There cannot be many fine wine producing nations who can still unearth new centres of extraordinary quality, most mature industries know where their strengths lay and are content to play to them. This though is not the case with Australia. Blessed with a geology more varied and ancient than practically any other on Earth, a multiplicity of climates that astonish the uninitiated and with a legion of winemakers for whom innovation and discovery are central to their raison d’etre, Australia has the recipe for origination. The outcome of such a swirl is exciting new regions such as Heathcote, a wine region that is setting pulses racing and firing imaginations across the world.
In this latest blog from Wine Australia, we’ll look at Heathcote in detail; its climate and its history as well as the people and wineries who have helped make it what it is today and who are instrumental to its future.
Cool as a cumber
Heathcote nestles to the north of the Great Dividing Range, Australia’s largest mountain sequence, in the state of Victoria between Bendigo and Goulburn. Sitting at between 160m and 320m above sea level, the region’s climate is dominated by the Mount Camel Range which tunnels cooling winds throughout the growing season. The effect of these air masses is significant and makes Heathcote unusually cool with the average temperature in January being a full 2 to 3 degrees lower than that of nearby Bendigo. Add to this an evenly spread rainfall of around 280mm and with little threat from the frosts as besets other cool climate regions such as Orange and, climatically speaking, you have the makings of an outstanding wine producing area.
The soils of Heathcote are complex in the extreme, those supporting vines tend to be Cambrian in origin, formed around 500 million years ago. Towards the slopes of the Mount Camel Range you’ll find a superb red soil with a fine structure overlying uniformly textured red calcareous sodic clay soils, collectively (and confusingly) known as ‘Cambrian Greenstones’. With it’s excellent capacity for retaining moisture and it’s mineral-rich nature, these soils are ideal for the production of top quality vines.
Heathcote: Over one hundred years in the making
There’s a ring of familiarity regarding Heathcote’s vinous history. Like some of Australia’s other emerging fine wine regions – Orange for example – it got off to something of a faltering start. Established amidst the fever of the Australian gold rush in the 1850s, the town itself soon become a draw for immigrants from around the world. Before long, however, many grew disillusioned with the illusive lure of gold and took advantage of the area’s other natural resources, a benign climate and fertile soils, to plant crops including - given their European origins - vines. One such early pioneer was Henning Rathjen, a German settler who arrived in the Colbinabbin area, at the northern end of the Mount Camel Range, a part of Heathcote that has subsequently become a significant winemaking area.
For an all-too brief period, it looked like Heathcote had a future as a winemaking centre, but with the end of the gold rush and the arrival of phylloxera the vines were largely grubbed up and the land returned to other forms of agriculture. A few vineyards planted by early Italian settlers did survive however, and some of those are still in existence to this day.
The twentieth century was hard on Heathcote: The demise in the timber trade, one of its mainstays after the gold rush, saw the town decline further and were it not for it being discovered by Melbournians in search of a weekend retreat or commutable bolt hole, the town may have been lost to us. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the region saw renewed interest in all things wine. The arrival of wealthy newcomers breathed fresh life into the economy and drove renewed interest in the region’s wines.
The wineries: A local reputation goes global
Although Heathcote only received its Geographical Indication in August 2002, it now boasts over 60 vineyards and wineries. The oldest surviving vineyard is Major’s Creek at Graytown which was established by Baptista Governa, an Italian cobbler turned Heathcote entrepreneur and vineyard owner. Planted in 1891 it miraculously survived the downturn and the phylloxera scourge and in 1988 it caught the eye of local winemaker, David Traeger. Recognising the quality of the Shiraz that hailed from here, Traeger started sourcing the grapes for his own wines before acquiring the property in 1993 and in 1996 released the first Baptista Shiraz. The Baptista is a wine that typifies the Heathcote style with intensely flavoured fruit whose strength comes not through weight or power but through concentration and purity.
Another important name in the rebirth of Heathcote is Paul Osicka. Osicka was a Czech winemaker and importer who arrived with his family in the early 1950s, establishing Paul Osicka Wines in 1955. At the time, the Australian wine industry was in the doldrums with few new wineries being founded in even established regions, let alone in unkown areas such as Heathcote. Osicka, in collaboration with other pioneering immigrants including lbi Zuber, Bruno Pangrazio, Vern Viertmann, and Frank Zenetti, pooled their collective knowledge and were instrumental in Heathcote’s revival as a wine producing centre.
