Postcard from Australia 4: Melbourne and surrounds

Drinks: Wines
Location: Australasia, Australia

Emily O Hare from the River Cafe is the winner of the James Busby Travel and Imbibe Sommelier ‘Blog your way Down Under” competition

From Yarra we headed North to the Nagambie Lakes. It was sunset when we reached Tahbilk. A river boat awaited us, plus a few bottles of Viognier ‘11’ and Marsanne ‘05’. On a tour of the wetlands, we saw wallabies and storks, and sipped on the pale and perfumed Viognier before the light died. When the sun dipped behind the trees, we turned to the deeper, richer Marsanne (Tahbilk have the largest, single holding of Marsanne in the world, it was originally planted in the 1860’s – the Rhone varieties encouraged apparently by a series of Swiss French managers and vignerons.) The climate here is warm with low rainfall – hence the profusion of full bodied reds – mainly Shiraz and Cab Sauv, and those mediterranean whites.

Back at the winery we sat to dinner and with carrot soup enjoyed a vertical of Marsanne. As we moved down the vintages the colour and flavours changed from pale, lemon pithy and pear (‘11’) to golden and honey (‘08’) to amber, candied peel and smoke (‘97’).

With venison it was time to try the Shiraz. Phylloxera never hit Tahbilk, it cannot propogate effectively in the sandy soils here and so there are Shiraz vines dating back to the 1860’s and 1930’s and some Cabernet vines too from 1949.  Falling back desperately again on Old World comparisons, the Shiraz here feels more Southern Rhone in comparison to Luke Lambert’s Syrah that we tried in the Yarra, which seemed more Northern.  The Shiraz Reserve 99 looked dark and inky, with firm tannins and flavours of meat and leather. I LOVED the 81 Cabernet, it seemed to divide the group a little, to me it had this pheromone’y character, a warm, human skin scent that definitely had me gripped.

The winery as-well as the vineyards is pretty old. The ten fermentation vats used in 1862 are still in use today – walking around the cellars is a little creepy, like walking round a haunted house. They’re super dark, the air is heavy and damp, the scent of Shiraz past seeps from the bricks.

From one old world to another, Bests – out West in the Grampians also boasts cellars dating back to the 1860’s, and vineyards (planted in 1867) with some old vines that have so far defied identification. We were greeted at the winery on a very sunny morning with a glass of their Riesling 2011. As far as breakfast drinks go, it beats Tropicana by miles. Aromas and flavours of white grapefruit and jasmine tea helped to wake the senses before a tour of the vineyards. We were told that once the gold had run out after the rush, people looked for a more permanent means of a livelihood and so planted vines. Located on the fringes of the Great Dividing Range, vineyards here are at a slightly higher altitude and thus enjoy a slightly cooler climate than those further East – reds achieve full ripeness because of the long sunlight hours and moderate humidity.

Aswell as Shiraz and Cabernet, Best’s is renowned for it’s Pinot Meunier, or “Miller’s Burgundy” as it is known here (because the leaves of the P.M vine look like they’ve been dusted by the miller with flour). We visited the old vineyard, planted in 1868, it looked like something out of  Enid Blyton’s “The Enchanted Wood”, the vines had large gnarly trunks, their cordons shooting out like witches fingers. We tried the wine, and it was, as now expected, spell binding. It was voluptuous and black and red fruity, the black dress and red lips of Morticia Adams kept flashing up in my head as I swirled my glass. Again, despite thoroughly enjoying the Shiraz, I found myself drawn to the Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, intrigued by the hoppy floral note it had on the nose, and the guinness’y black, savoury and sweet creaminess it had in the mouth. At lunch we tried the ‘96’ Cab Sauv, there was that concentration and creamy texture again, and that hoppy freshness that was not limited to the nose.

Down in the cellars with 4th generation owner/vigneron , Viv Thomson, we tried the different parcels of Shiraz from  the historic Concongella vineyard that will make up the Bin O blend – internationally acclaimed as one of Oz’s finest wines. It was a fascinating experience. Each wine came from a different plot within that vineyard, from different soils, some irrigated, some not, from vines of different ages. The differences were remarkable, I blushed when I recalled how I’d thought previous to this trip, about Australian wine . That it was all, stylistically, the same. Within this one vineyard came 4 wines made entirely the same and yet entirely different to each other.

Magical wines and enchanted vineyards were also present at Bindi, 50 km  N.W of Melbourne, in the Macedon Ranges. The magic continued for me particularly as we were greeted by a very tall Elvis (owner and vigneron Michael Dhillon). I am a huge fan of the King of rock and roll, and have often dreamt of walking around vineyards with him, so this was the next best thing. Beside the 6 hectares of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, lives a family of 20 ‘roos. They enjoy the bush and grasslands Michael tells us, and importantly do NOT eat any of the vegetation or fruit. They bound in and bound out of the vineyard empty handed. There was a real serenity to the vineyards at Bindi. I think we all felt it, a sense of ease and tranquillity and peace. The practice is mainly organic, Michael says he wants to encourage “growth and health not death” in his vineyards – death by weed killer.

In the cellar we tried barrel samples of the Composition Chardonnay 2011 and Quartz 2010. Both wines are made in the same way – except the Quartz spends a few months longer in barrel, and the percentage of new oak is higher. The Quartz also comes from vines planted in the most Quartz riddled section of this 1988 planted Chard vineyard.

Both wines showed such vigour, an energy that I felt in the vineyard, less magical actually more mystical. They had this purity of fruit and acid. As fine and strong as the silk of a spider. A web of blossom and spice, sesame seed and almond milk. The oak did not overwhelm, it was almost not there, maybe some disappearing oak trick,

The reds were equally refined, I loved the 2010 Composition Pinot Noir. To look at, to smell, it seemed so restrained. Pale ruby in colour, with light aromas of morello cherry and clove spice, and yet in the mouth it was so lively and invigorating, the fruit burst in the mouth like doves out of a magician’s hat.

After the doves I didn’t think things could possibly get any better and then Michael pulled out a 1994 sparkling Chardonnay that had spent 12 years on lees. It was, I assume because of all that time on lees, daisy fresh. Light lemon gold in colour – there was absolutely no give-away as to it’s age. It had the softest, creamiest mouthfeel and very light flavours of linseed and lemon meringue pie.  We sat, rather fittingly, beneath the stars and toasted to old vines and old wines.

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