When Eric Purbrick first took over the Tahbilk property in the 1930s, in the Nagambie Lakes region of Central Victoria, he gave instructions for removing some vineyards on the property, bar the 3.2ha of original 1860 shiraz plantings.
“He then went off to Melbourne,” says his grandson and Tahbilk’s current CEO, Alister Purbrick. “When he returned, there was only an acre-and-a-half [0.6ha] left of the original vines.” Had he arrived back any later, the whole block might well have been lost.
These precious seven rows of 623 vines, believed to be among the oldest grapevines in the world, have been pampered and protected ever since.
“Grandfather made the decision not to replace the vines that died with age,” says Alister. There has been no infill planting.
“What you’re drinking is a bit of liquid history. Every grape has come off an 1860-planted original vine.”
The beautiful 1,214ha estate of Tahbilk, which has been continually producing wine since its first vintage in 1961, has a unique geography, occupying a meandering 11 km stretch of the Goulburn River. It is no surprise that ‘tabilk-tabilk’, in the language of traditional owners the Daung Wurrung people, means ‘place of many waterholes’.
There are close to 195ha under vine, 32.3ha of which are old vines, including the 1860
shiraz. The property, situated on the original overland stock route between Sydney and
Melbourne, is remarkable for so many reasons. It is nestled within a truly Australian vista
with sweeping blue skies and majestic river red gums. Adding international flavour to the landscape are towering London plane trees and an avenue of white mulberries. Historic timber buildings dot the grounds, including the iconic multilevel tower – for which the Tahbilk name is synonymous.
The company, Tabilk Vineyard Proprietary (without the ‘h’), was formed in June 1860 by a syndicate – including John Pinney Bear, his brother Thomas, and Hugh Glass – to grow grapes and produce wine. Frenchman Ludovic Marie joined as manager and winemaker.
In July, they ambitiously advertised in NSW, Victoria and South Australia for ‘a million cuttings’, and by year-end, 26ha had been planted, including the 1860s shiraz block. Land-clearing and planting continued, while a large cellar was constructed using sun-dried bricks and mudstone quarried from the estate. By 1876, a second underground cellar was completed.
Under the direction of manager/winemaker Francois de Coueslant, who suggested renaming the property ‘Chateau Tahbilk’ (‘chateau’ was only dropped from the labels in 2000), a tower at the end of the cellars was completed in 1882 to streamline grape receival. The top level provided a bird’s eye view over the vineyard – and its workers.
It was a sizeable estate producing wine from multiple grape varieties, as well as spirits and liqueurs. However, phylloxera hit the vineyard around the same time Bear – by then the sole owner – died. World War I began and export markets dried up. After this tumultuous period, the Bear family property was sold.
The Purbrick family began their custodianship of the land in 1925. Tahbilk’s transformation was due to Cambridge law graduate Eric Purbrick, son of Reginald Purbrick, a wealthy Australian businessman who moved to Britain and became a conservative MP after purchasing the property.
Tahbilk was in a state of disrepair when Eric took over, and although he had no formal wine training, he was a man with a refined palate, a passion for fine table wine and determination to succeed. If you can survive a 30m fall down a crevasse on the Morteratsch Glacier in Switzerland as Eric did, you can survive anything.
Eric immersed himself in restoring the property, re-planting vines on phylloxera-resistant rootstocks and learning about winemaking. His mentor at the time was François de Castella, Victoria’s chief viticulturist at the Department of Agriculture. In addition to grape-growing, the land was also used for grazing livestock.
Under Eric’s direction, Tahbilk moved away from fortified wine. He used varietal labelling for his table wines, alongside the common terms like ‘claret’.
Tahbilk became a family affair with Eric’s son John taking over the estate’s management in 1955, later, sales distribution in Sydney, before becoming Chairman of the Board.
Grandson Alister, an oenology graduate, began working at Tahbilk in 1978, age 24. At that stage, the shiraz from the 1860 vines was blended with the grapes from other vineyards.
Alister’s work at Mildara taught him about the wide variation that occurs between vineyards. In 1979 Alister convinced his father and grandfather to ferment their different plots separately, which revealed the uniqueness of the 1860 block and marked the beginning of its life as a single vineyard wine.
