Milawa, a small town on the traditional lands of the Bpangerang people, is an unlikely place for a significant chapter of Australian wine history. Situated on a flat plain in north-east Victoria, the area has a history of droughts, floods, devastating spring frosts, bushfire smoke taint, and locust plagues. But Milawa is also home to Brown Brothers, one of Australia’s oldest family owned wineries with history stretching back 130 years. Theirs is a story of survival, connection and innovation.
John Francis Brown made his first wine in 1889, as Australia was entering an economic depression, after convincing his father to plant some riesling, shiraz and muscat in 1886. Two years later his wines caught the attention of Victorian Government viticulturist François de Castella. In contrast to the thriving fortified wine region of Rutherglen, just 50km north, Milawa had reliable rainfall. Following advice from de Castella, John Francis extended his plantings with grapes suited to the production of table wines. It was a bold move with Australian palates favouring fortified wines at the time (after beer, whisky, brandy and rum). This willingness to innovate and experiment would become one of the defining features of Brown Brothers.
Phylloxera had begun its insidious journey through Victoria in 1875 and in 1915, it arrived in Milawa. De Castella had recognised that many of the varieties originally brought to Australia were not suited to the harsh conditions and had begun seeking alternatives.
Trips to Europe collecting phylloxera-resistant rootstock doubled as research for grape varieties suited to warmer climates. A number were adopted by John Francis, and as the vineyards were replanted, they were joined by mondeuse, graciano and cabernet sauvignon. It was a good move; significant Italian migration driven by tobacco farming over the next decade established a dedicated audience for table wine.
John Charles Brown joined his father, John Francis, in the business as the world wrestled with the Great Depression. His first few years were punctuated by drought, a grasshopper plague that destroyed the 1938 vintage, and labour shortages due to World War II. Rising distribution costs prompted the establishment of a cellar door. It proved so popular, they started purchasing grapes and were able to expand their vineyard holdings.
Forty years is a long time to keep vines in the ground in such a challenging climate, both economically and environmentally. As the third generation joined the business in the 1950s, the 1920s plantings were starting to have problems, including soil that had become too compacted to take up rainfall. John Graham Brown, who took over the winemaking in 1958, tells of efforts to save the old vines by deep-ripping the block “This resulted in a massive increase in yield with a commensurate drop off in wine quality. It took a couple of years to regain a balanced control through pruning. Eventually trunk disease caused the final decline in that vineyard.”
Sometimes the best ideas arise from failure. For John Graham, this came in the form of a stuck ferment in his first year making wine. It was a riesling. He left it in cask to see if the fermentation would kick off but to no avail. They bottled it anyway and sent it to Melbourne. People loved the sweet, low alcohol style and so began a range that continues to this day with varieties like Orange Muscat and Crouchen.
John Graham had never seen botrytis before, but he had read about it. Upon finishing school, he enrolled in the renowned wine course at Roseworthy Agricultural College, but low enrolments resulted in the course being cancelled. Instead he developed his own education. One of his special interests were the sweet wines from Bordeaux and Germany. In 1962, vintage was looking good until the rain came – four inches (10cm) of it. The sodden ground halted harvest for 10 days.
“When picking resumed, I was surprised at the extent of the mould spoilage, especially when the grapes were tipped into the crusher hopper and a cloud of mould spores erupted,” John Graham remembers. “Apprehensively, the grapes were crushed directly into a new Bucher Guyer press and to my surprise, the free-flowing juice was viscous and green-gold in colour, and with no suggestion of mould taste! It was now about 16 Baumé.”
He called his dad who had seen this happen once before in 1934. A ‘Sauternes style’ wine had been made, which was appreciated by a few local wine-lovers but never released commercially. The 1962 was a different story. Labelled as Late-Picked Riesling, it was served to 450 people at a banquet celebrating the opening of the Melbourne Art’s Centre in 1968. People wanted more, but the vineyard refused to cooperate. It wasn’t until 1970 that botrytis appeared again.
