Rutherglen - Wine Production
Bounded by high country snowfields and the flood plains of the mighty Murray River, vineyards in Victoria’s north-east valleys are roughly 2.5hrs – 3.5hrs drive from Melbourne. The wine zone is serviced by a network of well maintained roads, with the Hume Freeway providing the major arterial link between Melbourne and Sydney. Major train and bus services operate between the two cities, with regular domestic flights into Albury being augmented by light aircraft movements through Wangaratta.
North East Victoria is one of six zones that collectively make up today’s Victorian wine industry. Its official status as an Australian Geographical Indication is little more than a decade old.
‘North East Victoria’ was entered in the Register of Protected Names in May 1996. The term defines the region’s physical boundaries and proscribes its use under Commonwealth of Australia law (Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation Act 1980).
Five regions contribute to the zone’s annual wine grape production – the Alpine Valleys, Beechworth, Glenrowan, King Valley, and Rutherglen.
Commercial viticulture first began here in the gold rush days of the 1850s. By 1869, vineyards around Rutherglen made it Victoria’s largest winegrowing region, with 2407 hectares of vines producing almost 800,000 litres of rich and full-bodied ‘burgundy style’ wine. Much of it found its way to Mother England.
By 1900, half of Australia’s total wine production was coming from Victoria. Alas, the industry’s prosperity was not to last for vineyards in the north-east. In 1899, the vine bug phylloxera was found in Rutherglen. Soon, virtually every site in the district fell victim.
By 1910, barely a vineyard remained. Most of those not destroyed by the vine invader itself were removed under a government-backed vine pull scheme. The onset of the First World War and ensuing Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s did little to encourage replanting.
Wine grape production in the north-east provided something of a rollercoaster ride for growers in the 1940s and 1950s. Vineyards first grew and prospered as the district became the hub of the Australian fortified wine industry. However, the introduction of a 1951 excise on fortified wines was to usher in change for north-east Victorian Port, Muscat and Tokay producers.
Increases in red wine production, and subsequent diversification into sparkling wine and white wine production across the zone’s five regions during the past quarter-century in particular have made it one of the most diverse and interesting parts of the whole Australian wine industry.
Today, North East Victoria is home to more than 70 vineyards and wineries, with almost two thirds of them located in Rutherglen (20) and the King Valley (27). The zone’s best known family-operated businesses are able to trace their winemaking heritage back over many generations.
Located well away from the cooling effects of the ocean, vineyards in north-east Victoria are subject to a variety of climatic influences. Sites in the Alpine Valleys and the King Valley – variously 150m to 850m above sea level - are cooler than their less elevated and longer established neighbours. That offers the potential of growing high acid, cool climate fruit for sparkling wine production, as well as a range of aromatic white grape varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc that augment more traditional varieties like Muscat, Muscadelle (aka Tokay) and Shiraz.
The undulating terrain of these elevated vineyards twists and turns through a range of microclimates and mesoclimates that provide considerable variation in aspect, rainfall and temperature. Sites at lower altitudes are invariably continental, with very hot days and cold nights being experienced in Glenrowan and Rutherglen during the ripening season. Frost risks during spring are significant in all regions.
Mean January temperature maxima can vary from 19.9°C at Beechworth to 22.3°C at Rutherglen.
The zone’s highest monthly rainfall totals are recorded from May to October. With only 297 mm and 310mm of rainfall at Rutherglen and Glenrowan respectively during the growing season, supplementary drip irrigation is often required on sandy loam and gravelly sites to alleviate vine stress and unwelcome berry shrivel. Older established vineyards on much deeper loamy clays are frequently dry-grown.
Rainfall in general increases with altitude. Sites in the Alpine Valleys typically receive 425mm of rain during the growing season, while the more elevated slopes of the King Valley are likely to receive 640mm - 1410mm, depending altitude and exposure to prevailing winds.
From vine to glass
On international markets, North East Victoria’s Beechworth and Rutherglen brands are most strongly associated with premium quality wines. In 2007-2008, almost 15,000 litres of wine labelled Beechworth was exported, earning producers in the region an average of $26.93 per litre, more than twice that achieved by producers in Margaret River (Western Australia) or the Yarra Valley (Victoria).
Rutherglen is the zone’s largest exporter, despatching almost 190,000 litres of wine to 23 countries during 2007-2008.
North East Victoria vineyards at a glance:
- North East Victoria Zone
- GI registered May 1996
- Located: Roughly latitudes 36° 45' 0" S (Bright) to 36° 2' 60 S (Rutherglen); longitudes 145° 58' 60 E (Benalla) to 147° 1' 0 E (Kiewa).
- Terrain: Diverse range of terrain, from undulating landscapes and rich red clayey loams around Glenrowan to moderately fertile river valleys surrounded by granitic alpine peaks and rocky outcrops that are covered by snow in winter.
- Altitude: variously 150m to 850m
- Heat degree days: 1240 (Beechworth) to 1770 (Rutherglen)
- Growing season rainfall: 297 mm (Rutherglen) to 1410mm (King Valley)
- Mean January temperatures: 19.9°C (Beechworth) to 22.3°C (Rutherglen)
- Planted area (2007): 3256ha
- Principal varieties (in order of planted area): Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris
- Typical harvest period: February - May
- Alpine Valleys (VIC)
- Beechworth (VIC)
- Glenrowan (VIC)
- Goldfields (VIC)
- King Valley including Milawa (VIC)
- Legends, Wine and High Country (NE Victoria) (VIC)
- Milawa (VIC)
- North East Victoria (VIC)
- Rutherglen (VIC)
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