Castlemaine is a small town in the old Victorian goldfields. It’s an attractive town in many ways, with plenty of places serving the great food and coffee one comes to expect almost anywhere in Australia, but do pronounce it with a hard northern first “a”, not an elongated southern one, unless you want some funny looks. It has a quiet country air, yet at the same time, is weirdly similar to East London. Every second person seemingly sports a fine array of tattoos. It is where I shall begin my journey, three weeks in a country which I hadn’t visited since 2007.
Australia has changed in those intervening twelve years, even more so since my first visit there many years before that. Melbourne and Sydney have added a few million people, the drought is worse, and the bush fires, Grand Designs-style domestic architecture seems to have become ubiquitous, and wine has changed too.
It has to be said that we in the UK, who used to guzzle Aussie blended wines like lemonade on a hot summer’s day, have come late to the new artisan producers who were being identified by those young Australian writers with their finger on the pulse a decade ago. But we are getting there.
This article will cover a couple of small producers in Southern Bendigo, recommended to me on the ground, before a rather drunken visit to Bress, whilst spending time with Adam Marks, who was a pioneer of Bendigo biodynamics.
Although there is a line of granite hills, volcanic soils and red alluvial silts north of Bendigo, which signify the region’s short gold mining past, southern Bendigo around Castlemaine offers granite sands, which Mark likes to call “Harcourt concrete”. It is this part of Bendigo where the excitement lies, blessed as it is with a drier climate, yet still one which would be classed as “cool” in many places.
Blackjack is on old granite close to Harcourt (where on the main road through the village you will find a wonderful new café/restaurant at the Harcourt Produce and General Store which sells, both retail and with food, a very good selection of the best local wines). The estate is named after an American sailor who jumped ship in the 1850s and made his fortune in gold. The McKenzie and Pollock families planted four hectares of vines in 1988/9, mainly Shiraz and Cabernet, with another two hectares planted in 1998, so old vines combined with respectful farming makes for artisan wines of class. James Halliday praises them and Blackjack has twice won Best Shiraz at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show.
There is a cadet family of wines, called Major’s Line, which produces a surprisingly good Tempranillo sourced from Heathcote fruit, full of cherry and summer berry freshness, and pretty easy drinking.
There’s a good Cabernet-Merlot blend under the main Blackjack label, which reminded me of how good this Aussie blend used to be before we began to see only the more commercial versions in the UK. But it is the Shiraz here that is of most interest.
Block 6 2017 was a crimson colour, with cinnamon notes contrasting with cherry and raspberry fruit in a rich but restrained wine which will last 5-10 years. Blackjack Shiraz 2017 is much more brick red in colour. It’s quite silky and the deeper fruit brings mulberry to mind. It has a bit more tannin evident right now and needs another few years (it will also last a decade). Chortle’s Edge Shiraz 2016 is more or less ready now, with plump plum flavours dominating, quite soft by comparison to the previous cuvée.
Now I’m not holding Blackjack out as a great new discovery, but what this small winery does illustrate is that you can find really well made wines at superb value in this emerging region. We turned up here mostly because it was quite close to where we were staying, but it does have a local following for its honest wines, and with me “honest” is not to damn with faint praise. If I learn’t anything in Australia, it is that good value, at least at cellar door prices, is far from dead.
Harcourt Valley Winery
This winery is quite a contrast to Blackjack. It’s kind of louder. They proclaim themselves as Bendigo’s most awarded winery, with more than 500 Awards and 34 Trophies listed on their web site. And why not, I suppose. This small James Halliday Five Star Winery has a pretty hot reputation locally, even if you might not have heard of them over here.
Originally an apple orchard, the Livingstone family now farm just four hectares of vines, all around forty years of age. Shiraz is also the main event here, and as well as matching Blackjack in the Royal Melbourne Wine Show, Harcourt Valley has ventured to London and achieved Gold Medal success at the International Wine Challenge.
