This innovative cool-climate corner of Victoria is now a serious player, producing a shiraz that’s on a par with Australia’s best, writes Mal Chenu.
When the 2018 Qantas epiQure Halliday Wine Companion Awards were announced earlier this year, the Grampians region in western Victoria may have been the happiest place in the world. And the biggest smile belonged to Ben Haines, chief winemaker at Mount Langi Ghiran. His 2015 Langi Shiraz (Ben’s first vintage) was awarded 98 points, placing third behind perennial Barossa Valley top dogs, the 2012 Henschke Hill of Grace and 2012 Penfolds Bin 95 Grange. The Grange and Hill of Grace each scored 99 points, which means that for a one-point difference, you can save about $700 a bottle by choosing the Langi. “We have a very clear vision and this is a validation of our direction,” says Ben. “I’m proud of the team.”
He tells me the winery’s Old Block vineyard is nicknamed “the peppicentre” due to the signature pepper character it yields. And like all the artisanal winemakers I meet in the Grampians, he raves about the temperature. “Cool climate equals long ripening, providing aromatic range and flavour,” he says.
“We’re fortunate here to also enjoy granite-based soils, shorter daylight hours due to the mountains, cool winds and low disease rates.”
Spicy shiraz and crisp riesling dominate but you’ll also find sparkling shiraz, chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier, dolcetto, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. The wineries are spread out across the region, roughly encompassed in a triangle between Horsham, Ararat and Hamilton. You can come from the north, via the Silo Art Trail in the Wimmera-Mallee region and through olive country, or from the south, extending your Great Ocean Road journey. Once you arrive, the bucolic, undulating scenery and sandstone hills of the Grampians National Park are a constant backdrop. If you head straight to the central Grampians town of Great Western from Melbourne, you’ll arrive in about two and a half hours, ready for a drink.
Tom and Sarah Guthrie’s Great Western winery has an impressive trophy cabinet, with accolades for both their wines and the food they serve. Cellar door manager Suellen Blackie says some of the vines date back to 1878 and the winery’s flagship – and most popular offering – is the sparkling shiraz. “It’s just luscious,” she says, pointing out the trophies. Suellen is also a fan of the crisp and refreshing 2014 Garden Gully Vineyard Riesling, produced from some of the oldest riesling vines in Australia.
Mount Langi Ghiran
Upgrades to the Western Highway mean Mount Langi Ghiran is best reached via Ararat (about 30 kilometres east), maybe on your way back to Melbourne. The modern cellar door overlooks the winery’s namesake peak and it’s hard to imagine a more picturesque spot for a tasting. A cool-climate pioneer, Mount Langi Ghiran planted its first vines in 1963 in the Old Block, the source of that award- winning shiraz. “Transparency to the vineyard is at our core, which means our wines are crafted to reflect this special place,” says Ben Haines, still smiling. “We’re big on elegance and finesse, not wines layered in oak or alcohol.”
Winemaker Simon Fennell has been in the region for five years and says passion and diversity are its best traits. “We nod to tradition,” he says, “but we have a young, dynamic team and that brings innovation.” Simon’s favourite wines are the 2013 Montara Grampians Shiraz and 2015 Montara Grampians Riesling. Thanks to the Ararat winery’s niche south-east-facing site (which results in a slightly cooler climate), its wines have greater spice, delicate florals and regional lemon and lime characters. It’s the place to be on the first Friday of the month, when the vineyard hosts Wine Down, a music and food shindig.
The Grampians’ first planting occurred at Seppelt in 1863 and those with an interest in the past will love touring the winery’s three kilometres of mouldy underground tunnels (it’s better than it sounds). The Drives, as they’re known, were first excavated in 1868 and digging continued for more than 60 years. The tunnels were used to store wine, including Seppelt’s signature sparkling shiraz, the first of its type to be produced in Australia. Seppelt also creates the single-vineyard St Peters Shiraz (try the 2014), Drumborg Riesling and Chalambar Shiraz, which contains about 80 per cent grapes from the Grampians.
SEE ALSO: Is Shiraz and Syrah the Same Thing?
Where to eat
Harvest Halls Gap, in the middle of the Grampians, is dedicated to promoting local produce. Owners Carly and Richard Flecknoe’s signature bubble and squeak with poached eggs, ham and Dijonnaise and their cheesy corn-and-risotto smashed croquettes are both mighty fine ways to start your day. To take it up a notch, add a glass of Lili St Cyr Sparkling with lavender syrup.