In the 1970s the Osicka estate saw a seismic shift as Paul’s son Paul entered the business. This heralded a period of investment and innovation that included the building of a temperature controlled cellar built from handmade bricks from the old Seymour railway building and the replacement of hand pumps with mechanised equipment. The investment quickly paid off. The quality of the wines soared and took the region’s acclaim beyond Australia for the first time. In 1977 US-based Rydges Magazine described Paul Osicka’s 1970 Cabernet Sauvignon as one of the ten best wines in Australia – no mean feat for a region that wasn’t officially delineated for another 25 years.
In the world at large things were changing. Australian wine was starting to boom globally and the fine food and wine culture of Melbourne was starting to open international doors, all of which allowed Heathcote to shake off its cottage industry status and start to grow. The 1980s saw the founding of many of the vineyards and wineries we see today, properties that were often established to cultivate Heathcote’s singularly intense version of Shiraz, a grape which was by then sweeping all before it.
It was certainly the prospect of cultivating exemplary Shiraz that drew Tyrrells to Heathcote. In 1994, they added to their portfolio of vineyard holdings with a plot that sat high on the eastern slope of Mount Camel on the generous Cambrian soils which make the region so special. Initially laid to Shiraz which goes into their premium Rufus Stone and Lunatiq ranges, their holdings now include Malbec too.
It wasn’t long before the region’s potential attracted international attention as evidenced by Chapoutier’s decision to set up operations here. Michel Chapoutier’s desire to find new and exciting terroir is well known and in Heathcote he saw the opportunity to create something unique and extraordinary. Working with Ron and Elva Laughton of the iconic Jasper Hill estate, Chapoutier’s Tournon Lady’s Lane Shiraz is worthy of the Chapoutier label. Powerful and vididly well-fruited, the purity and delineation of this wine are remarkable and it’s easy to see why Michel was attracted to Heathcote.
Another major name in Heathcote is Chalmers. As a family Chalmers have been involved in grape growing since the 1970s, but it was only in the early 2000s that they began making their own wine, first in the Murray Darling and then in 2008 they purchased an 80-hectare property in the Mount Camel range near Colbinabbin in the northern part of Heathcote. When they purchased the site, it was planted with cereals and the Chambers had to start from scratch. As is their way, they eschewed the obvious idea of planting nothing but Shiraz and instead took into account the array of soils and aspects to plant no fewer than 24 different varieties which go into their Montevecchio range. Their array of plantings speaks to the diverse capabilities of Heathcote and contains everything from Shiraz and Malbec to exciting new alternative varieties such Fiano, Vermentino, Nero D’Avola and Moscato. To see such an abundance of new Italian varieties planted in Heathcote would doubtless have put a smile on the face of early pioneers like Bruno Pangrazio and Frank Zenetti.
Heathcote: Why it matters
That Heathcote exists is significant in itself. As we said at the outset there aren’t many fine wine nations that are still discovering new regions, and those that do have pockets of untapped excellence are often all-too soon swallowed up by established major players. That though hasn’t happened in Heathcote. No one’s going to argue that Tyrells or Chapoutier are boutique operations, but the way they have approached Heathcote - and other emerging regions for that matter – has been sensitive in the extreme. Both firms bottle their wines under the GI and are keen to promote it rather than just use it to bolster multi-regional blends or a generic Victoria wine.
Chalmers have gone so far as to supply grapes to up-and-coming wineries such as Minim, a genuine boutique winery that seeks to make wines with minimal intervention. One of Minim’s founders, Jarad Curwood, also owns Chapter Wines, a 10-hectare estate that is given over to producing organic Shiraz with minimal intervention in the vineyard or the winery. Jarad’s mission is ‘to capture a time and a place as honestly and truthfully as I possibly can’ and he’s the first to confess that although he’s owned the property since 2011, he’s still coming to terms with the full extent of its potential.
This openness to experimentation, the willingness of the (relatively) old guard to collaborate and encourage innovators is another reason why areas such as Heathcote matter so. Here, in a region unbound by centuries of tradition, the new can be tried and tested and lessons can be learned and shared. In an age when consumers are demanding more diversity from Australian wine, where cool climate wines are just that, cool, and where the vagaries of climate change are a challenge for the industry as a whole, areas like Heathcote are as important as they are exciting.
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