In the early 1960s, botrytis was largely unrecognised in Australian winemaking. In 1963, John Graham attended an industry conference in the Barossa Valley where his experience with botrytis was a hot topic. “I was most indignant when the South Australian Government viticulturist, a German whose name I can’t recall, addressed the conference and made the specific claim that botrytis, does not exist in Australia.”
But it did, and John Graham had made Australia’s first commercially released botrytis riesling. His father had always allowed freedom and encouraged him to question the status quo; combined with his hunger for experimentation, John Graham had proven that a willingness to embrace risk could lead to great success.
By 1979, the Australian thirst for dry riesling was in full swing. To meet demand, a new block was selected. There was hope that botrytis might develop in a small section and fungicide use was reduced accordingly. Not only did botrytis develop, and with some regularity, it became a ready source of spores to infect nearby vineyards. An attempt to establish a new source of botrytis riesling 6km south was attempted, but without luck. The 1979 planting had become the Noble Riesling Vineyard, establishing itself as an irreplaceable resource.
The Ovens River begins in the Victorian Alps, 90km south-east of Milawa, winding its way through alpine country before resolving in the Murray-Darling basin. The fog that rolls down the valley and spreads out over the plain at Milawa is the secret to the development of noble rot. Cool foggy mornings allow the botrytis to thrive while warm sunny afternoons keep its growth in check. Noble rot is fickle and requires just the right conditions. It is an act of faith to leave the grapes on the vines, hoping that botrytis will visit. The 42-year-old vines continue to strive for survival; 3.44 hectares of the original 5.39 hectares remain and allow for a Noble Riesling to be made about four times a decade.
Today the landscape is again covered with vines as part of the King Valley wine region. When tobacco tariffs were removed in the 1970s and the government began to restrict yields, Brown Brothers was there to help farmers recover their livelihood by planting vineyards. Originally many were growers for Brown Brothers, but today a united community of family owned wineries draw tourists to the region.
John Graham’s curious mind led him to become involved with the Australian Wine Research Institute in the 1970s. By the 1980s, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) had developed a range of new Australian grape varieties. Brown Brothers’ reputation meant the winery was offered small tonnages of the new varieties, and later, bud wood for planting. In 1989, a Kindergarten Winery was built to allow for experimental 4-5 tonne ferments.
Katherine Brown is the fourth generation of the winemaking lineage and a passionate part of the team under senior winemaker Cate Looney. They now work with more than 40 varieties, including traditional varieties for commercial release and research with the CSIRO. In the true spirit of innovation, the team accepts that the occasional failure is an integral part of growth. It is this spirit that attracts and retains winemaking talent. Looney has been with Brown Brothers for 15 years and was recently named winemaker of the year at the Australian Women in Wine Awards.
“We are asked to challenge, look and seek out alternate varieties and styles; some work and others don’t and when they don’t, we move on and try something else,” she says.
The style of the Noble Riesling has evolved. John Graham’s first attempt was barrel-fermented in a 500 gallon cask. It was hard to get the ferment started and it ticked along slowly for three months. Now the winemakers use just a small amount of oak to add complexity, allowing the way the botrytis interacts with the bright citrus characters of the riesling to shine through.
“When speaking to John Graham about how they used to make the Noble Riesling, modern winemaking techniques and the luxury of having great cooling in the winery has allowed us to manage the final sugar and alcohol much easier than in the past,” explains Looney. The wine is bottled under screwcap to retain freshness and released after a few years of ageing in cellar. It is luscious and silky, with flavours of nut brittle and honey interlaced with freshly baked apricot pie and a zesty lemon acidity – a regular award-winner at Australian wine shows.
Brown Brothers weaves innovation with a deep respect for its history. The Patricia range, to which the Noble Riesling belongs, is named for John Graham’s mother, celebrating her dedication to the family business. One of John Charles’ favourite wines was a co-fermented shiraz, mondeuse, cabernet sauvignon that he first made in 1954. It’s still made in the same way, using the original Mondeuse clone, saved from extinction by cuttings made when the first vineyard declined.
Old vines are cherished for their deep roots, concentration of goodness, the stories they absorb and their resilience. So, too, are the Brown family. With their gentle nurturing of history and determined eye on the future, their story is just beginning.