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

I'm standing in the glorious morning light with Chris Catlow, rows deep in father Tony’s half-acre vineyard, steeply planted to shiraz, on the outskirts of Beechworth. Catlow makes wines from this site; he is a Beechworth native and vigneron at Sentio Wines. After a long string of vintages away from home, he was lured back by the special location. We are gazing across the spectacular Beechworth Gorge to the opposing hillside’s rows of vines where an exciting project is taking shape.  

Restaurateur  and Rhône groupie Peter Bartholomew has revived an abandoned 1860s vineyard once run by Frenchman, Ambrose Granjoux. With his partner, Donna Pelka, and their acclaimed viticultural consultant and local vigneron, Fighting Gully Road’s Mark Walpole, Bartholomew has painstakingly replicated much of Granjoux’s original vineyard. In its day, Granjoux’s Black Ciras shiraz was renowned for its quality, which, in summer, would attract considerable consumption in town. After a disastrous 2020, the trio have this year produced the first vintage on this plot for more than a century. Such is the dynamism in Beechworth’s wine evolution today.

Samuel's Gorge.

It’s an evolution that began in the 1850s. Gold had been discovered and the rush was on – miners and other locals needed to slake their thirst. Within a decade Beechworth wines were receiving accolades at the Melbourne Victorian Exhibition of 1861.

By the 1890s, there were about 30 or so growers in the Beechworth district, but in the early part of the 20th century, phylloxera had replaced gold miners as the dominant player in town. The boom was over and the vineyards were in decline. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the decline was arrested, when the Brown Brothers of Milawa bought and expanded a property at Everton Hills, on an incline leading into the Beechworth township.

Early on, the site was only kept in reserve and eventually sold off in 1978 due to its low yields. However, a young assistant winemaker at Brown Brothers had other thoughts, noting that Everton Hills produced the best fruit. That was Rick Kinzbrunner, and he established the Giaconda vineyard at Everton Upper.  

Around the same time the Smith family established the Smiths Vineyard, and Barry and Jan Morey set up Sorrenberg. More were to come and today, Beechworth offers the ultimate in private tastings – but make sure to book well in advance to experience some of the best in the business.

Sangiovese has found a new home at Fighting Gully Road winery.

Rick Kinzbrunner, Giaconda

First Vintage: 1985

Rick Kinzbrunner is widely regarded as one of the best white wine makers in the world. He has also blasted out one of the world’s finest personal cave à vin.

It is here, 20 metres below his fermentation room in a cool, dimly lit rock-hewn space, that Kinzbrunner pours his latest offerings – if he has any left to offer. Every year, his current vintages for en primeur release are quickly sold out. Together with son Nathan as assistant winemaker and business manager, Kinzbrunner keeps Giaconda at the top of its game. The latest releases are testament to that, with the nebbiolo leading the charge: it is one of the duo’s current favourites, Kinzbrunner feeling it “approaches Barolo”.

But his true passion is his whites – the 2018 chardonnay is among his all-time favourite chardonnays. His plan is to “make only the whites I enjoy and that do best here”. His current pet white project is his roussanne, fermented and aged on skins for nine months in Spanish terracotta amphorae. The 2021 vintage will be his first estate amphora roussanne. His next nebbiolo harvest will continue his natural wine experiment, also being vinified in amphorae. Kinzbrunner says that in his experimental ‘natural’ wines, “the accent is on doing little other than being vigilant”.

2019 Giaconda Nebbiolo: Light floral rose and red fruit aromas belie a deeper cherry and cranberry flavour with a touch of leather and earthy minerality, balanced with dusty, red clay tannins. A wine for ageing and a wine for the ages.

2019 Giaconda Amphora Roussanne: An engaging natural wine with a strong green/gold hue. Complex and funky with a textural mouthfeel and a palate of citrus, honey and white flowers. A punchy mineral finish caps off a wine of finesse. giaconda.com.au

Giaconda’s Rick Kinzbrunner was quick to spot the region’s potential.

