Recently, I enjoyed a quick trip with fellow wine writer Andrew Graham through Western Victoria, focusing on two of the three wine regions therein. One day was spent in the Grampians and one in the Pyrenees. Henty will have to wait.
I’ve been mulling over this piece for a while and, in the meantime, Andrew has published a typically passionate account of the Grampians portion of our visit on his Australian Wine Review site. My own take centres on ideas of regional identity, both in terms of wine style and something less tangible – the feel of a region.
By feel I mean the human experience of being in that region, seeing vineyards, visiting producers and of course tasting wines. I suggest these things can be a part of a wine as much as the food one selects to accompany it, or the friends with whom one chooses to share it. Hence, understanding a vineyard or region can powerfully alter the way in which one sees the resultant wines. Not that these insights can ever make up for bad wine, but they fill in gaps – of intent, or circumstance, or personality. And that’s worth something.
We visited three very different producers in the Grampians: Mount Langi Ghiran, Clayfield Wines, and Best’s Wines.
Langi’s cellar door is the flashiest in the region, and this feels right given the unique site the vineyard occupies. The whole experience of driving to Langi is worth the visit, in fact, as it feels completely unlikely. I’ve long held there’s much beauty in the marginal, and this is a good example of what I mean.
The wines themselves, especially the reds, seem styled to reject the isolation of their provenance, and are ripe and robust. There’s also an interesting range of varietals, with quite a few Italians having been planted at the Nowhere Creek vineyard around the corner from the primary site. I thought the 2005 Langi Cabernet the most successful of the reds on tasting, and was especially impressed by the powerful, clean fruit running right down the core of the wine’s palate. The whites appealed to me more, though, especially the 2008 Cliff Edge Pinot Gris. Nice texture and generous flavour for the varietal.
It’s a shame the premiums weren’t on tasting. One doesn’t exactly end up there by accident, so it would have been nice to have had an opportunity to experience the full range.
Simon Clayfield’s operation is in many ways the opposite of Langi Ghiran, being boutique in scale and focused in range. I like Simon very much, so perhaps my view of his wines is shaped by my view of him as an engaging, highly opinionated vigneron. Certainly, his wines show a uniqueness that fascinates me because they are both strongly regional and quite different from those of many other producers in the region. Though consistently well made, with exceptional oak handling, his wines revel in vintage variation, moving from full-throttle styles like his 2008 Massif and Thomas Wills Shirazes to ultra-elegant interpretations like his 2006 Black Label, all of which we tasted at cellar door. I’m glad to report the 2005 Black Label continues to drink well, the spice having moved up a few notches since I last tried it. Simon also pulled out the 1999 Black Label for us to taste. This vintage was the first made under the Clayfield Wines label and is currently drinking at what surely must be its peak. Full of flavour, with plenty of decaying bottled aged complexity, and an array of spice notes that will be heaven to lovers of Western Victorian Shiraz. Just beautiful.
Best’s Wines was up next and turned out to be another special visit. Aside from tasting a rather large range of wines, we had the opportunity, thanks to the generosity of Jonathan Mogg, to take an extensive tour through the cellars and vineyards. I’m surely not the only wine nerd who feels a shiver when faced with very old vines, and Best’s, more than many other producers, offers a catalogue of such moments. I’ve already written up the 2006 Thomson’s Family Shiraz tasted on this visit, but the most special wine for me was a 1976 Pinot Meunier, in fabulous condition and drinking well. Amazingly, this wine developed over the course of a good couple of hours, gaining weight and fruit presence, while never losing the old red poise only bottle age can bring. Spectacular, and made more special by just having spent time amongst the very old vines that gave us this wine back in ’76.
I had never visited this region before, so was taking it all in as we drove and tasted our way through. Considering it’s adjacent to the Grampians, I was struck by how different the region feels. This is due in part to the wines, which are quite distinct in style.
Our first visit was to Dalwhinnie, which was a fairly traditional cellar door session, albeit with a backdrop that is one of the more beautiful, secluded vineyard views in the country. The wines are very impressive, the flagship Shiraz wines being predictably fantastic; I enjoyed the 2008 Cabernet most, though, for its power and elegance. It reminded me of a good Coonawarra Cabernet in a strange way, not in terms of flavour profile but more structurally, in the way it unfolds in the mouth. In any case, a lovely wine.
Our next visits were less about tasting finished wines and more about barrel samples. Aside from hurrying my next appointment with the dentist, what I took away from these experiences was a renewed sense of the passion and experimentation that is part of making worthwhile wines.
John Harris from Mount Avoca and Mitchell Harris was exceptionally generous with his time (and pipette) and showed us through a bewildering array of barrel samples. Though it’s a little meaningless to try and give a sense of the wines in this tasting context, I was impressed by the range of components John is shepherding through to completion. There’s an energy he is bringing to both the Mount Avoca and Mitchell Harris ranges that suggests both labels are ones to watch over the coming years.
Interestingly, I was especially taken by the Cabernets we tried, again impressed by the clarity of fruit flavours and classical structure in the context of what are quite full throttle styles. Shiraz remains the region’s standard bearer varietal, but I’ll be making a point of exploring more Cabernet Sauvignon from the Pyrenees in future.
John suggested we visit the Dog Rock winery, located on its own near the border of the Pyrenees and Grampians regions. Indeed, vigneron Allen Hart proposed its spectacular site has more to do with the Grampians, which might be disconcerting if the styles sought were conventional. But there’s nothing ordinary about this range, and my suggestion that many of the wines seemed designed to provoke was greeted with nods of agreement. I’m not aware of too many other producers in the region with a Shiraz/Tempranillo sparkling red, or a premium wine that is Grenache-based. Whether iconoclastic or eccentric, there’s no doubt the wines overflow with intent and rigour, and for that I value them very highly. Wines to seek out and react to.
Here are some random impressions to close:
- For regions that possess a relatively large number of iconic wines, the Grampians and the Pyrenees have an embarrassingly low profile. Visiting in person, and talking with a range of high profile producers, I get the impression there is perhaps a lack of depth at present. So, unlike the Barossa where one can easily visit one great producer after another, these regions may be more hit and miss, which would create a less consistent experience for visitors and less popular momentum as a result.
- Regional identity is still sorting itself out. I look to places like Central Otago for models of a well identified and marketed regional identity. Western Victoria has history on its side, but it seems there’s a mixture of slackness and confusion when it comes to clearly communicating what each region does best. The push Best’s is making towards solidifying the Great Western identity is symptomatic of what I mean.
- Grampians Shiraz, when done well, is unquestionably amongst the best and most distinctive in the country. Although I need to get more exposure to Pyrenees wines, nothing I tasted from that region leads me to believe it is any different in quality terms.
I came away from this visit feeling excited and stimulated by what I had seen. These regions are vastly undervalued at present, showing wine styles that retain an authentic connection with the past without feeling stale. Indeed, the difficulty of making wine in such a remote area, in relatively unfashionable styles, amongst a small and in some ways fractured winemaking community, was tangible throughout. The wines taste that much sweeter for it.