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Wine

Wine Traveler Riverland

While South Australia’s riverland region has always been famous for bulk wine production, innovative local winemakers are changing the landscape by planting a range of grape varieties perfectly suited to the hot, dry climate.

As I sit down to pen this brief piece on the Riverland, I’m reminded of the words of that great American philosopher LL Cool J who rhymed, “don’t call it a comeback; I’ve been here for years; I’m rockin my peers; Puttin’ suckers in fear”. Mic drop from Queens.

Perhaps I’m getting carried away. I’ve always been told I have a fertile imagination, but who would have thought a decade ago that boutique winemakers from Margaret River to Coonawarra would be sourcing fruit from the Riverland and proudly displaying that fact on their wine labels?

The Riverland has always been, along with several other regions that lie along the life-giving artery of the Murray, the engine-room of the Australian wine industry. The Riverland accounts for over 50% of South Australia’s wine crush and around 30% of the national total, some 470,123 tonnes in 2017. It is a very important region for Australian wine.

One winery alone, Berri Estates, is the largest grape processor in the southern hemisphere, crushing some 220,000 tonnes of grapes annually or around one-third of the total grape crush of South Australia. Several years ago, I recall driving with the Berri Estates winemaker to the crushers; a journey through a huge truck marshalling area complete with traffic wardens. He turned to me and said, “Can you feel the romance?” Funny, but the sheer scale of the operation was astounding.

The Riverland is also a region well aware of the hardships of farming; of extended droughts and the plunging grape prices of boom & bust cycles. But the droughts, while devastating for growers already struggling with low grape prices, have forced some changes for the better. Included among them are sustainable irrigation, drought hardy rootstock and clonal research, and the planting of alternative varieties, or, as one local winemaker described them, “appropriate varieties.”

King of grapes

One of the larger producers is Kingston Estate, established by Greek immigrants, Nina & Steve Moularadellis in the mid-1980s after they met picking grapes in the early 1960s. Today, you can still find them in the winery most days, but it is son Bill who steers the ship.

Kingston Estate produce a range of wines that offer great value for money and drinking pleasure. Their portfolio centres around the European classic varieties, but for me, when I think of the estate, it is their Petit Verdot that springs to mind and it is certainly a variety they have hung their hat on.

Deeply coloured and laden with rich fruit and spice, it possesses an ample structure with plenty of ripe tannin and is a variety that seems to thrive in the warmer climes of the Riverland.

Salena Estate, another of the larger operators, has around 520 acres under vine, roughly half of which is certified organic. Their range includes classic varieties, across different price points that provide great drinking, and their ‘Ink’ series concentrates on the ‘appropriate’ varieties with some great examples including Montepulciano, Graciano, Bianco d’Alessano and Vermentino.

The Banrock Station cellar door is top-notch with the complete range of wines available for tasting, a great little restaurant if you are feeling peckish and the amazing wetlands ecosystem with walking trails if you need to stretch your legs. The Angove cellar door in Renmark is another must visit for the quality and diversity of their range of wines with fruit sourced from the Riverland and further afield across South Australia.

In recent times, the interest in sourcing fruit from the Riverland by winemakers based outside the region has been pleasing to see. There are several factors at play here. Better farming practices and increased interest in some of the varieties that end in ‘O’ that seem well suited to the region are certainly in the mix.

Another is the tireless efforts, boundless energy and great farming nous of Ashley Ratcliff of Ricca Terra Farms, who has done much to raise the profile of the Riverland as a source of well-farmed, alternative varieties.

Part of this nous was knowing when to take a risk on doing something new. As he explains, “During the boom times in the Riverland, grape prices were up and getting people to change their practices was hard. Why would you decrease your yields and plant new varieties? When things turned, however, others panicked, but we were brave; buying up vineyards and planting alternative varieties that now fetch sustainable prices.”

