Wines By The Hour In Victoria – Victoria, Australia

Wines By The Hour In Victoria

Victoria, Australia

Australians are said to be known for their senses of humor, and John Boucher, co-owner of the Kyneton Ridge Estate winery, in Kyneton, Victoria State was no exception.

Pointing to the huge, white tent that took up a large portion of his side yard, and where his stepson was to hold his wedding reception in two days, he made a suggestion to my fiancée, Megan, and I:

“You should stay a couple of more days,” John said. “And make it a double ceremony.”

We passed on the quickie wedding, but allowed John to pour us a several samples of his products. For only having been making wine for five years, John, and his wife, Pauline Russell, have their skills down so much so that I only needed one sample (but tried six) to open up my wallet and buy a bottle each of their 2002 and 2003 pinot noirs.

And this meant Megan and I now needed to carry 10 bottles of Aussie wine back through customs; never mind the case we already paid to have shipped home. Who needs boomerangs when you’ve got almost a case of wine to declare?

With Megan, at Domaine Chandon
With Megan, at Domaine Chandon
I had wanted to visit Australia for as long as I could remember. I can’t remember when my interest began – maybe it was due to a crush on Olivia Newton-John when I saw ‘Grease’ when I was 10, or it might have been when I bought my first cassette tape, Men At Work’s ‘Business As Usual’, in which the band sang about these strange vegemite sandwiches in the song ‘Down Under’ – but I always had a fascination with this country where the people spoke English, yet lived practically at the bottom of the world.

And here I was, in a time zone 19 hours ahead of the U.S. West Coast, the beneficiary of the ultimate surprise birthday present from Megan, and seeing a land that, well, looked a lot like my home in Northern California, right down to the vineyards that seemed to be everywhere. Working your way through all 500 of Victoria’s wineries would certainly qualify you for some sort of honor in Wine Spectator magazine, and while Megan and I didn’t try to go for that record, we did put in a respectable tasting performance.

Australian wines, especially shiraz (or as we often call it, syrah) have become popular in the States in the last few years, and Victoria has turned into the country’s wine center. Being big fans of the grape, and especially the pinot noir variety, Megan and I made sure we knocked on more than a few of Victoria’s cellar doors, most of which offer free samplings of their products.

We were staying right in the middle of the wine country, in Kyneton, a town of almost 4,000 people located about an hour’s drive north of Melbourne, Australia’s second city. Back during Victoria’s Gold Rush days in the mid-1800s, Kyneton was a major stopping point between Melbourne and Bendigo, where Australian prospectors mined for gold up until the 1950s. Today, the town provides a good location for day trips to Melbourne, explorations of Mount Macedon and the Hanging Rock Reserve, and easy access to the wineries and vineyards that have created a different kind of gold rush in the region.

Most of Victoria’s wineries are open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. every day, with some exceptions where it is requested that you call in advance to ensure someone will be there to pour for you. The Macedon Range wineries, in particular, are in rural settings, and at each of the three we visited, we were the only people in the tasting room.

There must be a trend of naming wineries after local sights, because in addition to Kyneton Ridge, we also partook in sampling the offerings of the Hanging Rock and Mount Macedon and wineries. Name recognition is everything in the wine business, so why not go with a name that everybody knows?

John Ellis’ 23-year-old Hanging Rock Winery takes its name from the nearby Hanging Rock, made famous by Joan Lindsay in her novel “Picnic At Hanging Rock”, and later made more famous by Peter Weir’s 1975 movie of the same name, both about a group of schoolgirls who disappear during a field trip to the volcanic plug in 1900. Ellis isn’t one of these vintner’s who just stands behind the bar, pouring samples and going on about tannins and letting the wine breathe; on the day we were there, he had just driven in on his all-terrain vehicle after tending to some of his grapes, his hands caked in dirt.

Shiraz at Fergusson's Winery
Shiraz at Fergusson’s Winery
After trying four of Ellis’ wines, we bought a bottle each of his 2003 Amaroo Farm Shiraz Mourvèdre and 2004 Kilfara Pinot Noir, and then spent most of an hour roaming his property, craning our necks upward toward the eucalyptus trees in a vain search for koalas before heading off to the Mount Macedon Winery. The winery, near its 3,000-foot-high namesake, is one of the highest in Australia at 2,200 feet, and specializes in sparking white wine, shiraz, and pinot noir.

