“Great wine is made in the vineyard.” It’s a phrase I’ve heard countless times over the decades, and the more I’ve learnt about wine, the more I’ve grown to believe it’s absolutely true.
Yes, a skilled winemaker can turn less-than-optimum grapes into a perfectly drinkable beverage. But great wine – distinctive wine that tastes of where it’s from – can be made using only top-quality grapes grown by skilled viticulturists in well-managed, well-farmed vineyards.
We don’t talk enough about vineyards in Australia, or the people who grow grapes. When wines win awards at shows, it is invariably the winemaker who steps up on stage to accept the trophy, not the person who spent countless hours in the sun and rain, the dust and the mud, pruning, shoot-thinning and harvesting. Often, of course, in the case of most small-scale producers, the maker is also the grower. But even then, it’s usually the making that takes precedence over the growing in any conversation about that wine.
So, when Rory Kent, founder of Young Gun of Wine, asked if I would be interested in helping him develop a series of awards recognising Australia’s best vineyards and the people who farm them – to perhaps help change the wine conversation – I didn’t hesitate.
Kent assembled an impressive team of judges, from esteemed viticultural academics to experts in biological farming and sustainable winegrowing, practising viticulturists (and your correspondent), and invited growers around the country to enter.
We whittled down the entries into a list of 50 finalists. The judges then selected a shortlist of the standout vineyards – potential award winners – that were then visited by an independent viticulturist in each state to assess the entrants’ claims on the ground.
The reports from the assessors glowed with praise for these top sites, a feeling neatly summed up by Hunter Valley-based viticulture consultant Liz Riley.
“The joyous part of the vineyard visits was the chance to kick the dirt and to get inside the minds of the custodians of these great vineyards,” she says. “They are connected to these places and feel the pain of seasonal challenges and share in the joy when the vines respond to the tending that they receive.
“There is a quiet but true and burning love between the vineyard custodians and the sites that they care for.”
After much debate – and much agreement that many of the top 50 deserved to be recognised – we finally settled on four inaugural award winners, representing a wide cross-section of Australian wine-growing, from a new small site at the extreme fringe of cool-climate viticulture to a large-scale venture offering a vision of a sustainable future in the warm-climate commercial heartland of the Australian wine industry.
Although the nature of an awards program such as this means the focus will inevitably fall on these four, I strongly urge you to also check out the other 46 vineyards on the shortlist.
Disclaimer: Max Allen was paid by Young Gun of Wine to help develop the Vineyard of the Year Awards, and to host the online awards ceremony.
Young Gun Of Wine Vineyard Of The Year Awards
New Vineyard Award: Place of Changing Winds, Macedon Ranges
When the judging panel discussed this vineyard, we felt we almost needed to come up with a separate trophy – the Crazy Bastard Award – to recognise the extreme viticulture practised here. In 2012, inspired by visits to the vineyards of the top European winegrowers Rob Walters imports through his business, Bibendum, he started planting pinot noir (and some chardonnay) at incredibly high density: between 12,000 and 33,000 vines a hectare, about 10 times more closely planted than you would find in most Australian vineyards. It’s an obsessive, driven approach to winegrowing that involves a huge amount of labour for vineyard manager Rémi Jacquemain and the small team here, but as the 2019 pinots show, it can result in very high-quality wine.
2019 Place of Changing Winds Between Two Mountains Pinot Noir [Macedon Ranges]
My pick of the three pinots produced at Place of Changing Winds in 2019: both the Clos de la Connerie ($85) and the High Density ($130) are very good – the former with rich red fruit and pippy tannins, the latter showing lovely purity and harmony – but there’s something about the seductive perfume, snappy tannins and touch of tangy wildness to the Between Two Mountains that draws me in. $60
Old Vineyard Award: Best’s Concongella, Great Western
This wonderful place is such an important treasure trove of Australian viticultural heritage, it’s hard to know where to begin explaining why it is such a worthy winner of this award. From the oldest vines – shiraz, pinot meunier and dolcetto planted in the 1860s – to the “Nursery Block” of more than 40 pre-phylloxera grape varieties dating back to the 19th century (some of which are yet to be identified), there is just so much precious wine history here. In typical laconic fashion, though, when I ask fifth-generation viticulturist Ben Thomson about this precious past, he says he doesn’t even think about it until someone else brings it up. Too busy, perhaps, thinking about the future, and ensuring the long-term viability of the vineyard for the next generation.
2017 Best’s Sparkling Shiraz [Great Western]
As well as being a living museum of 19th-century winegrowing, Best’s is also home to a great example of a classic wine style that was all the rage in the region when Queen Victoria was on the throne: deep, rich, purple foaming sparkling shiraz. Drink now and enjoy its mellow bramble fruit shot through with dark licorice, or cellar for another decade or two to develop more undergrowthy complexity. $35
Innovative Vineyard Award – “The Groundbreaker”: Ricca Terra Farms, Riverland
Viticulturist Ashley Ratcliff is a passionate advocate of planting more heat-tolerant, less-thirsty, non-mainstream Mediterranean and Iberian grape varieties in the inland irrigated Riverland region of South Australia. He argues that they can produce more interesting, more delicious wines here in a more sustainable and more profitable way than the more familiar chardonnay and shiraz. The grapes not only find their way into wines under his own labels, Ricca Terra and Terra do Rio, but are also highly sought-after by other leading winemakers such as Brash Higgins, Bellwether and Unico Zelo. Importantly, Ratcliff hopes his Ricca Terra Farms project can change perceptions of the Riverland as just a source of cheap bulk wine, and offer a vision of a viable future for the region’s community of growers.
2020 Ricca Terra Bronco Buster [Riverland]
A co-fermented blend of fiano, vermentino and greco, three white grapes originally from southern Italy and now very much at home in the Riverland. Fragrant, floral, enticing, fresh, some grapey texture balanced by zingy juiciness. Delicious. No acid additions in the winery (very unusual for wine made in this hot region), early bottling and moderate (12 per cent) alcohol. Winner of two trophies (Best Italian Variety White and Best Blend) at last year’s Australian Alternative Variety Wine Show – and rightly so. $22.50
Vineyard of the Year Award: Swinney
Swinney is the complete package. A large vineyard at more than 160 hectares, it was originally planted in the ironstone-rich soils of Frankland River in the late-1900s by fourth-generation farmers, siblings Matt and Janelle Swinney, primarily to grow red grapes for Hardys. Since then, it has transformed into a multi-variety site, with acclaimed viticulturist Lee Haselgrove growing everything from cabernet to vermentino grapes – for wines under the Swinneys’ own label, and sold to more than 30 other winemakers – in a number of different ways, from exciting and unusual blocks of bush-vine grenache and tempranillo, to no-expense-spared blocks of shiraz for the family’s top label, Farvie.
2019 Swinney Farvie Syrah [Frankland River]
When I tasted the first vintage releases of Swinney’s top red wines under the Farvie label, the 2018s, I was most impressed with the grenache. In 2019, as good as the grenache is, it’s the syrah that steals the show. An arresting wine from the first sniff: glorious ripe black fruit, but restrained and enticing rather than showy. Then lovely, satisfying density of ripe fruit on the tongue, too, but held together by long, seamless tannins. Really stylish wine. $150
Follow the topics, people and companies that matter to you.