Barry and Jan Morey, Sorrenberg

First Vintage: 1989

Coming from a viticultural background, the Moreys arrived in Beechworth with a goal to first and foremost make wines they liked to drink, “in case no one bought them”. Thankfully varieties they liked included chardonnay and gamay – and the wine public bought them. Assisted by the next generation, the recent releases of both the varieties are among the best from their vineyard.

In the cosy underground cellar coming off the side garden, Jan shows a limited range of latest releases: 2018 Chardonnay (sold out), 2018 Cabernet blend and the 2020 gamay-predominant Rosé. Alas no ‘cru gamay’ today, given the demand and limited production. The Moreys continue to be one of the quiet achievers of this region.

2018 Sorrenberg Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc Merlot: Cabernet-dominant blend consisting of mostly cabernet sauvignon, around 40% cabernet franc and merlot, with a touch of malbec, petit verdot and carménère. The nose displays dark cherries with a hint of cranberry. This fruit profile combines with spicy oak and firm, yet restrained tannins. Decade-long-plus cellaring potential. sorrenberg.com

Barry Morey, from Sorrenberg.

Julian Castagna, Castagna

First Vintage: 1999

Starting with a passion for Côte-Rôtie and a dream to make it in a “Burgundian style, with finesse”, Julian Castagna left a busy city life to plant syrah. The clones came from the original 1850s rootstock imported from the Rhône. He has been making classic, Old World wine with New World fruit ever since, morphing increasingly to Italian varieties. Castagna sensed his dry, sun-soaked terroir had “a feeling of Tuscany” and “the granite here just loves sangiovese”. And now nebbiolo is starting to prosper as well. “It was a little fickle, but not any more,” he says.

Tastings are held in his spacious kitchen-dining area, where Castagna is an attentive and keen host. Joined by wife Carolann and son Adam, the tasting becomes a family affair with flair. If you time your visit right, you might also enjoy his culinary talent. He is also often inclined to take you through a diverse mosaic of varietal wines (savagnin to roussanne, chenin to chardonnay, nebbiolo to sangiovese to shiraz) and blends (sangiovese/shiraz, nebbiolo/shiraz) and even a blended vintage (the 2017/18 Barbarossa Nebbiolo is “very gluggable”).

Don’t be surprised if he pulls out a few back vintages, to reveal how gracefully his wines age. Pace yourself though and perhaps end your day here. You have been warned.

2016 Castagna Genesis Syrah (A$85): A medium-bodied granite-grown syrah displaying classic, sweet/savoury character. Violets, a touch of red and black berry on the nose, the palate is fresh and lively: there are earthy notes, bright redcurrants and crunchy red cherry. Silky-smooth tannins extend the sensation. This wine is finesse personified.

2016 Castagna La Chiave Sangiovese (A$85): Substantial whole bunch on lignified stalks imbues a freshness and vigour in this wine. The aromas are full of crunchy fresh red cherries coupled with complex earthy spice. The sweet, ripened red fruit palate is balanced with a nicely restrained oak undertone and soft cedar tannins. castagna.com.au

Julian Castagna.

Keppell Smith, Savaterre

First Vintage: 2000

Keppell Smith is part-vigneron, part-vintner and part-raconteur. His true love is making refined and age-worthy wines that “can sit proudly on any table in the world”. After an extensive search of Australia’s quality regions, he settled on Beechworth, and purchased this top sheep paddock with its amazing views and pretty fine soils. Sitting at a long wooden table, perhaps shared with other tasters, you will enjoy Smith’s tales as you gaze at the picture-perfect peaks and valleys over his shoulder.

At his tasting table, you may be lucky to sample some of his produce (cue pork and fennel sausages) and his family’s tasty Japanese cuisine. All are matched well with his complex, precision wines: estate chardonnay, pinot noir and shiraz.

See if Smith has his more-ish Maurizio Sagrantino for tasting, too. Also look out for his slated, new state-of-the-art cellar door with an “immersive winery experience”. You’ll need to make prior arrangement to visit.

2018 Savaterre Chardonnay: Powerful aromas of citrus flowers and stone fruit, with a hint of flint, result in aromatic complexity without sacrificing freshness and minerality. The palate has a striking intensity of citrus, stone fruit, a touch of spice, and subtle, integrated oak. All these complex flavours are underpinned by bright acidity. Amazing length. Needs time.

