Hur­dles cleared, Rock hard to beat

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - James Halliday

WHEN John and An­nie (nee Tyrrell) El­lis bought the Jim Jim prop­erty look­ing out to Hang­ing Rock in the Mace­don Ranges in May 1982, they had lit­tle idea of the chal­lenges ahead for them.

Given that John El­lis was Rose­mount Es­tate’s first wine­maker (in 1967) and moved to the same role at Tis­dall Es­tate at Echuca (but with the large Mount He­len vine­yard in the Strath­bo­gie Ranges), you might think it was sim­ply a move from em­ployee sta­tus to out­right own­er­ship of yet an­other startup busi­ness.

Need­less to say, it is one thing to cre­ate a branded win­ery for an owner with deep pock­ets and an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent story when ev­ery dol­lar spent has to be care­fully weighed.

Bank man­agers must be treated with kid gloves in the good times and kept at bay when the econ­omy be­gins to turn sour, as it did at the end of the ’ 80s.

But an even larger hur­dle for the El­lises was to over­come the tran­si­tion from man­ag­ing warm-re­gion, re­li­ably gen­er­ous-yield­ing vine­yards to a cool site with mea­gre soil and a never-end­ing bat­tle to coax the vines to pro­duce mean­ing­ful crops.

The first plant­ings of pinot noir in 1983 largely failed in the face of snow and frost; sauvi­gnon blanc and semil­lon fol­lowed in 1984 (with re­place­ment pinot vines), and an amount of semil­lon was picked in 1986.

While this was hap­pen­ing, a bore was sunk that to this day is the sole source of wa­ter and, in 1985, an old river­side grain silo was pur­chased, moved to Jim Jim and re­con­structed as a com­bined win­ery and res­i­dence.

The year 1987 marked the first real (al­beit small) vin­tage of pinot noir and chardon­nay for sparkling wine (part of the orig­i­nal de­ci­sion to move to Mace­don) and semil­lon and sauvi­gnon blanc for ta­ble wines un­der the Hang­ing Rock la­bel. Of even greater sig­nif­i­cance was the leas­ing of a 40-year-old shi­raz vine­yard from Roger McLean, on the red Cam­brian soil of Mount Camel, soil that has since es­tab­lished Heath­cote as one of the great­est shi­raz re­gions in Aus­tralia.

The wine (the first to be made at the new win­ery) went on to achieve great suc­cess at shows and crit­i­cal ac­claim from wine writ­ers. But even then it was ob­vi­ous the busi­ness needed sub­stan­tial ad­di­tional cap­i­tal to fund ex­pan­sion to a more eco­nomic size. It was de­cided to float on the stock ex­change: one week af­ter the prospec­tus was is­sued, the stock ex­change col­lapse of Oc­to­ber 1987 swept the world, crush­ing alike whales and min­nows, such as Hang­ing Rock.

Busi­ness­man Bardie Rus­sell came to the res­cue and was present when Hang­ing Rock cel­e­brated its 25th birth­day last month. His fi­nan­cial in­volve­ment long since paid out, he is proud of the growth and strength of the busi­ness.

While a range of cheaper brasserie wines with imag­i­na­tive la­bels and River­land fruit was de­vel­oped, the Heath­cote shi­raz sat along­side the emerg­ing Mace­don Cu­vee sparkling wines as the flag-bear­ers.

Just when it seemed the chal­lenges were over, the Mount Camel vine­yard ex­pired due to salin­ity prob­lems caused by tree-felling fur­ther up the moun­tain­side.

The 1992 crush was three tonnes. Af­ter that, the re­moval of the vines was in­evitable. In 1994, an­other white knight in the form of Athol Guy (of the Seek­ers fame) ap­peared, and a new joint-ven­ture vine­yard was planted a lit­tle fur­ther north of the orig­i­nal site, pro­duc­ing its first wine in 1997, seam­lessly pick­ing up where the 1992 left off.

I was treated to a ver­ti­cal tast­ing of all the Heath­cote shi­raz as part of the birth­day cel­e­bra­tions. While vin­tage vari­a­tion al­ways plays a role (1989 was a ter­ri­ble vin­tage in many places), the tast­ing con­sis­tently un­der­lined the 20-year life span of the wines (longer in the best vin­tages).

My favourite wines were the ’ 04, ’ 03, ’ 00 and ’ 98, with the ’ 02, ’ 97, ’ 92 and ’ 91 only a whisker be­hind. Oh, and a sen­ti­men­tal vote for the ’ 87, still hold­ing on to life.

I’m sure John and An­nie El­lis know there are many chal­lenges still to be sur­mounted, but it may just be that on the score of cli­mate change they have their chess pieces neatly placed.

A bit more warmth at Mace­don would be no bad thing, and shi­raz (es­pe­cially grown on great soil) is both hardy and adapt­able.

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