Co-owners David and Ronda Collins have been running the winery since 1989, and in addition to letting us sample some of their vintages, Ronda took us out to help her give some bread treats to her cows that graze in a lot adjacent to the vineyards. They could have cared less about the soon-to-be harvested grapes, but became our best friends when Ronda waved around a baguette of French bread.

Once again, the openness of Australia was on display. First Hanging Rock’s Ellis let us wander his back forty unattended in search of koalas; now here we were, with Ronda, giving out snacks to a group of very inquisitive cows. Somehow, I think the fear of a lawsuit over a potential cattle stampede would keep any American vintner from giving his customers such freedom to roam his property, especially after they had downed a half-dozen wine samples.

After our brush with nature, Megan and I picked up two bottles of the winery’s 2004 pinot noir, and a 2004 gewürztraminer, and called it day. Not that we had had enough of Australia’s wines, but because of what awaited us the next morning: a two-hour drive east to the Yarra Valley where we would take a day-long, four-winery tour with Victoria Winery Tours. If there is a Sonoma of Australia it is the Macedon Range, but if the country has a Napa, it is the Yarra Valley.

The land, not too far from the coast and near the Great Dividing Range of mountains is home to Victoria’s first vineyard, planted in 1838. Our tour guide met us almost exactly as we pulled into the inn where we would be staying in the small Yarra Valley town of Dixon’s Creek, and we drove off in a van with two other tourists. The tour, which lasted about 6 hours including a stop for lunch, provided a glimpse into, and samples from, wineries of all sizes.

France’s massive champagne maker, Moet & Chandon, runs its Australian operations at the Domaine Chandon winery, and after a walk through its scenic grounds and winemaking facilities, we received a flute of sparkling wine – which I promptly managed to knock over and break. Luckily, there was no additional charge for a new glass and refill. The family run De Bortoli winery was fine, but we ended up spending more time in the winery’s cheese room than we did tasting its wine, which we had to admit, was a little bitter for our tastes.

Domaine Chandon
Domaine Chandon
But the wines from Leon and Rita Tokar’s Tokar Estate…well, let’s just say that I knew I would be shipping a case back to the States from the moment of my first sip of their 2001 shiraz, which Leon poured while cracking jokes about his many trips to Northern California’s vineyards. The experience got only better with Tokar’s 2001 pinot noir, and even his chardonnay, and I normally find chardonnay equal to drinking a bottle of cheap liquid candy.

However, the highlights were the 2002 tempranillo, a new Spanish varietal that had hints of chocolate and cherries, and the pride of the winery, the estate reserve Aria, which blended pinot noir, shiraz and tempranillo into a wine that was bold enough to make you stand up straight, yet somehow went down incredibly smooth. Before I was done with it, I had signed off on ordering a 12-bottle case of four different wines and didn’t think twice about the almost $500 price tag.

And then there was Fergusson Winery’s, in the town of Yarra Glen. Peter Fergusson planted the first grapes at Fergusson in 1968, and the original shiraz vines are still producing wine to this day. The winery specializes in French grape varieties, but it was a signature Australian name on the bottles that caught my attention.

Ned’s Red, a cabernet-shiraz blend named in honor of Ned Kelly, who depending on who you talk to was either Australia’s Robin Hood, or its Jesse James, or a little bit of both.

By all accounts, Kelly was an outlaw, and between 1878 and 1880 he and his Kelly Gang rode hard through Victoria, robbed banks, shot police officers, and became the stuff of legend in the young country. Famous for wearing suits of armor that he made himself, Kelly was captured in late 1880 and hanged in Melbourne.

The wine was good, but to me, the name was perfect. That a country founded as a British penal colony could take its most-celebrated criminal and apply his name to a product from and industry that is probably run, and frequented by the type of people Kelly rebelled against speaks volumes about how Australia views itself and can keep a sense of humor even in the middle of a cutthroat industry. Who knows? If we had the same attitude, we could be drinking some Napa winery’s Billy The Kid Bordeaux today.

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