2018 Savaterre Shiraz: An aromatic, floral wine with underlying earthy, forest berry bouquet. The palate exudes sweet spice, cherry, violets and black berry fruits, with striking fresh minerality. Fine grain tannins usher in textural pleasure. So elegant. Smith reckons this atypical Aussie shiraz will be the first wine he takes to showcase on his next European trip. savaterre.com

Tastings at Savaterre take advantage of a striking backdrop.

Mark Walpole, Fighting Gully Road

First Vintage: 2000

Mark Walpole’s numberplate says ‘SANGIO’ for a reason. He fell for the prime acidity, aromatics and fine tannins of sangiovese while in Tuscany in the 1990s. As an expert viticulturist, he saw the climatic and geographical similarities with Beechworth.

Arriving at the tasting in a former asylum on the Mayford Hills just out of town, Walpole opens with, “You need a degree of insanity to be a winemaker here”. The wines, however, are more than balanced, including the elegant chardonnay from the Smiths’ Vineyard he leases from the original owners and the perfumed ‘white label’ sangiovese. The latter includes 5% colorino, a deep red Italian variety that accentuates colour.

Watch out for his future projects – later-ripening, savoury grenache (grafted over from pinot) and full-bodied, textural verdicchio. His white grape petite arvine and the rare red cornalin cuttings from Valle d’Aosta in north-west Italy are next in line for planting, awaiting release from extended quarantine.

When you visit, make sure you ask if he has a vineyard tour going. His property is on the very edge of the Beechworth wine region. The escarpment at the top of his vineyard spectacularly takes in the eagles’ vantage point across the Murmungee Basin valley way, way below. To crown the experience, soon you will be able to stroll to an on-site tasting at his new underground cellar, carved into the local mudstone rock.

2018 Fighting Gully Road Smiths’ Vineyard Chardonnay (A$85): From lower rows of chardonnay, barrel-aged for 18 months, the nose is floral white flowers and citrus, giving way to a delicate stone fruit mouthfeel on the palate, lengthened by a lightly oaked crisp finish.

2017 Fighting Gully Road La Longa Sangiovese (A$65): Only Brunello clones, extended maceration, then aged in 50% new barriques, the nose is bright berries. On the palate, expect an array of sour cherry and red berries, balanced by a mineral freshness. fightinggullyroadwines.com.au

Mark Walpole of Fighting Gully Road.

James McLaurin, Golden Ball

First Vintage: 2002

James McLaurin has a quirky site for his vineyard – it has one of the lowest rainfalls in the region and that suits him to a tee, because he’s not much of an irrigator. McLaurin is proud to point out that his wines are entirely grown, vinified and bottled on the Golden Ball property, with around 2ha under vine.

The vines are showing good maturity after 25 years and McLaurin has been taking a few more chances in the winemaking. His relaxed tastings, typically from barrel, are held in the cosy winemaking area, where he showcases his award-winning Là-bas Chardonnay, Saxon Shiraz and Gallice Cabernet Blend.

Looking ahead, he plans on building a bigger winery tucked into the hill, which will no doubt provide a fitting setting for his future releases.

2019 Golden Ball Là-Bas Chardonnay: This is a fresh, fruit-driven chardonnay full of flavour and elegance. Tropical fruits on the nose, the palate is all stone fruit with split apple crunch. Very refined – and appealing. One of McLaurin’s favourites, he’s keen to take this on his next France adventure.

2015 Golden Ball Saxon Shiraz: Medium-bodied, spicy finesse. Peppery red fruits with a fine tannin mouthfeel that integrates seamlessly with its oaked inlay. You keep getting more than less with this wine. goldenball.com.au

Adam and Julian Castagna take you through tastings at Castagna.

Marc Scalzo and Lisa Hernan, Piano Piano

First Vintage: 2010

Marc Scalzo started his wine journey across the kitchen table with his father Mario, who was passionate about Italian wines. While the Beechworth property is planted to chardonnay and shiraz, Scalzo still makes the Iberian-inspired, tempranillo-touriga nacional Mario’s Blend. But chardonnay is his and wife Lisa’s true love.

