Brothers Rob and Tom Lightfoot are delivering the goods in spite of tough times in 2020.

East Gippsland needs you. After being ravaged by bushfires, the region, sandwiched in the corner of Victoria, between NSW and Bass Strait, was then hit hard by the effects of Covid-19. Many producers have managed to rebuild and adapt as best they can, although the economic impacts of these twin disasters are still being felt. In January 2021, I toured the region – experiencing much of the great wine and beer on offer – and it is well and truly open for business again.

Samuel's Gorge.

Bullant Brewery

In the small town of Bruthen, east of Bairnsdale, is Bullant Brewery ( bullantbrewery.com), established in 2011 by Neil and Lois Triggs, locals for the past 48 years. With a background in home brewing and experience in the tourism industry with their Stringybark Cottages, their desire to open their own brewery was sparked during a visit to small breweries in WA.

The brewhouse purchased equipment from Richbrau Brewing in Richmond, Virginia, in the US, giving the Triggs the capacity to produce 2,000-litre brews at a time, most of which is sold either through the brewery, around Gippsland or online.

Bullant’s main focus is creating food-friendly beers that everyone can enjoy, which is handy when you have your own restaurant with a focus on pizzas and burgers. There’s a diverse range of beers across a variety of styles, such as IPAs, pilsners, wheat beers, Kölsch and stout. Of the nine beers I tasted, the Piano Bridge Stout (6.7%) was my favourite, with its dark chocolate, coffee and Vegemite aromas and flavours leaving a long and pleasant aftertaste. If you’re after something lighter, the Bark Sheds Wheat Beer (5%) is fruity, not overly bitter, and very tasty.

In January 2020, Neil and Lois lost their home and cottages in the bushfires. As they have no plans to rebuild the cottages, their main focus is now on the brewery. Judging by the number of fellow visitors willing to drop by during difficult times, it seems that the locals and tourists are more than happy to support them in their recovery.

Ensay’s David and Jenny Coy started with sheep farming before turning to wine.
Ensay’s David and Jenny Coy started with sheep farming before turning to wine.

ESNAY WINERY

Halfway between the Victorian snowfields and the ocean you’ll find picturesque Ensay Winery ( ensaywinery.com.au), owned by David and Jenny Coy, on a meandering road in the middle of nowhere. The property has been in David’s family for generations, mostly used for raising sheep; when David and his brother Peter wanted to make the farm more “intense” and productive, they turned to grapes. They soon realised, however, that in order to get the best return, they would need to turn the grapes into wine themselves.

Vines were planted in 1992, with cuttings obtained from Paringa Estate on the Mornington Peninsula, where David worked for five years while simultaneously setting up Ensay. Jenny, originally from Kalgoorlie in WA, met David when a mutual friend brought her to the winery to pick grapes; it was love at first sight and the pair count themselves incredibly lucky for being able to nurture three sons in such a beautiful environment, as well as doing something they love.

The bucolic nature of the vineyard is enhanced by the sight of sheep grazing among the vines, which helps keep ‘suckers’ (little shoots on the vine) in check. They also help fertilise the soil, and are sometimes butchered and used for meat for events like their Spring Lamb Luncheon.

Walter Clappis, Kimberly Cooter and James Cooter of Down the Rabbit Hole Wines.

During the past 12 months of restrictions, the Coys noticed many non-Gippslanders flocking to the area, especially around Christmas, keen to explore and support the region. The slower trading periods gave them some time to work on “pandemic projects”, such as a grill house, which will be used for their paddock-to-plate functions.

As for the wines, my pick is the Devils Backbone Sparkling Red (A$25), a rich and silky wine – with a touch of spice and sweetness – made from their estate shiraz. It’s honestly one of the most delicious sparkling reds I’ve ever had, and it’s one of many reasons to make a trip to Ensay.

Covid-19 restrictions have forced a rethink at Lightfoot & Sons.
Covid-19 restrictions have forced a rethink at Lightfoot & Sons.

Lightfoot & Sons Wines

Every time I visit Lightfoot & Sons (l ightfootwines.com) in Bairnsdale, I stand in awe of the beautiful location, perched high above the Mitchell River with views over to the Gippsland Lakes region. The 29ha vineyard was planted between 1995 and 1997 on the Myrtle Point farm belonging to the Lightfoot family, with the original intention of selling the fruit to other winemakers.

After gaining experience in different areas of the wine industry, brothers Tom and Rob Lightfoot returned to the business in the mid-2000s, with Tom focusing on winemaking, and Rob on business, marketing and sales. Tom is also joined in the winery by Alastair Butt, who worked for many years at Seville Estate in the Yarra Valley and Brokenwood in the Hunter.

Primo Estate has a strong connection to the Le Marche region of Italy.

The cellar door has to be one of the best-looking in Victoria, with a classy tasting room and south-facing deck that is ideal for relaxing, and enjoying food and wine. As a result of the pandemic, the Lightfoots changed some of the ways they handle tastings, utilising little laboratory beakers for delivering the wines, and providing individual info sheets so you can learn more about the wines as you taste – a nice touch.

The effects of smoke on the 2020 vintage were far-reaching for Lightfoot & Sons, impacting pretty much every variety grown there. This led the winery to adopt some novel approaches to the vintage harvest in order to try and eliminate smoke in the final wines. One example is the Chameleon (A$40), a white wine made from pinot noir, which they have produced before but is a particularly handy way to deal with potential smoke taint. Chameleon is essentially like a blanc de noirs (white sparkling from black grapes), but without the bubbles, as the grapes are pressed and there’s no contact between the juice and skins.

