When Melbourne began its first lockdown in March 2020, wineries in regional Victoria quickly lost their usual influx of suburban visitors, and city dwellers lost the opportunity to venture out and support them. Resorting to social media for a vineyard fix, I realised I was following many small Victorian wineries whose wines I’d never tried. So, to make the best use of my time, I endeavoured to address the matter by conducting a ‘Small Vic Winery Exploration’. Here are some of the gems I uncovered along the way.
A native of New York state, John Ellis developed a passion for wine during his time as a commercial pilot, making many trips to Burgundy in order to learn more about French winemaking methods. He eventually settled in South Gippsland, planting pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot grigio and nebbiolo on a 23ha site; the name Bellvale is a nod to his family’s long agricultural history in the New York area.
The 2019 Bellvale Quercus Vineyard Pinot Noir (A$45), like many expressions of the grape, takes a while to open up, starting off quite closed and savoury (black tea, black pepper, herbs) before notes of sour cherry, raspberry and rose appear and predominate, underpinned by a palate with heaps of acid. This is one of those wines that actually looks better on the second night. bellvalewine.com.au
Bended Knee, Ballarat
It was a “naive and romantic decision” that led Peter and Pauline Roche into viticulture. Their aim was to grow grapes, but a winemaking course, French barrels, and 400kg of pinot noir later, a new direction was set. Trial and error, and getting to know their vineyard has helped them create wines “representative of the site and vintage”.
The 2017 Bended Knee Chardonnay (A$38) is a full-bodied wine, with plenty of particulate matter and is bloody enjoyable. It’s got tonnes of acid, with aromas and flavours of lemon, butter, straw, cucumber, sawdust and honey, plus a pronounced minerality. If you only like wine free of bits, then you’re missing out. bendedknee.com.au
Blood Moon, Sunbury
While playing in London with his band The Paradise Motel in the late 1990s, Matt Aulich “fell into wine”, thereafter completing a Masters in Viticulture and Winemaking, and starting Blood Moon with two friends in 2014. Since 2018, he’s been flying solo, growing grapes in Diamond Valley and Sunbury, and sourcing fruit from other growers around Victoria to create some pretty out-there wines.
The 2018 Blood Moon Alive! Metcalfe Syrah Nouveau (A$27) is aptly named: there’s a gentle spritz upon opening the bottle and the wine bursts with fruit aromas. Made from Heathcote grapes and using carbonic maceration, the nose and palate are almost overwhelming: raspberry, blackberry, black cherry, blueberry, black olive, pepper, cinnamon, banana. It’s complex, full flavoured and delicious. bloodmoonwines.com
Bowerbird, Macedon Ranges
In high school, Kirilly Gordon discovered two things: she loved science and she loved growing things; she also realised she “could never have a desk job”, After completing a degree in agricultural science, she found out that the late Bill Dhillon, winemaker at Bindi Wines in the Macedon Ranges, lived only 10 minutes away. He became her mentor and gave her the confidence to pursue her dreams of making wine.
The 2017 Bowerbird Viognier (A$30), with fruit sourced from Heathcote, now straddles that lovely divide between fruity and aged characters after a few years in bottle. The nose and palate are a delight, full of apricot, lemon, lime, orange blossom, white peach and wax, alongside honey and almond, with vibrant acidity and a great mouthfeel. While perfect in summer, this is a wine for all seasons. bowerbirdwines.com.au
Clarnette & Ludvigsen, Grampians
Kym Ludvigsen was a stalwart of the Australian wine industry, an inspirational viticulturist known and loved by many. Winemaker Leigh Clarnette cut his teeth in the Yarra Valley in the 1980s, afterwards working for TarraWarra, Seppelt, Padthaway Estate and Taltarni. After crossing paths throughout their careers, the gents started their eponymous label, producing their first vintage in 2007. After Ludvigsen’s untimely death in 2013, Clarnette has continued his legacy, and recently established a winery in Ararat.