There’s a small array of other varieties, Riesling in its off-dry style being highly enjoyable. The two Shiraz I tasted at a techno-trance party in the tasting room, stood out as the best wines. Barbara’s Shiraz comes from top blocks at the home vineyard. It has quite a full body, aged for 12 months in a mix of French and American oak. The vanilla cream sits beneath cherry and plum fruit, and the finish is spicy with pepper and mint.
Old Vine Shiraz 2014 – This wine is only made in years deemed exceptional. The vines are indeed old, planted by the original owners in 1975 at Mount Alexander (the Livingstones took over in 1989). They produce very low yields. The wine is aged in French oak and is structured, with mulberry fruit and a hint of eucalyptus on the finish. A serious wine.
I ought to mention that you can usually visit most wineries, barring the famous ones, without an appointment, and they all list cellar door opening times on their web sites. I can’t guarantee it will be party time, but it’s quite nice not to always be tied to a schedule.
Party time at Harcourt Valley Winery – what Aussie’s do on a Saturday lunchtime
I think perhaps one or two readers may have heard of Bress? Adam Marks farms around nine hectares on the previously mentioned “Harcourt concrete”, not far from the two wineries already visited. He began with 34 hectares planted to 17 varieties but he has cut that down to focus on quality here, although he does source fruit from other nearby regions to try his hand at other wines. I first got to hear about Bress via another producer, Dane Johns, who makes natural wine under the Momento Mori label (occasionally imported through Les Caves de Pyrene). I understand he did a stint at Bress, and that was enough to pique my interest, especially as Dane himself, and his garage, is not easy to track down.
The winery name has its origins in Eastern France. As well as wine making, Adam keeps chickens, of which he is remarkably fond (they are all very tame and you can pick them up if you wish). The name comes from Poulet de Bresse. Adam visited Bourg-en-Bresse in the early 1990s to study how they reared them. I never got round to asking him why he dropped the final “e” when he came round to found his own winery?
The morning began with a tasting in a wooden hut beside the estate’s large fish pond, before we tasted more wines in the small vat shed. Finally, we repaired to the main winery for lunch. Bress opens up for lunch for several weekends in the year from spring through to autumn, and if you ever get the chance, don’t miss it. The food was excellent, a set menu, but two of the five of us were vegan and they catered for that diet both willingly and with enthusiasm.
Bressecco – We began tasting Adam’s creamy mid-weight sparkler made from Pinot Gris, Riesling and Chardonnay, grown at Harcourt and Faraday. The wine has orchard fruit aromas and a little yeastiness on the palate. It’s a simple wine selling at around $30/£15, but fresh and fun, good for oysters and seafood.
You’ll find wines in Australia which, unlike this wine’s fun moniker, are actually called “Prosecco”. It’s a touchy subject. The Aussies will claim that when they agreed a trade deal with the EU Prosecco was a grape variety as well as a wine. We all know that later the Prosecco producers in Italy changed the grape name to Glera exactly in order to stop overseas producers capitalising on that name, just indeed as the Champenois have done viz Champagne. Whatever the arguments, I will say that most of the Australian “proseccos” I have tasted have been of good quality and considerably more expensive than the very cheap Italian Prosecco we see in UK supermarkets. Over here, wines from class producers like Dal Zotto (imported by Graft Wine) have to use a different line of attack. No bad thing with the “cheap” reputation Prosecco has in the UK on the whole.
Of the white wines we were torn between the unoaked Pinot Gris 2019, which has a smoky richness yet remains dry, and my preferred single vineyard Chardonnay. This comes from 40-year-old vines in the Fazio vineyard at Faraday, seeing a mix of stainless steel and oak (about 20% new). This 2019 had only been bottled a week but it was very good.
