Some of the best names in the business share similar terroir – famous free-draining granite and loamy soils that produce top wines that are celebrated around the world – welcome to Beechworth, Australia.
Keppell Smith is a very entertaining host. He is also an incredibly serious winemaker. One of the best. He also makes exceptionally good prosciutto, but just for his friends and family. We sit in the late spring sun looking out over his vineyard and farm on Beechworth-Wangaratta Road and he slices off a piece of the ruby-red cured ham, a bottle of his Savaterre Chardonnay on the garden table. The wine is incredibly complex and racy with lingering stony minerality. Counter-intuitively, it goes surprisingly well with the sweet, cured prosciutto.
Keppell’s wines come from grapes grown on close-planted vines and are fermented only using natural yeasts. They are currently served in Emirates First Class. The wine gets its complexity and texture from time spent on new and old tight-grained French oak during which it undergoes natural malolactic fermentation. ‘You should try our shiraz,’ he says. ‘People are just beginning to understand the quality of Beechworth shiraz.’ ‘As a region, we are producing some of the best in the nation,’ he says. ‘Give me a ring and I’ll show you what I do.’ savaterre.com
The vineyards at Giaconda are tiny. They cover just 4 hectares, yet from the grapes grown, these mineral-rich grounds produce what is considered by many to be some of Australia’s best cool-climate wines. Giaconda Chardonnay, for example, sells for around $160 a bottle and is poured in the best restaurants around the world.
The Giaconda vineyard is set on a rise in the granite country off the Beechworth-Wangaratta Road, Everton Upper. The chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and pinot noir vines were planted in 1982 by winemaker Rick Kinzbrunner. Twenty years later they were followed by shiraz grapes planted in a tight curve following the contours of an amphitheatre-shaped saddle.
While the vineyard has always been run on organic principles, it took until this year for Rick and his son Nathan to work on the official certification process. ‘We are beginning to hear many other wineries speak about ‘operating organically’ and ‘natural’ winemaking,’ says Nathan. So they have put in place a certification process with the Bio-Dynamic Research Institute to make it all official. While there is no cellar door at Giaconda (most of the wine is sold out shortly after release), Rick and Nathan welcome guests who are serious about learning more about the Giaconda story by appointment. giaconda.com.au
While Beechworth is well known for its granitic soils, steep hillsides and elevation, Eldorado Road’s vineyard is situated at a lower altitude within the Beechworth foothills a few kilometres from the regional farming hamlet of Eldorado in North East Victoria. It was here that Paul Dahlenburg and Lauretta Schulz in 2008 specifically chose to cultivate vines planted in a seam of free-draining red decomposed granite, loaded with granite buckshot (loose granite fragments). Their choice of site combined with Paul’s extensive cultivation and winemaking background – including production of some of Victoria’s most historically significant wines and now legacy brands – has resulted in a surprising collection of wines to sample at their Beechworth cellar door.
The Eldorado Road Chardonnay is made with a 50/50 blend of wild and cultivated yeast, gently whole-bunch pressed and fermented on full lees in French oak barriques. This approach defines its quality, as producing differing ferments comprising layers of some complex, and some leaner, lighter-styled wine components – including a limited 20% malolactic, secondary fermented component – results in a blended wine with finesse and delicacy that’s simply fantastic. eldoradoroad.com.au
Twenty years ago the team behind Indigo Vineyard saw Beechworth not only as a great area to make quality wine but as a place to make wines at a price point where they can be poured with family meals, at BBQs with friends and to share over a plate of appetisers. This puts wines the region produces within the reach of people who want quality without the big spend.
Indigo Vineyard in Everton Upper features free-draining granite and loamy soils. ‘We were looking for over a year for a vineyard site,’ says co-founder Rob Hawkings. ‘We settled on an old sheep station called The Big Valley outside of Beechworth and planting began in 1999.’ There they planted 12 different varieties including chardonnay, pinot noir, shiraz, pinot gris and sangiovese. Like many of the other winemakers in the region, Indigo chose to use sustainable practices in the vineyard such as using biodynamic applications to improve soil health, the application of tonnes of compost and the eschewing of chemical herbicides.
Winemaking is done off-site by some of the best in the business, namely Marc Scalzo at Rutherglen Estates and the award-winning team at Brokenwood in NSW. The pinot grigio is a brilliant BBQ wine with bright fruit flavours and clean, lean acidity. From the Rhone varietals comes the Indigo Roussanne. This has had some good skin contact and seen ten months in French oak, giving this light bright fruit-driven wine some lovely toasty aromas.
You can taste these wines at structured tastings at the cellar door where four white and four red wines are poured in two separate wine flights. This very generous and informative tasting is free. Indigo wines are designed to pair with food and on the first Friday of every month, there is a Long Table Lunch where chef Sally Lynch from Beechworth’s renowned Taste Trekkers prepares a two-course lunch. This often includes lamb sourced from the Indigo Vineyard flock and served with a bottle of wine between two: costing just $45. ‘Indigo Vineyard is all about affordable luxury,’ says Rob. ‘We make seriously good wines at a good price.’ While you’re there, pick up some of the Dorper lamb from the freezer. indigovineyard.com.au
Winemaker Simon Grant has chosen to concentrate on classic varieties that define their countries of origin: nebbiolo from Italy, cabernet sauvignon from France and tempranillo from Spain. He has planted two clones of nebbiolo on his micro hillside site, altitude 600 metres, beside Beechworth’s Red Hill in 2010: Matura for its darker more intense fruit and bigger, grippier tannins, and 230 for more floral and delicate fruit flavours that combine well with Matura. The rich red loam soil has quickly produced luxurious full bunches of quality nebbiolo fruit. The clones are picked and vinified separately in seasoned Taransaud and Sirugue French oak barrels imported by Ric Kinzbrunner of Giaconda Wines.
The differences in fruit and barrel characteristics allows greater control when the wine is ready for blending. Small amounts of cabernet and barbera fruit also are used to help build texture and complexity, The result is a simply stunning wine: the Traviarti Rosso. Rose petal and earthy notes marry delicately with lifted cherry and candy aromas. The mouthfeel is elegant with fine tannins, the palate weight is light to medium body. The finish is generous and seamlessly well balanced; it features a delicate mouthfeel combined with wonderfully perfumed aromas.
Marc Scalzo’s Beechworth vineyard Piano Piano has matured and is now producing fruit of exceptional quality. The Sophie’s Block Chardonnay features fresh aromas of bright lime pith, softly weighted with stone fruit and almonds. Beautifully balanced, the palate is tightly focused and also showcases attractive lees characters, a style that Marc has perfected as winemaker for Rutherglen Estates.
Its fine acidity and cleansing minerality makes it a new regional leader. We also loved the Henry’s Block Shiraz, a luxurious wine that features well-integrated soft tannins from French oak. Chocolate and cherry, with a subtle hint of tobacco, craft a well-rounded depth; the lovely fresh fruit is never compromised. Piano Piano is now listed as a James Halliday 5-Star winery. pianopiano.com.au