Monday, June 20, 2011
A bottle or two in Beechworth . . .
Artisan is a word that gets bandied about with regards wineries and wine regions, but if ever there was a wine region in Australia where it is apt, then it would be Beechworth. It’s dominated by family owned wineries and vineyards. Of the 20 or so wineries, only 4 have a cellar door, and to a large degree each one follows it own tune. It represents a quite different experience to that which one might experience in the Yarra, Barossa, or Hunter Valleys. I spent a couple of very enjoyable days in Beechworth last week, and as I’d hoped, it reinforced the positive impression I have of the region’s wines (it also happens to be a beautiful place with some fantastic food).
Beechworth sits at the very beginning of the westerly approach to the high country on the Victorian side of the border. Most vineyards sit between 300-550 metres in elevation and on a granite soil. It’s broadly a cool climate region, though there are quite significant differences depending on elevation and site. The sum of this terroir are some pretty special wines. The majority of vineyards are along a few kilometre stretch to the west of the town itself, and include Giaconda, Castagna, Savaterre, and the Warner Vineyard, representing an amazing concentration of quality wine. Like a number of other wine regions in Australia, it had a history of wine production in the 1800’s, which then gradually died out during the 1900’s. The modern revival of Beechworth, however, started with Smith’s Vineyard in 1978 and then Giaconda in 1980. Sorrenberg planted in 1985 and then the revival gathered pace during the 90s with the establishment of wineries like Savaterre, Golden Ball, Castagna, and Battely.
If this emergence of Beechworth in the past couple of decades has an identity, then it centres on Chardonnay, and within that identity the focus is on Giaconda, who produce a Chardonnay that has generally been considered a benchmark wine in Australia over the past couple of decades. It’s the wine more than any other that brought Beechworth to the attention of wine lovers in Australia. Beyond Giaconda however, there are also fantastic Chardonnays from the likes of Sorrenberg, Smith’s Vineyard, and Savaterre. Importantly, this identity is more than just the grape variety, and is as much a style of Chardonnay as well. It might be an overused term but this style could be said to be Burgundian. Beechworth have eschewed the trend over the past 5 years towards lean and taut Chardonnays in Australia, and all four Chardonnays mentioned above go through 100% malolactic fermentation (or near enough) and generally extended lees contact. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t steeliness and tension to these Beechworth Chardonnays, for there definitely is, but there is also a generosity and creaminess that results in a style of Chardonnay that I personally love. While there, I tasted the 08 Savaterre, 09 Sorrenberg, and ’10 Smith’s Vineyard out of barrel (which is actually being made by Golden Ball as sadly Smith’s have closed their winery). All three were very smart wines, and across 3 quite different vintages, served to highlight the quality of Beechworth Chardonnay.
Now while Beechworth Chardonnay might have a clear identity and style, the same cannot be said for their red wines. The red wines are of undoubted quality, and some are arguably benchmarks in Australia for their style, but there is nevertheless a surprising diversity of varieties within a small area. Within a few kilometres of one another you have the Giaconda Warner Shiraz, Castagna Sangiovese, Savaterre Pinot Noir, and the Golden Ball Cabernet Blend. I’m not sure I can think of anywhere else that is producing excellent examples of four such different varieties within such a small area. Elevation and site location certainly play their part in the decision by winemakers to focus on different varieties. Savaterre’s Pinot is planted at over 500M on a southwest slope, while Golden Ball’s Cabernet is on a warmer site at 350M and facing north west. I got to taste both wines while there and was equally impressed. At the other end of Beechworth there is also the impressive Sorrenberg Gamay, and there’s even an exploration of Nebbiolo occurring at present, with Giaconda recently releasing a 2008 Nebbiolo, and Golden Ball looking at planting Nebbiolo as well. I guess this highlights the artisan nature of the region, in the sense that everyone is doing their own thing.
A part of me would like to see Beechworth focus on one or two varieties/styles of red wine and strive towards producing a recognisable world class style. However, given many of the sites have only been planted for a decade or two, and that there a number of micro-climates, it’s perhaps not surprising that there is this diversity and still plenty of trial and experimentation. Terroir is broadly speaking the one common denominator, with most sites on a granite soil that delivers a five-spice note that comes through on many of these red wines. Beyond this there is not really a discernible style or variety that dominates when it comes to Beechworth reds. It’s a smorgasbord, but a quality one at that.
Further to this theme, you get the sense that the best is yet to come from Beechworth. Vineyards are being refined, new sites of high potential have been planted of late, different varieties are being tried, and most producers have moved to some form of organic/biodynamic management of their vineyard. Moreover, most vineyards still have plenty of maturing to do. There are some fantastic wines being made at present, but it’s easy to conceive of many of these wines going up another notch again with another decade of knowledge and vine maturity.
One final thing that really struck me during my visit is that Beechworth seems to be the last bastion of cork in Australia. If screwcap vs cork was a war, and you viewed a battlefield map of Australia, Beechworth would be the final stronghold of cork, surrounded by a sea of screwcaps. The majority of wines I tried while there came from cork sealed bottles. I’m not sure why Beechworth producers have generally eschewed the more reliable closure, though in Australia there is still a tendancy to place your most premium wine under cork (something that is counterintuitive to my mind), and many Beechworth wineries only really do premium wines, without having your standard entry level offering. If you are someone who still prefers cork then Beechworth has plenty to offer.
Beechworth is well worth the visit. Even if you’re not as into your wines, the Ned Kelly pies and lamingtons from the Beechworth Bakery make it well worthwhile. But if you are then you’re in for another treat altogether. I’ll be reviewing a number of these wines in the next few weeks.