Ashley’s Ricca Terra Farms is just outside Bamera and is planted with many of the varieties that are now sought after in the region – Nero d’Avola, Fiano, Vermentino, Montepulciano, Zibbibo, Muscato Giallo and the curiously named, Slankamenca Bela. As well as supplying grapes for other winemakers, Ashley has his own ‘Ricca Terra’ label featuring inventive blends of these varieties. Another producer riding the wave of the alternative varieties that are well-suited to the Riverland is Alex Russell Wines. Viticulturist and winemaker Alex Russell crafts a range of delicious wines from Montepulciano, Vermentino, and Lagrein to Nero d’Avola, Saperavi and Graciano. Alex’s range of wines hold true to the tenet that a wines ‘raison d’etre’ is to be above all else, delicious to drink and they have picked up a swathe of awards at the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show in Mildura.

small names, big impression

Other small local producers who farm in a thoughtful, sustainable fashion to seek out include Whistling Kite, whose biodynamically farmed range includes a fantastic Petit Manseng and a Montepulciano that is a benchmark for the region. The organically farmed Bassham Wines is another, with delicious, racy whites including Vermentino and Fiano, along with lovely examples of Lagrein, Nero d’Avola and Graciano.

Also check out 919 Wines, whose range of table wines provides beautiful drinking across both the classic and alternative varieties, including a killer Pale Dry Apera style.

And last but not least, the Delinquent Wine Co has a fantastic range of funkily packaged wines for “drinkin, not thinkin”, featuring new wave varieties, including the very drinkable Bianco d’Alessano Pet Nat Sparkling.

Of the producers from further afield who proudly source fruit from the Riverland, the list is growing. Sue Bell from Bellwether Wines in Coonawarra produces a fantastic, award-winning Nero d’Avola Rosé and crisp, textural Bianco d’Alessano; Margaret River based winemaker Brad Wehr of Amato Vino produces a dangerously drinkable Riverland range including a wonderful Slankamenca Bela. In the Adelaide Hills, Unico Zela features amazing Fiano, Nero d’Avola and an enchanting skin-contact white blend. And from McLaren Vale, ex-NYC sommelier Brad Hickey of Brash Higgins Wines crafts a heady, textural Zibbibo using grapes from Ricca Terra Farms vineyard.

a bright future

Riverland is on the up and up and if you haven’t sampled its wines, now is the time. Perhaps its reputation has been unfairly tarnished as a source of lower-end, bulk wine offerings, but today the wines have never been better and there is an undercurrent of innovation, sustainable viticulture and experimentation that bodes very well for its future.