“With the 1860 Vines Shiraz, you’ll get a surprise”, says Alister.
“Stylistically, it’s a pure, elegant, well-structured wine with intense fruit flavours and a fine acid backbone. It can be cellared with confidence over a long period”.
When Eric Purbrick died in 1991, his ashes were scattered on the 1860 vineyard, returning him to the earth of the land he loved.
The non-grafted, 0.6ha 1860 shiraz vineyard escaped the scourge of phylloxera that ravaged Victoria in the late 1800s, including many at Tahbilk, due to the deep-rooted vines growing in ultra-fine, sandy soil, which made them impervious to the aphid-like pest.
The clone planted in the 1860 vineyard is unknown, though it is distinctly different from other shiraz grown on the property, having large bunches and small berries.
Since 2009, spur pruning has been used, giving more control over bud numbers, allowing pruning to be tailored to the vitality of the individual vines. Harvest is by hand, and the grapes have high natural acidity and a low pH.
Small open fermenters, including those made of Polish oak dating back to the 1860s, are filled with well-chilled must and seeded with yeast; a few days’ maceration occurs before the fermentation gets going. Gentle pump-overs occur twice daily. After ferment, the wine is pressed to oak for around 18-20 months.
Pre-1992, all the wine was matured in old wood. From 1992 to 1996, a combination of new French and American oak was trialled. From 1997 onwards, a mix of old oak and new French hogsheads has been used.
Alan George, Neil Larson and Brendan Freeman are the winemakers; Matt Aitken is vineyard manager; and Richard Flatman is chief viticulturist.
The Purbrick family’s connection with Tahbilk is going strong and now into its fifth generation, with Hayley Purbrick, Eric’s great-granddaughter, running the wine club and leading the estate in achieving carbon neutral accreditation.
The Tahbilk 1860 vines shiraz vineyard is an Australian wine industry jewel, producing high-quality, age-worthy wine, reflective of its site and steeped in tradition.
As one of the pioneering vineyards of Victoria, it is a treasure of enormous significance.
Under the multi-generational guardianship of the Purbrick family, and through the preservation of the genetic material through the establishment of two new vineyards, the legacy of the 1860 shiraz vines, its custodians, and its unique flavour profile will live on for future wine lovers to appreciate and enjoy.
The 1860 shiraz vines produce tiny quantities of a unique wine with remarkable consistency, balance and ageing potential. Graceful, fine-boned, enigmatic and charming with an impeccable pedigree and a strong vineyard signature. Ethereal yet vibrant red fruit, gentle savoury accents, moderate alcohol and silky tannins. Age for at least a decade before drinking, though Alister Purbrick predicts that the best vintages will live for 30-50 years.
2017 – Future Release
Wafting strawberries and a gentle whisper of white pepper. Intense flavours of cranberry and redcurrant with accents of rosehip and raspberry. The acidity is appropriately assertive, and there is a hint of savouriness and fine purposeful tannin. Tightly bound with long ageing potential. Superb. Cellar.
2016 – Current Release, A$360
Black cherry clafoutis and vanilla tea notes plus bright acidity and fine, silky tannin. Ethereal yellow plum and cranberry characters flow through the palate, accented by a hint of black olive. The mid-palate has impressive concentration. A wine of grace that will age beautifully. Cellar.
An utterly delicious, candid wine; the richest, fullest and most fruit-forward of the set. Gently warming plum and red cherry fruit, quiet savoury tones and impressive length. It is drinking beautifully now, though there is more evolution to come. Drink or cellar.
Aromatic dark plum with a hint of mulberry and a touch of signature savouriness. Juicy, youthful, cleansing and bright with medium body and refreshing acidity. Decant if drinking now; further cellaring will reward the patient. A gorgeous wine with an attractive savoury edge. Cellar.
An impeccable wine with harmony, style and grace. A heady aroma with red fruits at the fore. The palate is fresh, sophisticated and long, with cherry/pomegranate flavours, a faint biscuit-crumb base and seemingly eternal youth. Decant and serve in large glasses. Sublime. Drink or cellar.
There was no 1860 Vines Shiraz produced in 2011, 1993, 1983 and 1980.