They bought their own property in 2003 after a seven-year search for the ideal chardonnay block and have slowly established their reputation. Tasting is in a newly converted garage and adjoining deck, which takes advantage of a beautiful aspect to Mt Buffalo and surrounding ranges. We step through a diverse range, culminating in the estate’s chardonnay and shiraz. Scalzo has made some subtle changes over the years: picking the shiraz later to allow the spice to soften and the richness to come through.

2018 Piano Piano Sophie’s Block Chardonnay (A$42): With an endearing citrus nose, the palate is fresh and full of grapefruit with hints of dried herbs and cashew. Finishes long with integrated oak.

2017 Piano Piano Henry’s Block Shiraz (A$42): Pepper and spicy berry aromas, this wine shows elegant red berry flavours. The structure is enriched by fine chalky tannins and a balanced oak finish. pianopiano.com.au

Marc Scalzo and Lisa Hernan of Piano Piano.

Adrian Rodda, A. Rodda Wines

First Vintage: 2011

Adrian Rodda has been in Beechworth since 2010, principally to further his chardonnay project, which also takes in Yarra and King Valley vineyards. Tasting with Rodda sometimes includes Mark Walpole and his wines. This duo collaborate closely, sharing a tasting space, winery facilities and even vineyards – Walpole takes the lower 10 rows of the Smiths’ vineyard chardonnay, Rodda the top 10 rows. Rodda also makes a Bordeaux blend (also sourced from the Smiths’ vineyard) and a tempranillo from Walpole’s Fighting Gully Road vineyard.

2018 A. Rodda Triangle Block Chardonnay (A$85): From a selected wedge within the upper 10 rows of the Smiths’ vineyard, the result is full of white flower aromas and a crisp, stone fruit flavour, balanced by a mineral precision.

2018 A. Rodda Aquila Audax Vineyard Tempranillo (A$38): Spicy fragrant bouquet tempered by savoury red berry fruit and powdery fine tannins. aroddawines.com.au

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

Peter Graham, Domenica

First Vintage: 2012

After 13 years as assistant winemaker at Giaconda, Peter Graham started his own shop with a bang – the highly rated 2012 chardonnay. His range has expanded to include a roussanne-marsanne blend, shiraz and nebbiolo. The nebbiolo is fast becoming his favourite and he’s not alone in that. The grape is increasingly becoming the red variety of choice for many in the region. Tasting takes place in the barrel room, with a picturesque outlook across the gently sloping vines. Graham runs through an impressive line up of his latest releases, full of richness and texture. He’s keen to throw in a back vintage – a refined 2014 shiraz today – to accentuate the elegant march his wines can beat to.

2018 Domenica Chardonnay (A$47.50): From handpicked lightly crushed and basket-pressed grapes, rich fruit-driven palate with a nutty, balanced finish.

2017 Domenica Nebbiolo: From a mere 0.4ha with tiny yields of 3-4 bunches per vine, this has a deep core of ripe, savoury fruit with fine tannins. Exquisite. domenicawines.com.au

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

Simon Grant, Traviarti

First Vintage: 2012

Simon Grant loves his nebbiolo. Simple as that. His Red Hill vineyard above the Beechworth township is 100% nebbiolo, with about 1,000 vines planted to multiple clones and different rootstocks. He has expanded with another Beechworth vineyard, out of town and planted it with nebbiolo, barbera – for his charming Rosso blend – and some chardonnay. Grant sees himself relaxing more as each vintage passes, increasingly trusting his instincts. The results speak volumes. Among the barrels and looking out up the red mudstone hill to his signature nebbiolo vines, the wines on show are generous and polished.

2019 Traviarti Nebbiolo (A$65): This is a rather refined, classic nebbiolo style: rose petal hints along with fennel, almond and cherry. The wine is seamlessly integrated with lovely fruit, dense tannins and bright acidity.