The 2019 Clarnette & Ludvigsen Tempranillo (A$27) really shows what wineries outside Spain can do with the variety. Think of this kind of like a Joven Rioja: very fruity (raspberry, strawberry, cranberry), spicy, not much oak or tannin, lively acidity, and probably best consumed when young. It takes some time to open up, but it’s worth the wait. clarnette-ludvigsen.com.au
Double Oaks, Macedon Ranges
When your partner buys you a grape press as a gift, it’s possibly a sign that winemaking is in your future. Soon enough, Kristy and Travis Chehab realised that “a winery might not be impossible for us”, so they purchased a vineyard in Lancefield, planted in 1980; their respective backgrounds in science and hospitality management have since been put to very good use. They also farm truffles, offer BBQ lunches, and will soon have saperavi and grüner veltliner available to drink.
The 2019 Double Oaks Chardonnay (A$26) definitely punches above its weight (and price tag). An intense nose of peach, nectarine, straw, citrus, melon and chalk unravels and leads you to more peach, citrus and melon on the palate. There’s a silky mouthfeel, bright fruit, and oily texture, with minerality and acid to keep your interest over a glass or three. doubleoaks.com.au
Jackson Brooke, Henty
Three factors led Jackson Brooke to the grape: living with his wine-collecting uncle while attending university in Melbourne; his parents being partners in a winery in the Henty region; and, finally, completing a science degree. Everything then clicked, and after finishing postgraduate wine studies in New Zealand, Brooke began his “global wine apprenticeship, as so many winemakers do”.
The 2019 Jackson Brooke GD Syrah (A$48) is named in honour of Glenys Dixon of Henty Estate fame, from where the ultra-ripe fruit is sourced, and it was my favourite of all the wines tasted. A deep-purple, glass-staining colour, and opulent aromas and flavours of red, blue and black fruits, violets and cedar combine with loads of acidity, a pronounced flavour intensity and a beautiful mouthfeel. This wine is an utter joy to drink. jacksonbrookewine.com.au
Kings of Kangaroo Ground, Yarra Valley
An involvement in the Eltham & District Winemakers’ Guild led Ken King to a rundown, south-facing vineyard in Kangaroo Ground, planted in 1989 to chardonnay and pinot noir, with his first vintage arriving in 1994. The late 2000s saw Chris Ramsay come on board, and they now source fruit from Coliban Glen Vineyard in Heathcote to bolster their offerings.
The 2016 Kings Avondale Shiraz (A$30), made with Heathcote grapes, presents an array of red, black and blue fruits, plus violets, aniseed and vanilla, along with some meat and leather from bottle age. While the alcohol is 14.8%, it’s well integrated, and the wine is concentrated and full flavoured without being over-extracted. Over two nights of drinking, it was even better on the second. kkg.com.au
Lokum, Goulburn Valley
Boğazkere is a red grape endemic to Turkey, which can produce robust and complex wines reminiscent of shiraz. Lokum Wine in Dookie is a collaboration between grower Richard Tallis, viticulturist John Runting and winemaker Robert Paul, producing the only boğazkere in Australia. Paul has been making wines in Turkey since 2005, so bringing boğazkere to Australia seemed inevitable.
The 2018 Lokum Boğazkere (A$36) was my introduction to this grape, and I was not disappointed. Announcing itself with a medium purple colour, you’re then greeted with intense aromas of raspberry, black cherry, cola, violets, liquorice, toast and coconut, which are further echoed on the palate. Having now tried Turkish examples of the grape, I can confirm that the Lokum is up there with the best of them. lokumwine.com
Mattara, Mornington Peninsula
Matt and Tara Campbell both studied postgraduate degrees in Wine Science and Marketing through the University of Melbourne, before working at Mornington Peninsula wineries such as Kooyong and Dromana Estate. Mattara was established in 2008, though Matt still makes wine at Crittenden Estate, while also completing vintages in Burgundy and Corbières. Mattara is truly a family operation, as their kids paint the artwork for the labels, while sister-in-law Madeline looks after all other graphic design aspects.
