Exploring Victorian Wine

On the Grapevine, April/May 2013

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the wonderfully varied Victorian wine landscape. Today's article is an overview of that history and diversity with future articles specifically focussing on individual regional history and wines.

A very short history

To a far greater degree than in any other part of Australia, wine and gold formed a potent blend here throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. The Victorian goldfields are now largely a memory – however glorious places such as Ballarat and Bendigo are a reminder of the wealth gold generated.

For a few Victorian regions, wine began with the earliest settlers as they sought to establish a supply of drink for themselves. For many more regions it was in the wake of the gold rushes that vineyards were established. Again this was in part to supply thirsty miners, but also because many ex-miners, often from France, Germany or Italy, were seeking other forms of income now that gold had disappointed them. Some regions, such as the Rutherglen and Bendigo, developed their wine making well beyond the needs of local consumption and successfully exported to Britain as well as winning many international prizes.

Unfortunately a combination of the destructive path of phylloxera and inept government interventions greatly weakened the Victorian wine industry. But the death blow came when changing tastes eliminated the demand that had once existed for table wine. Those that survived as wine producing regions, such as Rutherglen, were generally producers, or became producers, of heavier fortified wines rather than table wines.

With the decline of gold deposits, many towns and regions returned to being sleepy agricultural villages and districts. However all this changed from the 1970's as shifting tastes towards white and red table wines once again transformed the wine regions of Victoria. New vineyards were planted and old ones re-vitalised. More wine regions sprang up as vines began to be planted where there had never been vines before. This was particularly so of the many driers areas of Victoria, especially along the Murray River, where irrigation allowed wine production in areas with limited rainfall.

Many of the newer vineyard operators are small, or boutique style, and many of these prefer traditional methods and are either organic, or at least sustainable with minimum chemical use. The result is a fascinating range of delightful Victorian wines.

Diversity, distinctiveness and quality are the key features of Victorian wine While Victoria may be one of Australia's smaller states it is one of the biggest when it comes to wine; not only big in production, but big in diversity, distinctiveness and quality.

Like most things in Victoria the geography is intense, meaning quite a lot is packed into a small area. With long stretches of coastline facing the Southern Ocean, and with nothing separating Victoria from the continent of Antarctica, the result is cool windy climates for regions in the south such as Geelong or the southern parts of Gippsland region. The final stages of the Great Dividing Range spread out in Victoria, resulting in numerous mountain influenced micro-climates in regions like the Macedon Ranges and Pyrenees that provide excellent opportunities for cool to warm climate wines. Further north we have the vastly contrasting hot, flat and arid North-west (Mallee) and the colder wetter and mountainous North-east (Alpine) zones.

The viticultural map of Victoria is more densely populated than that of any other state (see attached). It has more regions and more wineries than South Australia, its western neighbour and big brother, in production terms . Moreover, the percentage of its total surface area covered by wine regions is far greater than that of any other state.

With such a great range of geographical regions and climates, the Victorian regions naturally produce a great range of wines. Delicious sparkling wines from its many cool to warm climate regions, excellent table wines produced from fiery Shiraz, smooth Pinot Noir, graceful Chardonnay or a special Colombard are all to be found. Not to mention the many fortifieds such as Muscat and Tokay from the warmer regions.

Diversity is the key to Victoria’s wine industry:

· a diversity of regions - 21 different geographical wine areas that span the state from east to west and north to south;

· a diversity of grape varietals – producing wines across a variety of styles; and

· a diversity of wine producers and makers – boasting a collection of wine that is colourful and compelling.

Wine zones and regions

Winemaking is spread across the state with Victoria's wine grape production occurring in the state's North-west, North-east, Central, Western, Gippsland and Port Phillip zones.

Across these zones, Victorian wine grapes are produced in regions that generally fit into one of three distinct climatic zones – hot, warm and cool climate.

For example, hot climate regions in Victoria include Mildura and Swan Hill, warm climate regions include Heathcote and the Pyrenees and cool climate regions include the Yarra Valley, the Mornington Peninsula and Bellarine Peninsula (Geelong). These Victorian zones and regions are outlined below.

Central Victorian zone

· Heathcote is known for its temperate climate and 500 million year old Cambrian soil that seems particularly well suited for producing deeply colored, rich Shiraz wines with alcohol levels around 14-15%.

· Bendigo was historically a part of the Heathcote region but has since distinguished itself with its Cabernet Sauvignon.

· Goulburn Valley, with its sub region Nagambie Lakes, is the oldest continuously producing Victorian wine region and has been producing Shiraz, most notably at Tahbilk, since 1860. Marsanne, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are also widely planted.

· Strathbogie Ranges is one of Central Victoria's cooler wine regions and more closely resembles the North East Victoria regions of Alpine Valley and Beechworth. The region is known primarily for its Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Viognier.

North East Victorian zone

· Alpine Valleys & Beechworth are known mostly for their table wine production in an area that is distinctively cooler than other North East Victorian wine regions. Some wineries have begun experimented with Piedmont wine grapes, such as Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Barbera to some degree of success in this subalpine climate.

