The buildings of Rutherglen Estates are the town’s showpiece. Dating back to 1886, the old Seppelts cellars, which are now known as the Tuileries, are being meticulously restored and gentrified by newcomers to the region, (but well known throughout Australian wine circles), the De Bortoli winemaking family, who purchased the property in 2018.
With clean lines, soaring beamed ceilings and the largest private collection of Aboriginal art in Australia, the cellar door is full of intrigue. However, nothing upstages the wines.
Marc’s enthusiasm is infectious. Like him, the wines are lively and he introduces each one as if it was his child. Wines to watch are the Arneis and Fiano. “We’ve doubled our plantings of these varietals,” Marc says. The Durif Renaissance is also a standout. “Durif is difficult to grow so you don’t see it in a lot of countries. But the consistent climate of this region suits it.”
With impeccable service, the adjoining Tuileries restaurant is world class. My king prawns with lemon, chilli and garlic was one of those ‘it’s-never-going-to-be-as-good-as-that-night-in Rutherglen’ type of dishes. And for those wanting to stay in town, there’s also a 12-room hotel.
The Pfine Pfolk of Pfeiffers
Robyn and Chris Pfeiffer established their family winery in 1984 on the banks of Sunday Creek. But it nearly didn’t happen.
“The building had been abandoned for five years,” Robyn recalls. “The day we brought the kids to see it, rain was pouring through the tin flapping on the roof. There was no electricity and it stank of animals.” So, when the eldest daughter (who was five) asked what they were doing there and Robyn responded they were thinking of buying it…
“She pleaded with me to not let ‘daddy’ buy it.” Fast forward 36 years and it’s a different story. Both daughters now love it here. And who wouldn’t. It’s not only the movie-set looks of the rustic buildings and stunning 100-year-old bridge across Sunday Creek (the perfect spot for wine-tasting complete with a picnic platter), that make this winery a Rutherglen must-do experience. It’s also the warmth and generosity that radiates from a family who are passionate about wine and hospitality.
Above: The picturesque setting of Pfeiffers
From elegant whites to smooth reds, stickies and limited releases, the wine list is long and playful.
Aperas are a house speciality, and with names like Seriously Fine, Seriously Nutty and Seriously Pink – who can resist?
“We’re given grapes as flavour and our job as winemakers is to preserve what nature gives us,” Chris says.
And with younger daughter, Jen working alongside her dad as chief winemaker, the Pfeiffer name is well and truly etched into the fabric of the region.
Left: Winemaker Jen Pfeiffer lines up the muscats for a local winemakers tasting; Right: The region is renowned for fine food.
With the Brown Brothers of Milawa blood running through their veins, siblings Eliza, Nicholas and Angela Brown are dynamos.
“When dad suddenly died in a motor-bike accident in 2005, we decided to have a crack and keep his vision alive,” says Eliza, CEO of All Saints Estate (and other family businesses in Rutherglen). “We all have the same quirky sense of humour, so we thought why not.”
To say Peter R. Brown would be proud of where his kids have taken the legacy is an understatement. His beloved All Saints, with the sweeping elm driveway planted in the 1880s, turreted Scottish castle and manicured gardens is picture-perfect. Nicholas, as head winemaker, continues the tradition of producing outstanding wines across a full range of varietals and estate grown lamb and pork is some of the best in the region.
Left: All Saints Head Winemaker Nicholas Brown in action; Right: The Friday night vibe at Thousand Pound Wine Bar.
“We believe in keeping history intact for future generations,” Eliza says over a fabulous lunch in the award-winning Terrace restaurant overlooking the estate. However, at the same time, they’re a family moving forward.
St Leonards Vineyard (next door) is All Saints’ baby sister and the sleek and funky, Thousand Pound Wine Bar & Store in the town’s main street is like dining in one of Melbourne’s laneways. This is where locals hang out, so expect to book.
We also stay at one of the Brown’s latest projects – Mount Ophir Estate, a dreamlike property (5kms from town), with a collection of private rentals dotted throughout 56 hectares.
Above: Mount Ophir Estate from above paints a dramatic picture.
Built in 1891, and once the largest wine producing complex in the Southern Hemisphere, the Midas touch of the siblings’ restoration of the small nuggets of Australian history, cottages bearing names of winemakers, gatekeepers and pickers, is the perfect blend of chic meets rustic.
The original estate homestead sleeps 10 and then there’s The Tower – a really-truly French tower for two with 360 views across the landscape.
“It’s a family trait to look after people. That’s what we love to do,’ Eliza says.