BEECHWORTH’S CLIMATE AND TERRAIN MAKE FOR HARD TOIL, SMALL YIELD AND WONDERFUL WINE.
Sitting off the back of the Victorian Alps and a short drive south of Albury sits the picturesque town of Beechworth. It’s a small town with a big history, evident from a grand Victorian-era main street and range of historic structures carved from the local stone. Rich deposits of gold saw Beechworth’s population thrive and multiply in the 1850s; Ned Kelly spent time in the local court and gaol. Today its mix of natural beauty and growing reputation as a destination for fine food and natural produce brings tourists from far and wide.
Scattered in the rolling hills around Beechworth you’ll find a small collection of wineries. Most are tiny family affairs and their wines have to be searched out as they are handmade and produced in minuscule volumes, partly because of the many challenges that face local vignerons.
Beechworth can be incredibly dry with occasional bursts of baking heat and bushfires in summer. The soil is also rocky and unforgiving, marked by granite outcrops, which make planting difficult and crop yields meagre. With all the effort required to make wine here it is no wonder that Beechworth is one of the country’s smallest wine-producing regions. It is also, though, one of the best.
Beechworth is blessed with one of the most unique climates of any wine region in Australia, if not the world. In the middle of winter it can receive the odd dusting of snow while summer peaks are well over 30C. Its proximity to the alps is a saviour, cool breezes helping to protect the area from the worst heatwaves while also helping to bring summer nighttime temperatures down to single digits. That wide variation is a characteristic of a number of extreme quality European wine regions; it brings both ripeness and power to the wines while helping them retain their acidity and balance.
The land is also very distinctive from an Australian perspective in that nearby volcanic activity has laid veins of granite and quartz. In some vineyards the soil is dominated by granite buckshot in which only the hardiest vines can survive by driving their roots deep below the surface in search of water and nutrients. These stony soils give the wines of Beechworth an attractive earthy minerality that adds a distinctive regional character.
The magical climate and soils combined with the region’s challenges has attracted a unique breed of winemaker – driven purely by the desire to make exceptional wines. The first was the quietly spoken mechanical engineer Rick Kinzbrunner of Giaconda, who planted the region’s first wines in 1982. Savoury and reserved in style, the early Giaconda wines were ahead of their time when most Australian wines were marked by layers of sweet fruit and vibrant personalities. They are also textural wines – a Beechworth hallmark – that impress as much for their mouthfeel as fruit complexity. It took a little time but these wines are now regarded among the country’s finest.
In the years since Kinzbrunner has been joined by a handful of dreamers searching for their own stake of Beechworth’s vinous gold. Some, such as Mark Walpole of Fighting Gully Road, who planted his first vineyard in 1997, have seen the full transition of Beechworth from an experimental folly through to a coveted source of high-quality fruit. “I guess I saw the potential, perhaps helped by getting to know Rick Kinzbrunner and Barry Morey [of Sorrenberg] pretty early in the late 80s and tasting their wines,” Walpole says. “So as their wines became sought after, it has clearly attracted many others.”
Peter Graham of Domenica and ex-Melbourne sommelier Rocco Esposito at Project 49 are newer presences, crafting exceptional wines that are true to the area’s unique style. But none are resting on the region’s reputation with plenty of fire in the collective belly to uncover more of what Beechworth has to offer, exemplified by Adrian Rodda and the wines released under his A. Rodda label: “As a wine producer, you are always on the look out for that magic piece of dirt to produce the next great wine. If the opportunity arises, we may put some more sticks in the ground!”