Sommelier Ian Brosnan of Ely takes the ultimate wine road trip across Australia’s Victoria region, sampling all the vinous treasures it has to offer
There are many perks to working in the wine trade, but those which undoubtedly inspire the most envy are surely the wine trips. To us in the business, they are an opportunity to meet the wine makers on their turf, hear first-hand about the challenges of the latest vintage, learn about changes in vineyard management or winemaking techniques. These trips are often short, with hectic schedules, packed itineraries and very little free time. To everyone else, they are jollies: Three-day breaks to sun-kissed vineyards, where we dine like lords and swig from magnums, tweeting the entire thing as our justification for work. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between.
The James Busby Wine Trip, run and organised by a master of wine, is, without doubt, the most comprehensive trip of its kind. To set the scene, a motley crew of 11 sommeliers, wine buyers and educators from Ireland, the UK, Denmark, China, Canada and the USA were the lucky few chosen to go on a two-week tour of some of Australia’s finest wineries, patiently shepherded along by Tim Wildman MW, our host, guide, mentor and chaperone.
The first week was spent in Victoria. We set off from Melbourne and drove two hours east to meet the wildly unorthodox (and slightly wild) William Downie on his farm in Gippsland. Far away from any recognised wine regions, Bill does things his own way out here. He is winemaker for several lines, such as SOS (Save our Souls), making everything from Petit Manseng to Sangiovese, but it is his eponymous range of regional Pinots on which his reputation is based. His belief in the importance of the land is such that the words ‘Pinot Noir’ do not appear on the bottle – the wine is first and foremost a reflection of the vineyard, the land and the vintage and are labelled by region – they just happen to be made from Pinot Noir. While this is the norm in Burgundy, it is pretty unusual in Australia. We tasted our way through the various vineyards, and then, on an evening which set the bar pretty high for the days to come, we had dinner in the barrel room with Bill, his wife and their kids, dined on lamb and greens from the farm and drank magnums
The next morning, we rose early, a little groggy, and headed south. Mornington Peninsula was cold and wet, not exactly what I had been expecting when I packed my bags, but the welcome was warm and the wines were a reward onto themselves. Mornington excels as a region for fine Chardonnay and Pinot – the former richly textural; the latter aromatic and intensely fruit laden. Our first visit was with two wineries, Garagiste – producer of some outstanding single vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot, and The Story – showing some Shiraz and Riesling from further afield in the Grampians and Heathcote.
We braved a picnic on the beach, which only served to show just how beautiful it would have been had the weather been on our side.
Next up was Kooyong and Port Phillip Estate, two separate wineries now under one seriously fancy roof. The highlight was the single vineyard ‘Ferrous’, a stunningly powerful Pinot with cherry and bitter orange fruit, and a strong iron influence, the source of which could be directly seen in the vineyard soil itself.
We finished the evening in Ocean Eight, where the hereto amicable and blossoming friendships were tested to the limits with the annual Ocean Eight Great Pizza Bake off, and the ruthlessly competitive nature of all on the trip became frighteningly apparent. These sommelier types just don’t like to lose. The bake off was bloody, but the wines wowed – some beautifully balanced and elegant Chardonnays, ripe and textured Pinot Gris, and a top-notch sparkling, which we got to blend, dosage and disgorge in the cellar.
Day three dawned and we drove up north, past Melbourne and into the Yarra Valley. This is a wine region I have long admired but, until this trip, had not been fully aware of the range of wines, varieties and styles produced. The morning began in De Bortoli, with Steve and Leanne, the wonderfully charismatic owners and winemakers. I had the good fortune to host a tasting lunch with them in Ely earlier in the year, so it was especially pleasing to meet them on their patch. Steve, like many Aussie winemakers, is refreshingly candid and forthright and provided genuine insight into the current state of the Australian wine industry. Their estate wines are superb varietal and regional examples, and their more experimental wines – Yarra Fiano and Nebbiolo Rose – are delightful drinking wines.
Luke Lambert is, even at his young age, something of a legend, and the current vintages showed precisely why. Tasting in his little wine cave, the 2015 vintages of both the Nebbiolo and Syrah were two of the finest wines we encountered on the entire trip. I would go so far as to say that the Nebbiolo is the best I’ve ever tasted from outside Italy. Production is tiny; Irish allocations are miniscule, so if you come across a bottle, snap it up. If you can keep it for a couple of years, even better.
