Western Victoria Wine Region by Jeni Port

By Jeni Port
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Mount Avoca vineyard in the Pyrenees wine region of Victoria

Mount Avoca vineyard in the Pyrenees wine region of Victoria [©Winepros/VisitVineyards.com]

Dominant White Grapes: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling
Dominant Red grapes: shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir
Principal Wine Styles: complex red and white sparklings; generous whites; concentrated reds

In a world increasingly inhabited by big, heavy, alcoholic red wines we need the wines of Western Victoria. They provide a subtle alternative: balanced, middle-weighted, pepper-infused, mint-garnished, spicy, smooth reds that mesh - don't clash - with food. What a relief. And their whites and sparklings aren't bad either.

Western Victoria is made of three main wine regions: the Grampians, Pyrenees and Ballarat. On paper, the Grampians region (19 vineyards, nine cellar doors) looks small but its history and influence belies its size. This was the commercial cradle of sparkling wine production in Australia. The story began in 1888 when the Great Western Vineyards passed into the hands of Ballarat businessman Hans Irvine whose dream was to reproduce a high quality French-style Champagne on Victorian soil. He employed a Champagne maker, made numerous study trips to France, used what he considered were the right grapes ('pineau blanc and pineau noir') and built almost two kilometres of underground 'drives' to store and mature his sparklings. In 1918, when he sold the company to Seppelt, he would have been well content that he had succeeded in his dream. Seppelt, of course, went on to become one of the major producers of sparklings in this country and its name became synonymous with an Aussie icon, sparkling shiraz.  Seppelt was also fortunate to be managed during the 1930s-50s by Colin Preece who gave us Moyston claret and Chalambar Burgundy. These, along with the early work done by Best's, were the forerunners of the Great Western reds of today.

The Pyrenees (73 vineyards, 25 cellar doors) takes in the quiet hamlets of Moonambel and Avoca. They weren't so quiet once. In the mid 1800s this was gold rush country and as the gold slowly petered out the land turned over to agriculture, viticulture included. Grape growing thrived for a time and then suffered from a series of depressions that forced many vineyards to close. A joint venture at Avoca in 1963 between a Melbourne wine firm and French cognac producer Remy Martin to produce brandy, brought about a new beginning. They called the property, Chateau Remy. By the 1980s, Chateau Remy had turned to table wine production, including sparkling wine, and was planting the cooler slopes of the blue-tinged Pyrenees ranges with pinot noir and chardonnay. In the late 1990s it changed its name to Blue Pyrenees Estate and was one of a growing band of producers, including Taltarni, Summerfield and Mount Avoca exploring shiraz and cabernet.

Ballarat (18 vineyards, nine cellar doors) is another region long on history but whose place on the modern day wine making map is still being written. Often too cold for some traditional grape varieties, the relatively recent introduction of pinot noir and chardonnay has given this area real prominence.

It must be said Western Victoria remains resolutely a place for red grape varieties. This is home to shiraz (plenty of it) and cabernet sauvignon (less of it) along with chardonnay and a little sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot noir and a gaggle of Italian varieties coming up the rear. Each region boasts its own particular speciality and individual style. Some suggest Grampians shiraz is the archetypal Aussie shiraz with its subtle hints of eucalypt and mint and layers of complexity. Maybe, maybe not. Either way, it represents a strong case for cool climate wines. No debate exists over the region's other great contribution to our drinking: sparkling shiraz. The wine, made in the methode champenoise style, has been produced for almost a century in the district and is THE benchmark.

When they're not fooling around with shiraz and cabernet, the wine makers of the Grampians are giving new styles a go. Italian varieties, red and white, are showing promise. Being on the fringes of the Great Dividing Range provides a moderately cool climate blessed with long sunshine hours which is ideal for varieties like arneis, pinot grigio, dolcetto and sangiovese. The climate is also responsible for the region's most under-stated and under-rated wine: riesling.

Pyreness shiraz is strong and minty with a heady, spice-filled perfume. Cabernet sauvignon in this region is finely-textured and like shiraz shows good ageing potential with firm tannins a feature. Chardonnay here can vary depending on whether its grown on valley floors or the cooler slopes. Its signature style is generally rich and textural.

© Jeni Port 2006

(excerpt from The Age, August 19, 2006)

Regions

  • Ballarat (VIC)
  • Grampians (Wine) (VIC)
  • Pyrenees (VIC)
  • Western Victoria (VIC)

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