If Australian wine began in South Australia, then Victoria is where it developed into a serious industry. The state dominated exports in the nineteenth century, mostly of fortified wine: remote Rutherglen accounted in the 1890s for a third of all exports. Unlike South Australia, Victoria was hit by phylloxera and it has been shaped by the changing fashions of the industry and consumers. The cooler regions were neglected for much of the twentieth century, as the taste for wine was for full-bodied, often fortified, styles. Now, it's a state that challenges perceptions of Australia as a uniformly warm climate and is at the vanguard of the emergence of quality Pinot Noir.
Travelling through Victoria certainly shifted some of my own preconceptions, not least that Australia's climate is always easy to make wine in. Our day in Yarra Valley was spent sheltering from the persistent rain, with cool weather and clouds shadowing our weekend in Melbourne, whose climate is known as the least predictable of Australia's cities. The areas around Melbourne can in fact be cooler than Burgundy (though Burgundy summers are warmer than people often realise). The Southern Ocean brings in cool breezes from the south, and these can be reinforced by winds from the mountain ranges that surround Melbourne to the north and east. It must be noted that we've visited during a cool, wet summer, which has resulted in a growing season four weeks behind its usual schedule. Nevertheless, it's shown that Australia's climate is up-and-down and not always hot and sunny.
All this leads to the ability to produce quality Pinot Noir, not a grape Australia has been traditionally associated with. This production has been going back to the 1970s, but as Australian trends move towards lighter-bodied red wines the regions have recently been coming back into fashion. It's the area around Melbourne which is most known for Pinot Noir, and the two most popular regions are Yarra Valley to the north-east and Mornington Peninsula to the south-east. The latter is a short drive from the city and by the coast, so is extremely popular among city dwellers. Accordingly, the wines are expensive and in-demand.
Yarra Valley is not more than an hour's drive away, but feels more remote tucked away beneath the mountains. Yarra exudes confidence right now, its wines winning acclaim and fitting right in with current trends. Again, however, the climate is problematic: it can be cool, wet, and windy, yet it's also warm enough to get both Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon fully ripe, although these wines are quite restrained. Being able to grow all these grape varieties is due to location: lower Yarra is flatter, lower, and warmer, while upper Yarra is higher and cooler, producing the concentrated Pinot Noirs the region is famous for.
Much less well known is Macedon Ranges, to the north-west of Melbourne. Growing conditions here are cool and difficult, restricting investment into the area. Pinot Noir is light, with delicate red fruit and pepper aromas, the most intense, restrained Pinots of the Melbourne area. As Australians look towards cooler climates, it will be interesting to see whether Macedon Ranges attracts more attention from both producers and consumers.
We didn't get the chance to visit Tasmania, the small island south of Melbourne which was primarily used for blending in sparkling wines made in Victoria. Now it's getting the attention it deserves, due to the increased focus on cooler-climate wines such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I only got the chance to try one Tasmanian Pinot Noir and it was actually fuller-bodied, riper, and deeper-coloured than any of the wines from Yarra, Mornington Peninsula, or Macedon Ranges. This once again points to the difficulty in defining Australia's climates. For such a small island, Tasmania is very diverse and produces a range of styles. The Pinot I tried, from Kelvedon Estate, was from the east of the island, which is warmer and drier than the regions around Melbourne (to the extent that Zinfandel used to be grown). In contrast, Pipers River to the north of the island is cooler and wetter. As Tasmanian grapes were traditionally for blending, there hasn't been a proper attempt to define the island's different climates and sub-regions. As the wines become more fashionable, this may have to happen.
One of the most historic parts of Victoria is not going to suddenly start producing such styles of Pinot. Inland Rutherglen has a warm, continental climate and is most famous for its fortified wines, which I will write about in my next blog post. Due to the sad decline in the popularity of fortified wine, in Australia as elsewhere, the region is trying to redefine itself through its table wines. These wines are full-bodied, intense, and bear a striking resemblance to those of south-west France, continental Spain, and Portugal. They are made from a range of varieties once planted for Australian port. The Portuguese varieties, especially Touriga Nacional, are perhaps the most interesting, capable of producing tannic yet floral wines. Also once planted for fortified wine is Shiraz, which here is more like the robust, tannic wines of the southern rather than the northern Rhône, and Durif. In California, Durif is called Petite Sirah. Like the Californians, the local winemakers are trying to tame this big, tannic, fruity, and deep-coloured wine. They have some way to go yet, but the full, chocolate, coffee aromas suit palates inclined to robust, aggressive wines.
Rutherglen is also near to the Australian Alps, part of the Great Dividing Range, where altitude significantly cools the climate. The town of Beechworth is known for being home to Giaconda, Australia's most expensive Chardonnay, and Hunter Valley producer Brokenwood are also making some good Chardonnays there. Nearby is King Valley, which I hadn't heard of before, but I tasted two Rieslings from the high-altitude region, both from Pfeiffer, a quality Rutherglen producer. The 2016 had pleasant lime, mineral aromas with a deceptively long finish. Owner Chris Pfeiffer was generous enough to open the same wine from 2005, which had developed intense petrol, stone aromas reminiscent of the best Riesling. The last thing I expected to taste in Rutherglen was ageworthy Riesling, which goes to show one should never know what to expect from Australia.