WINE WITH ALTITUDE
Beechworth vignerons have tapped altitude and aspect to make great wines on a small scale. Their third spring tasting offers a rare opportunity to savour the fruits of their skill.
Beechworth vignerons have tapped altitude and aspect to make great wines on a small scale.
SIMON Grant looks from his living room to vines wintering in the rain on a rise that lifts away behind his family’s Beechworth house. It is a chilly Indigo day. He is tall, broad-shouldered and thoughtful, and he is unstitching the ‘Champagne paradox’ – the play of power and elegance that defines almost all of the world’s great wines. It is not an esoteric exercise. Mr Grant has been five years a committee member of Beechworth Vignerons’ Association and president for four. He talks geology, aspect and variety, canopy, root mass and vine balance – key business on the plateau, perhaps the smallest of the ‘Geographical Indications’ by which each of Australia’s wine regions are delineated in law. It is thought to be home to Australia’s greatest number of vignerons in a single indication – those who grow grapes on their own land for the production and sale of all wine under their own labels. The vineyards are small because available land is scarce and not all land is suitable. But it is a pair of qualities available to few of Australia’s other wine regions, if any, which distinguishes it and yields opportunity. The Beechworth massif – in the old French sense a displaced cluster of high hills, ridges and eroded mountains in which the structure was retained when the crust moved – rises from an altitude of about 280 metres at Everton Upper to 1050m at Mount Stanley’s peak. “We have this remarkable scenario where we have the cool of the Great Dividing Range, we have the warmth of the interior – the continental climate, we are sort of monolithic with no river, so our environment is perhaps not unique but compared with what’s around us it’s very different,” Mr Grant says. “And it turns out that it’s a terrific place to grow grapes.” These are the things that brought Mr Grant and partner Helen Murray to Beechworth. They are among few more than two dozen owner-vignerons, as individuals or family partnerships, who make up the membership of the Vignerons’ Association.
They have just released ‘Beechworth rosso’ under their Traviarti label, the first bottling of the nebbiolo that grows beyond the window. A smart Melbourne wine bar placed an initial order and has now placed another. It’s a good sign.
Giaconda’s Rick Kinzbrunner – the former engineer long recognised as the catalyst of Beechworth’s enviable wine reputation – is also growing nebbiolo beyond the rise.
The Grant-murray partnership and Kinzbrunner came coincidentally to a positive decision about the suitability of dirt below Red Hill on Beechworth’s eastern town boundary for nebbiolo. That’s a good sign, too.
Cut back a step to Jancis Robinson, to February 2016. The British writer and Master of Wine has done much in a long career to advise people who enjoy drinking wine about the way in which wine grapes grow, how wine works and why it tastes as its does. She consistently heads any list of international wine critics. She also counsels the Queen’s cellarmaster, which confirms why.
The Financial Times has published Ms Robinson’s regular column. Her subject is the annual ‘Australia Day Tasting’ of wines hosted by Australian vignerons, winemakers and British importers in London’s Royal Horticultural Halls.
Ms Robinson welcomes the exhibition. She remarks its continuing steps away from wines produced and sold by corporate brands that have long dominated Australian wine. She notes a decided move towards diversity, elegance and difference.
The “small, often earnest, scale” of vignerons’ art emerging in North East Victoria – in Beechworth, Ms Robinson writes – is emblematic of fresh outbreaks of what she describes as “ambition and aptitude”.
Here, she says, a group of “relatively recently-established producers, typically with only a few hectares of vineyard, are making some quite exceptionally good wines”.
She is not surprised by the excellent chardonnay offered at the London tasting, for she has long followed Kinzbrunner’s star and those in his orbit. >>
But unexpected are “several truly exciting wines based on the supposedly finicky nebbiolo grape, the one responsible for Barolo and Barbaresco” – two of the truly great Italian wines.
Chardonnay and shiraz have long defined Beechworth’s reputation, but nebbiolo, tempranillo, sangiovese and vermentino are growing in the field.
Ms Robinson lists as particularly impressive 13 new-wave Australian wines from a range of regions and grape varieties. Seven are from Beechworth.
Across the Atlantic, seven months earlier, a pre-eminent international magazine called Saveur – which explores and reports the culture of food and wine around the globe – describes the unambiguous eloquence of Kinzbrunner’s Giaconda vineyard estate chardonnay 2012 vintage: “It smells like burnt matches, and then peaches and smoke, and then walnuts. Like no other chardonnay in the world.”
Mr Grant says acclaim for Kinzbrunner’s achievement of “seriousend, world-class wine” is not limited to the opinions of a handful.
“You can point to almost any of these (leading) wine writers internationally, and in Australia, who will acknowledge, yep, the wines of Giaconda have been, at various times, benchmarks…and you can’t dismiss these things in the world of wine,” he says.
“That level of credibility builds great, great interest because it is such a difficult, unknown thing – because how do you make such great wine?”
Any considered answer has numerous elements – soil, vine, variety, climate, altitude, vine and fruit management and picking time. All contribute to the whole. Some can be tempered by degree and others not at all. But the thing that appears to have become the key in Beechworth’s success, Mr Grant says, is that it “attracted people who wanted to make great wine, not just people who wanted to grow grapes”. “And in some ways that’s the legacy of Kinzbrunner,” he says. “His achievement inspired many of us to say ‘If he can do it, I’m going there. The gold’s in them there hills’.”
And so there is.
“His achievement inspired many of us to say ‘If he can do it, I’m gold’sgoing there. The in them there hills’.” SIMON GRANT
Beechworth Vignerons’ Association’s spring tasting will be held in Beechworth on November 19 and is open to the public from 2pm. Ticket: $30. See beechworthvineyards.com.au for more information nearer the date.
PROSPECT / The rolling hills of Indigo Vineyard are typical of the western lee of the Beechworth wine region.
ELEMENTS / Sorrenberg’s Barry Morey ( left) and Beechworth Vignerons’ Association president Simon Grant in Traviarti vineyard.