Adam has always had a bit of a reputation for his Rosé. It comes from Cabernet Sauvignon vines of 38 years of age in Bress’s home vineyard. It sees two months on lees with some gentle stirring and doesn’t go through malo, so it has a touch of complexity but a pert freshness too. It’s certainly dry and quite classy. Adam calls it his Wimbledon wine, and it certainly is all strawberries and cream.
We ended the tasting with Cabernet Franc 2019, bottled just eight weeks previously. From vines a little under 40 years old in Harcourt and Bendigo, it had good acids and delicious fruit. A wine to drink within two or three years but very nice indeed.
Of the other wines, there’s a very good Pinot Noir from a mix of Yarra, Macedon and Faraday fruit, quite grippy, a nice Unplugged Shiraz which I think may be a new cuvée, and a remarkable Reserve Chardonnay 2013. I say remarkable because this wine comes from Macedon fruit from what some would term a poorer vintage, but this is a cracking wine if it really was a bad year. There was Pinot Noir 2015 from Macedon as well. This is from the Chanter’s Ridge vineyard, where the clone D5V12 is trellised with vertical shoots and produces a wine of great fragrance. We drank both of these last two Macedon wines at lunch.
We finished lunch with a treat which Adam headed to the cellar to get for us, a Shiraz 2007. The fruit is Heathcote’s super Shiraz, fermented (as with all wines here) using indigenous yeasts, with the whole process (including malolactic) in oak, mainly hogsheads. This was clearly an older wine. Adam said not to worry if it was shot, but it wasn’t. It had developed a marvellous chocolate richness, but still retained acidity and freshness.
It being a Sunday, Adam had been relaxing, sampling all the wines along with the five of us (though I was spitting before lunch). I think he was pretty much as inebriated as we were (save our poor driver), and as a result we were entertained with some sharp Aussie wit alongside the food. Everyone calls him an entertainer, and I don’t feel bad repeating that because he uses the same phrase on the Bress web site. A great visit.
Southern Bendigo is a frighteningly beautiful wine region, mostly bush with eucalyptus trees as far as the eye can see in some places. Of course it boasts other better known wineries (Sutton Grange and perhaps Balgownie being the famous ones). Bress is just half an hour from the city of Bendigo, which markets itself as a bit of a tech centre (free wifi in the streets), and boasts a pretty good art galley. So let’s have some new Aussie art please…
We have (clockwise from top left) Michael Doonan, Alex Sexton, Angela Brennan, Karla Marchesi, Juan Ford, Victoria Reichelt and Nyurapaiya Nampi(t)jinpa
East of here lies the perhaps better known Heathcote wine region, which has become highly fashionable, really on the back of the success of one winery, Jasper Hill. Ron Laughton founded Jasper Hill what seems like decades ago to me. As soon as Robin Yapp began importing his wines, I fell in love with them. There’s a delicious, under appreciated, Riesling, and now they have added a Nebbiolo (which I am yet to taste), but it is the two Shiraz wines, Georgia’s Paddock and Emily’s Paddock, which always were and remain the benchmarks. The wines which introduced the world to Heathcote Shiraz.
Whilst in Australia I had planned to visit my two favourite Aussie wineries, those being Jasper Hill and Clonakilla. Happily I managed to spend a good couple of hours at Clonakilla later in the trip, but my plans for Jasper Hill were thwarted. I had been talking to Ron, but he was away on the only day I could drive to Heathcote. Emily had hoped to get back to see me but we headed home half an hour before her delayed return. So no tasting at Jasper Hill. Next time, I hope, but I shall include a couple of pics, if only to allow me to gaze wistfully at them once more.
Having missed out on Jasper Hill, misfortune turned to luck. The following day we were driving back to Melbourne. I’d hoped to visit Hanging Rock Winery before an appointment at Bindi. We didn’t have time for Hanging Rock, whose wines I’ve known for many years, but we made our appointment at Bindi almost to the minute. Here I discovered a true jewel, a man making some of the very finest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Australia. That is where my next article will take you.