· Glenrowan & Rutherglen are known for their full-bodied red wines made from Shiraz and Durif as well as their sweet fortified wines (port, muscat and tokay). The continental climate of the area is marked by very warm summers and moderate evenings. Rainfall is very low and spring frost pose a viticultural hazard. Closer to Mount Buffalo, the vineyards located in nearby Ovens Valley receive more rainfall and cooler temperatures. The first record of plantings in this area date to 1851 and by the 1870s, this was Australia's largest wine producing area.

· King Valley is known for its wide range of planted grape varieties including the not so familiar Graciano, Marzemino, Mondeuse, Petit Manseng, Sagrantino, Saperavi and Tannat. The region is located on more mountainous terrain and receives varying degrees of rainfall depending on the location. The Brown Brothers Milawa Vineyard was establish here in 1889.

North West Victoria zone

The North West Victoria zone is the most similar Victorian wine region to South Australia's Riverland in that its flat sandy loam soils and generous irrigation sources provides for high yielding production. Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay was first produced in this region, and it produces some of the grapes for Yellow Tail. The zone includes two regions Murray Darling and Swan Hill.

Western Victorian zone

The geography of Western Victoria covers flat pastures and granite and sandstone escarpments. With low annual rainfall, the area relies heavily on irrigation. Springtime frost is a significant viticulture hazard as is ripening during the cool summers. Winters are normally cold and wet. The far southwest of the west has more of a cooler maritime climate.

· Grampians, with its sub region Great Western, is generally a cooler climate red wine producing region known for juicy berry fruit Shiraz and Cabernets with distinctive tones of eucalyptus and spice. The area has experienced some success with Riesling and sweet sparkling wine.

· Henty has a cooler climate than the Grampians and produces more white wines and a little Pinot noir. The main varieties are Chardonnay, Riesling, Semillon, and Sauvignon Blanc.

· Pyrenees is known for its Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon that have similarities to the wines produced in Heathcote and Bendigo. Sauvignon Blanc from this region has a distinctive flinty dryness that is found underneath layers of tropical fruits. Sangiovese, Viognier and Pinot Gris have started to expand plantings.

Port Phillip

The Port Phillip zone includes the five regions clustered around the Melbourne. The climate of this more closely resembles Bordeaux than in other Australia wine regions yet it is more thoroughly planted with Burgundy wine varieties like a Pinot noir and Chardonnay. Some areas are planted with Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.

· Yarra Valley is a cooler climate region and is known primarily for its Chardonnay and Pinot noir. The area has been cultivating a reputation for quality wine for over a century. In recent times, the sparkling wine industry has started to take notice with Moët et Chandon opening up Domaine Chandon Australia. The first vineyards were believed to have been planted here in the late 1830s and by the end of the 19th century, wines from the Yarra Valley were winning gold medals at European wine competitions. In the 1970s, the region experienced it owns renaissance and has leveraged its close location to Melbourne into becoming a tourist destination for wine. The warmer climate areas of the Valley have shown itself suitable for Shiraz and Cabernet and have shown promise for whites wines of Roussanne, Marsanne, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris.

· Macedon Ranges is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines. The area sits on predominately granite based soils that has shown some promise for the sparkling wine varieties of Pinot noir and Chardonnay. Some Shiraz wines from this region have developed cult status due to their reputation for powerful fruit, spice and soft tannins.

· Sunbury is located north-west of Melbourne and has been producing Shiraz since 1872. Is known particularly now for its Shiraz-Viognier blends that are more terroir driven than New World.

· Geelong is heavily influenced by nearby Port Philip Bay and has been achieving international recognition for the quality of its Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Viognier. As one of mainland Australia's most southerly wine regions, vineyards in the Geelong enjoy a long growing season influenced by maritime conditions. This helps the grape develop a complexity of flavours and depth in character for the resulting wines.

· Mornington Peninsula is located south across Port Philip Bay from Geelong and shares a similar reputation for Pinot noir and Chardonnay but has been developing its plantings of Pinot Gris. The area has a marginal climate that is influenced by maritime conditions across the hilly terrain. There are five "unofficial" sub districts on the Peninsula - Dromana, Main Ridge, Merricks, Moorooduc and Red Hill. The region is known for its medium bodied, dry wines and sparkling wines that show structure and complexity. The still wine versions of Chardonnay reflect a diversity of styles, all typically un-oaked, from more citrus to more tropical fruit flavours.

Fast facts

· Victorian wine exports were valued at $221 million in 2011-12.

· Victoria accounted for 11% of the value of Australia's wine exports.

· Red wine remains Victoria's strongest performer, accounting for 60% of the state's wine exports at a value of $133 million. White wine exports were valued at $61 million and sparkling wines were valued at $16 million.

· Victoria is home to over 2900 vineyards, 850 wineries, 650 cellar doors within its 21 distinct regions (more than any other state).


We are so lucky that Victoria’s wine regions are all within close proximity of Melbourne either as a day visit in the Port Philip zone or an overnight or weekend stay in the other regional areas. So over the next few articles we will be getting in the car and touring some of the more unique and famous Victorian wine regions (not forgetting to leave plenty of room in the boot for those fantastic finds along the way).