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The Granite Belt: Beautiful One Day, Perfect Wine The Next
Words by Paul Diamond on 8 May 2017
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Fruits of the Forest
The produce of Western Australia’s Southern Forests is world renowned, the wines of the region are starting to follow suit. It’s hard not to be intoxicated by the Southern Forests region, with its towering forests, cascading waterways, sprawling valleys dotted with vineyards and orchards quilted with blossoming fruit trees. This special place is a leisurely three-hour drive from Perth and winds through some of the most fertile land in the world – home to a tapestry of fresh produce. While this quintessentially Australian landscape was historically timber-milling and tobacco country, today it is Western Australia’s third largest wine region – and one of the nation’s richest agricultural districts. Situated in the lower south west corner of WA, the Southern Forests has over 80,000 hectares of prime agricultural land and includes the Manjimup , Pemberton and Great Southern Geographical Indications (GIs). With its high altitude, cool climate and rich, loamy karri soils, the region is suited to the production of Burgundy-style wines with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay simply thriving in this lush environment. More recently, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Verdelho, Riesling, Shiraz and Cabernet Franc have also emerged as important varieties. And with Margaret River as its neighbour, it is not surprising that this district is forging a solid reputation for its premium cool climate wines to match its world-class produce. The Southern Forests’ reputation as a top culinary tourism destination has grown exponentially since the introduction of the Genuinely Southern Forests campaign and now the vignerons want their wines to share that international platform. As a result, the Manjimup and Pemberton wine associations are in the process of amalgamating to create a unified brand to further promote their wines to the world. If approved, it will be known as the Wine Industry of the Southern Forests. “This move will allow us to operate more efficiently in association with the Southern Forests Food Council (SFFC) and effectively benefit all of the membership with the administration and distribution of funds from the recently established Agricultural Produce Commission,” says Mark Aitken of Woodgate Estate. “For WA to be acknowledged as one of the premier wine growing regions in the world, it needs a critical mass of strong regional brands each with a unique identity in the same way the rest of the great wine regions of the world now operate.” According to Vic Peos from Peos Estate, this move will allow Southern Forests winemakers to achieve this recognition and continue evolving their styles in the international domain. “We aim to grow the value of agriculture and give educational opportunities to future generations so they can live, work and have a quality lifestyle within the area. This will also create vibrancy and jobs within the community,” he says. While the Peos family have been in the region for 80 years, it wasn’t until 1996 that Vic and his three brothers created Peos Estate as a legacy to their late father and grandfather who cultivated grapes in Macedonia a century ago before migrating to Manjimup in the 1950s. Over the years, the Peos family has farmed dairy cattle, potatoes, cauliflowers and beans so it was no great leap for their farming pedigree to be put to use to cultivate wine grapes. “Manjimup is one of the coolest regions in WA which allows for distinctive fruit flavours to be enhanced and the sustained ripening period gives some varieties the ability to age and slowly mature. “Our single vineyard Shiraz is a perfect example of this with its medium-bodied, savoury and complex flavours which are powerful, yet elegant. It is also a great match with food to give you a wonderful culinary experience,” explains Vic. Epicurean Delights To say these vignerons are spoilt for choice when it comes to food matching selections to pair with their wines is a huge understatement. It is a melting pot of flavours here with these privileged winemakers having a bountiful choice of seafood, dairy, meat, fruit and vegetables at their fingertips to enhance the gastronomic journey. Silkwood Wines is one such establishment that has opened a restaurant at its cellar door, showcasing its range of wines and locally harvested produce. All it takes is one afternoon of sitting on the deck overlooking the lake whilst enjoying a glass of their vibrantly fresh Sauvignon Blanc and a tasting plate to become immersed in this region. At Chestnut Grove, winemaker David Dowden is undertaking wild ferments with his Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs to create an extra layer of complexity, texture and finesse in his wine stable. And not content with wine production alone, the winery is now making a verjuice from its deliciously fruity Verdelho, as well as an extra virgin olive oil. Whilst most produce will flourish in this fertile land, Monica Radomiljac from Pemberley of Pemberton, says living in ‘karri country’ can be challenging. “The soil here is too good and too rich. In order to prevent the vines from growing as huge as their famous neighbours, the karri trees, we have to stress the plants using techniques such as minimal or no irrigation and hard pruning,” says Monica. “This results in grapes that are vibrant with flavours and alive with freshness when they are harvested for crushing from February to April each year.” Living in Harmony This symbiotic relationship between the soils and vines extends to something devilishly smelly that also grows here and has gourmands around the world salivating for its pungent, earthy flavours. I am referring to the elusive black Perigord truffle that originated in France and has now, somewhat surprisingly, found a new home in Manjimup. So firmly are their spores entrenched in these soils that the Truffle and Wine Co. is now the largest producer of black truffles in the world. The marriage of food and wine is such an intrinsic part of any culinary journey and it is at this trufferie where you can experience a truffle and wine degustation lunch with a range of wines that have been specifically created to enhance your truffle experience. “The fresh produce is a result of committed farming families who aren’t afraid to push the boundaries,” says the Truffle & Wine Co.’s Amber Atkinson. “A prime example is the new Bravo apple. Research, development and thinking outside the square led to the introduction of truffles to Manjimup. Wine production is no different and wineries from this region continue to gain momentum, which is reflected by wine show accolades across the country.” As I leave the truffles in my wake, I pass many roadside stalls and open farm gates. There are native finger limes, apples, chestnuts, berries, stone fruit, avocados, cherries, brassica beef, dairy, potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower, to name but a few. You can even throw a fishing line in the river for trout and, at certain times of the year, you can snare freshwater marron, endemic to this wonderful region, from one of its many watercourses. “We aim to celebrate the people, place and produce by creating exceptional culinary experiences,” says Southern Forests Food Council GM, Jayme Hatcher. “This pristine part of the world still remains relatively undiscovered with its complementary offering of produce and wines, which makes this region a genuine foodie’s dream.”
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