Yarra Yering is one of those wineries spoken of in almost hushed tones – their Dry Red No. 1 has a reputation for incredible longevity and the 1981 we tasted was remarkable – savoury aromas of tobacco and leather but with undeniable vitality on the palate. Their Dry Red No.2 is a Rhône-style blend of wonderful complexity and the more recent Red No. 3 shows the potential of Portuguese varieties in this part of the Valley. Recently appointed winemaker Sarah Crowe is a very safe pair of hands to lead this historical winery into the next decade, she was awarded winemaker of the year after her very first vintage.
Giant Steps produce an exceptional range of single vineyard Pinots and Chardonnays, each with a unique and precise personality, and an extended middle finger to anyone who suggests the notion of terroir doesn’t apply in Australia.
It is this focus on vineyard sites, soils types and microclimates that is responsible for the quality of wines currently being produced in the Yarra and beyond.
Gembrook Hill is possibly the most impeccably manicured vineyard in the Yarra, with perfectly tended, sloping vines leading to the winery where ‘Marksy’ produces not only age-worthy Pinots and a sublime Sauvignon Blanc, but also a gin called MGC (Melbourne Gin Company – but cricket fans will get it...). After the wines, he led us through a fascinating gin tasting, separately trying the different botanicals and flavours that make up his gin, including grapefruit and rosemary from the vineyard, lemon myrtle and macadamia.
Mac Forbes is a Yarra man born and raised, who produces an impressive range of individual vineyard wines, with a knack for coaxing the very best out of each one – racy, mineral-led Chardonnay, supple berry and spice Pinot, refined, elegant Cabernet and some German inspired Rieslings from the wonderfully named Strathbogie Ranges.
By day five, we had made it to Rutherglen, an old Australian outback town about 330km northeast of Melbourne, steeped in history and heritage. There are many table wines produced here, mostly from Marsanne, Shiraz and local speciality Durif, but it is the fortified wines which have put Rutherglen on the world map. Muscat and Topaque (the registered Australian name for Tokay) are the base for these unique wines, which are classified as Rutherglen, Classic, Grand or Rare in increasing quality. The wines are sweet, sometimes intensely so, with a spectrum of flavours including dried herbs and tea, honey and fig, caramel and toffee, bitter chocolate and coffee and, believe it or not, fish oil – a classic characteristic of Topaque. These wines have limited exposure in Ireland, but are some of the most complex, sublime and downright sensational sweet wines being produced anywhere and are definitely worth seeking out.
Bindi is a small winery located in the Macedon Ranges, a cool climate region about an hour north of Melbourne. There amidst the rolling hills, in the shadow of Hanging Rock, Michael Dhillon – wine maker, philosopher, gentleman – quietly goes about his business, tending to his vines and making his wines. Those wines – Quartz Chardonnay, Original Vineyard Pinot and others are at the very pinnacle of Australian wine making. The Quartz Chardonnay in particular, a wine of crystalline purity and finesse, is liquid proof that this grape can produce the finest of wines in Australia. Michael’s wines have invariably been described as Burgundian, but this does them a great disservice – they taste nothing like Burgundy. They taste of Victoria, of Macedon, of the Quartz vineyard and the Original vineyard.
This was probably the most significant revelation of the trip – no winemaker claimed their wines to be ‘Burgundy-like’ – they were distinctly Yarra, or Mornington or Macedon. The characteristics of Pinot from Mornington, Gippsland or Yarra are subtly but markedly different, as are the Syrahs and Chardonnays, and the current generation of wine makers in regions across Victoria are embracing these differences like never before.
Our last visit of the week was to Best’s in Great Western. The nearby town was established in the Goldrush of the 1860s and Henry Best planted his first vineyard shortly after. Riesling and Shiraz take priority here; the whites often just off-dry but beautifully balanced, and the reds concentrated in flavour but not in weight. They had a floral touch, with lovely coolness and elegance.
It was a fine finish to a fascinating week, one in which we had explored
and experienced the full array of what Victoria has to offer.
Wines worth seeking out
- William Downie Pinots – good independent wine shops
- Kooyong & Port Phillip Estate – exclusive to Whelehans Wines, Loughlinstown, County Dublin.
- Giant Steps – The Corkscrew, Chatham St, Dublin
- De Bortoli – good independent wine shops
- Luke Lambert – good independent wine shops
- Bindi – good luck