Bruach Colliton established his Roxburgh House restaurant in Hamilton 10 years ago and set about giving the 1870s bluestone building a homey, casual vibe. For lunch, the artisanal menu includes homemade pork-and-fennel sausage rolls, wraps, focaccias and the richest tomato soup imaginable. “The Rox” also stocks wine from nearby Pierrepoint and Henty Estate and has its own kombucha and coffee blend. Be sure to drop in to the antique shop next door, run by Bruach’s parents.
As legendary as the Grampians themselves, the Dining Room at Dunkeld’s Royal Mail Hotel has been awarded two chef’s hats for the past three years. A renovation has seen chef Robin Wickens’ iteration, Wickens at the Royal Mail Hotel, replace the Dining Room. But don’t panic – the signature dégustation delights with matched wines are still on offer, including the much-lauded French Collection wine pairing. A more casual bistro dining option, Parker Street Project, opened in 2016. Whichever one you choose, you’re in for a treat. Stay the night and take tours of the 28,000-bottle wine cellar and kitchen gardens.
Where to stay
Halls Gap Lakeside Tourist Park
Whether you opt for a cabin, glamping or a powered camp site, you can top off the experience by renting a drum for a cracking camp fire. The cabins have ensuites and barbecues and sleep up to 14 guests. The Aero Glamping option is a luxury safari tent that comes with a Boeing 737 flight simulator and a one-hour-per-day lesson with an instructor (extra classes are $50). You can even set the simulator to autopilot and watch the world go by from your bed.
Pierrepoint B & B
Tucked into Pierrepoint winery, this B & B is in the foothills of the southern Grampians, four kilometres from Tarrington. The two rooms – the Pinot Suite and Chardonnay Suite – offer cosy homestead-style accommodation. Wander the winery and garden before your continental breakfast and then head to the cellar door to pick up some local produce, including wine, oil from Red Rock Olives, Bagdad salad dressings and Waltanna Farms flaxseed products.
Also known as Down Under Log Cabins, this Halls Gap retreat provides modern comfort wrapped in a bush setting. The secluded single-storey cabins and two-storey Treehouse have exposed-timber interiors, a full kitchen, king-size bed and wide verandah. Bathrooms feature spa baths and Molton Brown products, plus giant windows and a glass ceiling that make you feel as if you’re floating in the forest or under the stars.
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Meet the winemaker
When Justin Purser had his first taste of good burgundy, his life changed forever. He got his oenology degree and honed his skills making wine in Otago in New Zealand, Piedmont in northern Italy and, of course, Burgundy in France. Today, Justin is the winemaker at Best’s Wines in Great Western.
It all started when… I was working as a wine waiter at a bistro in North Sydney. A waitress sweet-talked some diners into leaving us a couple of glasses of their 1983 Domaine Armand Rousseau Chambertin Clos de Bèze burgundy. I drank it and went home and told my parents that I was going to be a winemaker. That was 20 years ago. Now I make wine for a living and that waitress is my wife.
These days… I’m using the Grampians’ unique climate. Harvesting here is about nailing that perfect time when the fruit is just ripe to maximise the elegance and aromatics. Sometimes the harvest window can be just a couple of days.
My philosophy is… taste everything. Taste it and taste it again, from the grapes to the bottle. That’s the best quality control. And make wines that you like to drink. Maybe I’m pushing my opinions on people but that’s my philosophy. I’m a winemaker; I’ve got a thumb and I’m going to make a print. But there’s also a tradition to maintain so I’m a caretaker, too.
The big challenge is… that we’re susceptible to spring frosts, as well as heatwaves and bushfires during the growing season. We have to be super cautious tending our vines, make sure we don’t prune too early and have the frost fans ready to go.
I love… the way 2017 is looking – touch wood. We had a great growing year and I think this will be a superb vintage.
Our signature wines are… Bin o Shiraz, which will cellar for 40 years, and Great Western Riesling, a finely honed and pure wine. For me, the big attraction at Best’s is that I’m working with 150-year-old vines. It’s mind-blowing, really. At this age they can become something quite exceptional.
In my cellar… I have a lot of Italian wines and burgundy. I plan to hold on to a few of them but most won’t last long because I want to learn from them. They’re like books in a library – if you don’t open them, how do you learn? For “quaffers”, I really like Australian chardonnays, particularly from Oakridge in the Yarra Valley and Xanadu Wines in Margaret River.
Top image: Seppelt Winery