If you’re after something a little different, Darkfoot (A$60) is their take on a mistelle, a sweet fortified made by combining unfermented chardonnay juice with grape spirit, which is then aged in oak for 10 years. It’s nutty, rich, and absolutely delicious.

Sarah Marquis of Mollydooker Wines.

Nicholson River Winery

Nicholson River Winery ( nicholsonriverwinery.com.au) is in a charming location that made me wish I didn’t have to work sitting in front of a computer screen. It’s no surprise then that the amazing views and very agreeable climate were key factors that led Ken and Juliet Eckersley to establish their vineyard close to the river in 1978.

Originally from Sydney, Ken spent time in the UK and Europe, where he gained skills as a home brewer. Back in Australia, he enrolled in the Charles Sturt wine science degree, utilising his experience as a science teacher. But Ken found he learnt just as much, if not more, from speaking with other winemakers and from completing some courses in France.

The spectacular Hugh Hamilton cellar door.

In December 2019, Ken and Juliet opened the Barrel Room, a large and airy dining area adjacent to the cellar door, with a superb vista of the river and a large wall decorated with a painting of a Renaissance barrel room (with a few Australian touches) by local artist Jenny Noyes. Unsurprisingly, the Barrel Room was closed for much of 2020, although people flooded in after restrictions eased, eager to spend money and support them.

The vineyard is planted to a range of grapes, such as semillon, chardonnay, viognier, syrah, pinot noir and sangiovese, with chardonnay taking a particular liking to the climate. The range of wines is diverse, with a focus on food-friendly drops that speak about their provenance.

The 2017 Sangiovese (A$35) reflects this desire, with nice acidity and red fruits shining through, along with some bottle-age characters such as leather and tobacco, making it a great match with rich tomato- or meat-based dishes.

Don’t be surprised to find abalone in your Sailors Grave brews.
Don’t be surprised to find abalone in your Sailors Grave brews.

Sailors Grave Brewing

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to taste the ocean in beer form, Sailors Grave Brewing ( sailorsgravebrewing.com) in Orbost has got it covered. Chris and Gab Moore established the brewery in 2016; their backgrounds in food and running their own restaurant and bar – coupled with Chris’ experience as a self-taught home brewer – have served them well.

Following a brewery tour of the US, the couple quickly realised that as there were so many unique approaches to brewing, they could forge their own path. They love having the freedom to experiment but without “novelty for novelty’s sake”, instead collaborating with amazing people who want to create something more than just a product.

A tour through the US inspired Sailors Grave’s Chris and Gab Moore.
A tour through the US inspired Sailors Grave’s Chris and Gab Moore.

Some of the ingredients they’ve used have included abalone (Gab’s family are abalone divers), sea urchin and sea vegetables, plus foraged weeds and local fruits; one of their main objectives is to support local businesses. This sense of community was the bedrock that helped them and their producers weather the bushfires and Covid-19, “ensuring mutual resilience”.

The Sailors Grave range may be a bit of a shock to those raised on VB or Melbourne Bitter, but the devotion to flavour, texture and overall enjoyment is uncompromising and unrelenting. As a case in point, the Lemon Meringue Cream Sour (3.5%) tastes like lemon meringue pie soaked in beer (yes, in a good way), while the AMA Abalone, Lemon & Aniseed Myrtle Gose (5%) is “ocean-y without being fishy”, resulting in a very pleasant beer. My favourite has to be the Harvest Ale (5%), fermented with 100% pinot noir lees, and wild rosehips and bramble – it’s a real mouthful in the most wonderful way.

While the brewery in Orbost is closed to the public, do not despair, as the beers on are sold on tap and in cans from a pop-up seasonal bar at the Slipway Sheds in Lakes Entrance. There are exciting plans afoot for a permanent venue, so stay tuned.

Down the Rabbit Hole Wines.

Tambo Winery

It was a “misspent youth” that led Bill Williams to wine and winemaking. As a young boy, he was taken from the cane fields of south-east Queensland to Europe, where he learnt much about wine as an everyday beverage. Twenty-five years later, while engaged in a career in town planning where his managers “didn’t look particularly happy”, he envisaged a different direction. So he and wife Pam bought a paddock east of Bairnsdale in 1993, planted vines the following year, and Tambo Winery ( tambowine.com.au) was born. With his background in cane farming, Bill found the appeal of grape-growing and winemaking was the ability to work with nature to “produce the best fruit you can and protect the essence of that fruit through to the bottle”.

The vineyard was planted to sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, with a plot of merlot later changed over to more pinot. With no formal qualifications, Williams learnt as much as he could from others in the industry, until winemaker Alastair Butt came on board in 2006.

Bushfire smoke affected the entire crop in 2020, with no fruit picked at all. The global pandemic then wiped out most of their wholesale orders, although bottle-shop sales increased from around 10% of business to 30% and more customers bought their wines online. In response, the couple are now making a concerted effort to market their wines across more of Gippsland and Melbourne.

The 2018 Chardonnay (A$28) is an excellent example of what’s possible with the grape in Gippsland. The bright fruit and creamy, buttery notes are supported by firm acidity and great weight on the palate; it’s a very enjoyable wine.

The 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon (A$28) has lively black fruit, as well as chocolate and liquorice flavours, making it sing on the palate, and it’s a lot more full-bodied than you might expect for a relatively cool area.

Walter Clappis, Kimberly Cooter and James Cooter of Down the Rabbit Hole Wines.