Australia’s wine pioneer

A new year should start with good wine, even if only for a few days before we enter what is known as “Dry January”. For publication in week starting 1 January 2018.

Swiss immigrants planted the first vineyards in Australia around the city of Geelong from the mid 1840s. The period known as the gold rush a decade later meant prosperous folk had money for wine and by the mid 1860s the Geelong region was known for premium wines.

But less than a decade later a phylloxera epidemic devastated the area and in 1875 the Victorian government ordered all vines to be ripped out of the ground to try to stop the spread of the phylloxera aphid. It kills vines by sucking moisture from vine roots. Vineyards were not replanted because more money could be made from other agricultural pursuits like growing wheat.

Winemaking did not really resume for almost another century. The Anakie and Idyll vineyards pioneered winemaking in the late 1960s. Since then Geelong, in the south-eastern state of Victoria, has become recognised as one of Australia’s finest cool climate regions, specialising in chardonnay, pinot noir and shiraz, plus a range of other global grapes like semillon, viogner and cabernet franc.

Geelong has a similar climate to Burgundy in France. Cool-climate regions have long been recognised as the best places to grow grapes because long and cool autumns provide the best conditions for ripening grapes slowly and surely. This concentrates flavours and ensures distinct aromatics and nuanced profiles.

Chardonnay is the region’s most planted variety and wines made from this variety are elegant and fruit focused. Flavours vary depending on the terroir.

The Geelong region actually consists of three distinct sub-districts. Each sub-region produces different style of wine.

The Bellarine sub-region sits on a picturesque peninsula east of Geelong, the second-largest city in Victoria. Ocean breezes and spectacular scenery are a feature of the peninsula, which explains why the area has the largest number of vineyard restaurants open to the public. Wines made away from the water tend to be sturdier and richer than the lighter and more aromatic wines produced on the peninsula.

Some of the best known estates there include Bellarine Estate Winery, Scotchmans Hill (subs: note no apostrophe), Leura Park and Curlewis Winery. The Bellarine Peninsula has the added attraction of being near one of Australia’s most beautiful ferry routes. Take a ferry from Queenscliff on the peninsula to Sorrento on the other side of the entrance to Port Phillip Bay, leading to the Mornington Peninsula wine region. Melbourne sits at the northern end of the bay.

A feature of the ferry ride is the large number of dolphins that follow the vessel. They are beautiful to watch as they sport and play around the ferry, often swimming upside down alongside the ferry, their white bellies aglow in the blue waters.

The Moorabool Valley sub-region to the north of Geelong, with its dark volcanic top soils over sandy loams, is the largest in terms of distances needed to be travelled between vineyards, though it has the smallest number of vineyards. The Surf Coast-Otways sub-region south of the city is, like the Moorabool area, warmer and drier than the Bellarine.

Best wines in the Moorabool Valley include Clyde Park Vineyard, Lethbridge Wines and Shadowfax Winery, the last named for the horse ridden by Gandalf the wizard in the Lord of the Rings sequence of novels. Lethbridge Wines are especially good, crafted with great precision by Dr Ray Nadeson. He was a successful academic before giving up science in 2003 to found a vineyard. One could argue that his area of academic research, pain relief, has been replaced by another more pleasant way of dealing with pain.

Best vineyards to visit in the Surf Coast-Otways sub-region include Brown Magpie Wines, Dinny Goonan Wines, Bellbrae Estate and Mt Duneed Estate. The last is located in Pettavel Road, the road named for some of the original Swiss immigrants who made wine. Two years ago the company branched into craft beer via the Mt Duneed Brewing Company. The estate hosts major music events each February, and performers have included Sir Elton John and Fleetwood Mac.

Dinny Goonan is a family-based operation that opened in 1988. It has focused on riesling and shiraz. A fascinating newcomer is the “Proserpina” sparkling wine made in an “Italian” from riesling grapes. It crisp and refreshing and designed to drink now.

Australia’s southern states produce the best pinot noir in Australia, and most of the best pinots are grown in a u-shaped arc that runs through Victoria on the mainland and the island of Tasmania. The right-hand side of this u-shape traverses the Mornington Peninsula south of the state capital, Melbourne. The base of the “u” covers much of the island state of Tasmania while the Geelong region forms the left-hand side of the “u”.

Mount Moriac Wines, established in 1987, focuses on pinot noir grapes and makes some fine examples of Geelong pinot. About a fifth of the company’s 35 hectares are devoted to this variety. The cool and dry climate — plus sandy loam soils that offer good drainage and limit excess vigour in the vines —  are ideal for pinot. Yields are kept low. Estate wines are only made if the winemakers believe the grapes are of sufficient quality. Pinot is also used to make quality sparkling wines in the traditional method.

Other fine pinot noirs tasted in the region came from Scotchmans Hill and Bellarine Estate. The Scotchmans Hill label is kept for the premium end of the spectrum and is best cellared for a few years. But the lesser-priced Swan Bay pinot, designed for early drinking, is a delightful mass of black cherries and good acidity and an absolute bargain.

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