Wines off the beaten track

Illustration: Lachlan Conn

Nice, different, unusual … odd wines from unlikely wine regions—is there anything in it for you? By Ben Canaider

Hippies, tree-changers, delusional dystopians, retired dentists, the odd school teacher. What does this eclectic group of people have in common? They have all gone off to some weird part of Triple R Australia (Remote, Rural, Regional) and planted a vineyard.

More exceptionally still, these people have planted vineyards in areas that don’t have vineyards. They have also planted vineyards in areas where no-one really has any empirical knowledge of how the grape varieties they have planted will perform. Sometimes they have used a bit of climate or soil science to guesstimate how grapes for wine might go. Sometimes they have planted grape varieties based on a trip they made to France, where they liked the wine they tasted.

I take my hat off to such people, as they take a romantic gamble on the most fickle of romantic crops—wine. Yet the question remains: are the resultant wines any good?

Before that $64 bitcoin question is unequivocally answered, it’s wise to remember how we remember what we remember about the wines we so often forget. By this I mean Australian wine regions and varieties that are commonly understood and accepted as the ‘standard’.

Let’s start in the Hunter Valley. What wine is this region known for? Semillon, shiraz. Rutherglen: fortified wines. Central Victoria: shiraz. Melbourne’s Dress Circle regions: chardonnay, pinot noir. Tasmania: ditto. Western Victoria: shiraz, riesling. Coonawarra: cabernet sauvignon. The Clare Valley: shiraz, riesling. Barossa: shiraz. McLaren Vale: shiraz. Frankland River: shiraz, cabernet, riesling. Margaret River: cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.

Yes, yes, I’m being bossy-pants, dull-bulbs perfunctory about all of this, but when you have contributed to as many international wine guides as I have, you end up like this—reducing wine to regional and stylistic generalisations, with no scope for finesse.

Which is why loony-tune would-be winemakers who head off to hitherto unplanted wine regions in the making are so brave. And important.

My favourite example of this is in the western districts of Victoria. Crawford River. I guess you could class the Thompson family as the original tree-changers. Their cattle station in Condah was established by the family only recently. In 1884. In 1975, they decided to put some grapes in “after experiencing many grape growing regions of the world”. Crawford River makes outstanding riesling and a fabulously old-fashioned sort of Left Bank Bordeaux, or cabernet sauvignon as we have to call such wines in Australia. (The 2008 is available for online purchase at their website—a steal at $46.)

“When you have contributed to as many international wine guides as I have, you end up like this—reducing wine to regional and stylistic generalisations.”

Crawford River is geographically classified as ‘Henty’, which contains just 15 vineyards. Seppelt’s led the way in 1964, planting the wonderful Drumborg vineyard, just 20 minutes by car north of Portland. It’s another riesling Mecca. The only annoying thing is how few people know about these wines.

Yet if Henty is little known, at least it has the sort of slightly marginal, cool climate to produce wines with tension and finesse. Other areas of Australia are—weatherwise—not exactly where one would go to grow wine plants.

Queensland. The Granite Belt. Just north of the NSW border, this wine region sits at 1,000 metres above sea level, and as winemakers know, altitude equals attitude when it comes to wine. It is Queensland subtropical warm up here, but the height at which the vineyards grow helps with cooler nights, so grapes can hang on to their all important natural acidity.

Nevertheless, the Granite Belt is not exactly on every connoisseur’s WINEDAR. With all the touristy, restauranty, natural granite formations and hospitality you can poke a selfie-stick at, this region makes more than respectable cabernet, shiraz, chardonnay and—the grape that probably suits the region the most—verdelho. Having said that, last year’s vintage saw some high-quality vermentino, sauvignon blanc, and tempranillo come in. And that hints at what relatively unknown or ill-considered wine regions can do: they can experiment with different grape varieties with, sometimes, serendipitous results. Forty cellar doors up this way certainly tell a tale of a local, boutique wine industry doing something that’s sustainable.

Tobin Wines, Robert Channon, and Ballandean are all wineries that reflect what the Granite Belt can do. I know it seems a bit weird—Queensland and wine—but as they say of this region: “a part of Queensland, but a different country”.

As for Australia’s most wonderfully surprising wine region and its sole winery, you need to row due west from the mainland’s most easterly point. Clock up about 1,400 kilometers and you’re there: Norfolk Island.

Two Chimneys Wines was planted to a range of grapes (chardonnay, verdelho, semillon, chambourcin and merlot) in 2003. Ranging in price from $22.50 to $30, these are surely the most unique of all Australian wines.

So, yes. Odd, strange, unlikely wine regions which—on paper—look like they couldn’t produce wine of much nobility, do indeed make high-quality wine. But besides being a curio on your wine list, are they going to offer you increased sales? Probably not. Yet as a point of interest and playing an educative role, maybe you could pop a page in your list titled: ‘Wine You’ve Never Tried Before’.

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  1. Interesting article about alternative wine grape varieties, I for one do have a slightly different opinion and regard the Granite Belt as the finest wine producing region within Australia for Alternative Wine Grape Varieties. If you take the district as a whole it will offer nearly 70 different wine styles for the consumer to taste and enjoy. Viognier, Verdelho, Vermentino, Savagnin, Petit Manseng, Fiano, Gewurztraminer, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Tempranillo, Saperavi, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Graciano and Montepulciano to name a few are not only exhibiting great quality and interest they also showcase what the district can do so well and that is diversity. With the elevation ranging from 600 metres to 1000 metres and 5 sub soil types with a plethora of aspects it aids in supplying an enormous difference within the varieties. I personally would like to challenge any region in Australia to match the Granite Belt for diversity. We are not a tourist only venture or a nice cool spot in the winter to come and see snow, we are a very serious wine region that is slowly building momentum and I would like to see more wine writers come and experience our range of Terroirs and varieties.

  2. Hi there.

    Talking of “off the beaten track” then how about Barangaroo Boutique Wines and Norton Estate Wines?
    Both located at Lower Norton. Where? Yep not even in a GI region. They are classified as Western Victoria Zone and planted amongst the wheatfields of the Wimmera in Victoria.

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