2019 Traviarti Rosso: A blend of nebbiolo (66%) and barbera (34%), this is more an approachable, early drinking style. Fresh plush black fruits are complemented by fine, savoury tannins. traviarti.com

Fighting Gully Road.

Chris Catlow, Sentio Wines

First Vintage: 2013

Born in Beechworth, Chris Catlow started working the vineyards is his teens, alongside Barry Morey at Sorrenberg. After a swag of vintages at Kooyong, Paringa and Portsea, and then in Burgundy with Benjamin Leroux, he returned home to pursue his chardonnay passion. His Burgundy-inspired wines are sleek, textural and expressive, and his star continues to rise.

Born in Beechworth, Chris Catlow started working the vineyards is his teens, alongside Barry Morey at Sorrenberg. After a swag of vintages at Kooyong, Paringa and Portsea, and then in Burgundy with Benjamin Leroux, he returned home to pursue his chardonnay passion. His Burgundy-inspired wines are sleek, textural and expressive, and his star continues to rise.

Catlow arrives at the tasting with his trusty dog, in pants flecked with paint – he has a side-passion for art and design. His labels are evocative and appealing: the Blanc features a metallic, vividly coloured copy of his thumb print. As we head down to the cavernous tasting room that was formerly a hospital cellar, a plethora of art, design and textures collide. It’s a busy but welcoming expanse. My photographer daughter, Lucy nods to Catlow: a piece of art lying on a barrel has caught her attention. It’s beautiful artwork that his father, Tony, created while at university and Catlow says he plans to use it on one of his next labels.

He always seems to be busy with projects, always on the move, helping out, effortlessly multitasking. The wines – a string of chardonnays and his quirky Blanc blend - he pours for us, however, smack of patience.

2018 Sentio Beechworth Chardonnay: Racy and vibrant this one. No malo, low new oak, there is loads of fresh stone fruit and grapefruit with a nervy, classy tension on the acid and a light Chassin oak finish. Sheer joy.

2018 Sentio Beechworth Blanc: A beguiling blend of chardonnay, grüner veltliner, savagnin and arneis, full of racy fruit and texture that speaks of its lieu-dit. A true dinner party-pleaser. chris@sentiowines.com.au [website under construction]

Chris Catlow from Sentio Wines.

Tessa Brown and Jeremy Schmölzer, Vignerons Schmölzer & Brown

First Vintage: 2014

Tessa Brown and Jeremy Schmölzer are a formidable team, seamlessly complementing the other in all things winemaking. By the sun-soaked spring-fed dam on their farm near the Stanley township, Schmölzer starts the tasting with what he does best, the King Valley Obstgarten Riesling, a nod to his Austrian heritage.

Brown joins the tasting flight wearing a ‘Rage Against The Netting Machine’ T-shirt and with toddlers in tow. We step through her delightful Thorley Chardonnay from grapes up the hill behind us – among the highest in altitude in the Beechworth GI – and her Brunnen Pinot from a tiny parcel of the neighbour’s vines up the road. (Make sure you turn left up the track when you see the huge solar panel, otherwise you’ll end up unannounced in their neighbour’s yard). The couple’s wines have received early acclaim, and support from high-end restaurants and boutique wine stores. This team has come a fair way in a short time.

2018 Vignerons Schmölzer & Brown Thorley Chardonnay (A$40): Scented with stone fruits and almond notes, the palate is citrus squeezed over freshly cut green apple with a sleek, flinty finish.

2018 Vignerons Schmölzer & Brown Brunnen Pinot Noir (A$45): A lighter yet seductively refreshing red berry character. There is a savoury line that engages you through to a spine of chewy tannins. vsandb.com.au

Beechworth’s winemakers are worth pursuing, with tastings by arrangement offering an intimate glimpse into the artistry and dedication that goes into the wines they produce. Visit their websites for details. You won’t be disappointed.

Note: All wines were tasted in January 2021. Tasting notes may incorporate or reference notes provided by the winemaker. Wines with no price guide are not for sale via the cellar door, but other vintages may be.

Vines at Vignerons Schmölzer & Brown are some of the highest in Beechworth.