The 2019 Mattara Shiraz (A$30) comes from Grampians fruit, reflecting a warm and dry year for a cool-climate region. The wine has lots of bright red fruit, confectionery, violets, aniseed and pepper, with abundant acidity, and it drinks well immediately after pouring. The influences of oak and whole bunches are minimal, as the fruit really dominates. An absolutely lovely wine. mattarawines.net
Over the Way, Macedon Ranges
While working as a waiter in the early 2000s, Patrick Eckel developed a keen interest in wine, which led him to start an online wine retail business at age 21. The first Over the Way vintage in 2010 was a “low-scale affair”, vinifying 100kg of pinot noir from Bill Ashby at Longview Creek in Sunbury, from whom Eckel learnt a great deal. Since then, he has purchased a site in the Macedon Ranges for growing pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling.
The 2018 Over the Way Rice’s Vineyard Shiraz (A$38) is a beautiful wine, with very rich red, black and blue fruits predominating, and some tertiary characters (meatiness) now starting to show. Complex aromas and flavours, and a great balance of body, acid, tannin and alcohol, make this wine incredibly moreish. overtheway.com.au
Pacha Mama, Yarra Valley
Despite having qualifications in psychology/criminology and commercial cookery, Callie Jemmeson knew none of these were the path for her. Meanwhile, Nina Stocker was working a vintage in Portugal when Jemmeson’s dad, David, offered her a winemaking job in New Zealand. When Jemmeson considered getting into the wine biz, David introduced her to Stocker, who hooked her up with her first winemaking job. Long story short, Jemmeson and Stocker now make wines under the labels Pacha Mama, Cloak & Dagger, and La Vie en Rose, set up by David as a retirement project.
The 2019 Pacha Mama Shiraz (A$30) once again confirms the dependable quality of Heathcote fruit. This wine is bright, complex and a joy to drink, with a pronounced herbal/mint character and depth of flavour offering black, red and blue fruits, which conceal its alcohol (14%) really well. wineunplugged.com.au
Seraphim, Goulburn Valley
Sam Scarpari kept telling himself he wouldn’t be a winemaker. It wasn’t until a local vigneron sought an opinion about his own wine – which was spot on – that Scarpari realised he could change direction and careers. Following internships in the US, working at his family’s winery, and at the University of Melbourne campus at Dookie, Scarpari started Seraphim in 2004 as a hobby, before his first commercial vintage in 2007, sourcing grapes from all over Victoria.
The 2018 Seraphim Chinaman’s Bend Shiraz (A$30) is a deep and powerful wine with super-ripe Heathcote fruit – and 15.5% alcohol. It presents well straight from bottle and is incredibly complex: blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, violets, pepper, mint, anise, cinnamon, meat, dried red fruit. It’s also quite herbal, which dominates initially but then dies down. While the 2018 is all gone, the 2019 is on its way. seraphimwines.com.au
Wheeler, Yarra Valley
After having studied a Bachelor of Business in Brisbane and then leaving a job at an ad agency, Dale Wheeler decided to explore his passion for wine. Following a backpacking trip around the world, he relocated to Melbourne in 2012 to study winemaking and viticulture. Wheeler started his first label, Strenua, at age 25 with a friend, and worked vintages at Jamsheed and Seville Estate. In 2018, Wheeler Vino was launched, sourcing quality fruit from diverse areas of Victoria.
The 2019 Wheeler Willowlake Chardonnay (A$40) requires you to have patience, to let the aromas and flavours slowly develop over a few hours. You’ll be rewarded with green apple, lemon, blossom, cream, and, finally, nectarine. It’s hazy, unfined and unfiltered, but the silky mouthfeel and bright palate will definitely distract you. wheelervino.com