From the ocean to the land, the soil to the wine styles, you’ll find a great deal of diversity within Geelong, a robust, resilient region just south of Melbourne.
Wherever you go in this sprawling wine region, stretching from Werribee, halfway to Ballarat and right down the Great Ocean Road, comparisons are made to its Victorian counterparts ad nauseam. With a mix of admiration and jealousy, it's as if Geelong is the neglected middle child, trailing along unnoticed in the shadow of its siblings. But as it emerges from those formative years to become a confident food and wine destination, you can feel that’s all about to change. Five-star wineries, restaurants and diverse scenery lay in wait, just a set of stoplights from Melbourne and a straight run down the Westgate.
Geelong is a typical New World pinot region, but not without anomalies. The soils are relatively young, deposited after the last ice age in part. A volcano in the region means much of the surface material is volcanic – mostly black basalt rather than the rich, rust-red found in other areas. Always drier than its peers Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley, this is an element distinctive to the region and its resulting wines. The vines in Geelong are robust, the wines are a bit bigger, and the makers are tough and savvy.
Following pine-lined fields filled with goats, sheep and cows, as you ascend Scotchmans Hill it's a surprise to see Corio and Port Phillip Bay in the distance. “Here we’re surrounded, like an island,” says veteran winemaker Robin Brockett. “The bay heavily influences our viticulture. It’s cold and windswept, and we only produce about two tonnes to the acre.”
A lot has happened here over the past year. Following the Brown family split that sent the business into receivership, things were looking grim. But with a slew of new investors promising more freedom than ever before, expect to see the brand repair and reinvent. The story of Scotchmans is pivotal to the Peninsula. Robin began here in 1988, and was one of the region’s first employed winemakers. He remembers the conditions of every vintage and has learnt many valuable lessons along the way. “It takes a long time to learn the vineyards,” he says.
A personal interest of Robin’s is producing shiraz, and he certainly has a knack for it. His is the hand behind the award-winning 2012 Terindah Estate and Oakdene’s William Shiraz – as well as Scotchmans’ own labels. While the rest of the region is focused on pinot, Robyn is all for shiraz. “As climate change happens and it’s getting warmer – this year we’ve had flowering the earliest I’ve seen it by 10 days and we’re picking a month sooner than we did 10 years ago – our shiraz is moving from strength-to-strength. To me shiraz is the future. But pinot will always be there, adapting and changing.” Scotchmans’ shiraz is made the same way as their pinot – wild fermented and hand plunged, before spending 16 months in French oak.
But Scotchmans’ view of the future is more than just shiraz. “In 2016 we’ll be planting vineyards again for the first time in 15 years. We’re going to put in pinot gris because it’s a growth variety, and more chardonnay because our 1983 block will reach the end of its economic life in 10 to 15 years. We’ll be planting on the east-west rows rather than north-south – our best wine is coming off the east-west blocks now. Other things we’ll be looking at are alternative varieties like albarino and gruner vetliner. The philosophy here is to make wine like we’re a 100-tonne winery, and a lot of our reds are handmade.”
The vantage of the cellar door means you can look to where the wine has come from while you taste it, an all-encompassing experience of product and place. Visit during the week and you’re welcome to look around, and uniquely, even during vintage. “We can’t afford to be pretentious. You’ve got to keep evolving. And that’s not just with wine – that’s life in general,” says Robin.
Featuring unique themed accommodation, a quirky orchard, a fine dining restaurant and an unfussy cafe, there’s something for everyone at Oakdene. Amaze ‘N’ Games is also down the road, so a visit here appeals to families. It’s only in the last 12 months that Oakdene has nailed the business model, and that’s largely thanks to its varied attractions.
Oakdene’s wine is crushed and produced at what wine director Steven Paul affectionately knows as ‘Scotchos’. Steve manned the cellar door at Scotchmans Hill for a number of years. “Scotchos have this string to their bow; they’ve always made crazy wines. They’re looked upon as quite mainstream because they’re the largest producer in the region, but as long as I’ve known them they’ve played around with new styles.”
Experimental winemaking has worked in Oakdene’s favour. Their Jessica Sauvignon Blanc, modelled on an age-worthy style produced under Scotchmans’ Cornelius label, is a bestseller at the cellar door and has been well received by industry. “We started selling our barrel-fermented style into Melbourne and sommeliers were saying it was really cool, a sauvignon blanc they wanted to drink,” says Steve.
Like Robin, Steve is of the opinion that shiraz is on the march in Geelong. “Bellarine shiraz is spice, pepper, similar to a Rhone-style. It’s different from your traditional Australian styles. Our shiraz is a clone from the Best's vineyard’s 1860s plantings. It’s different to anything else you see on the Peninsula, and that’s probably the reason it’s become the wine that it has. The Best's clone gives it this generosity of red fruit, blended with the PT23 clone that gives it acidity and zest. The ’14 William Shiraz has been in four shows and already taken out three gold medals.”
Will Derham and his family are involved in every aspect of Banks Road, from marketing and working in the vineyard to making the wine and pouring it at the cellar door. It’s completely hands-on. Visit here and you’re likely to taste and talk about the wines with those who’ve created them. “We want people to come in and interact with us,” says Will. While drawcard wineries in the area may have music and views, what these guys lack in flash they make up for in gusto.
Banks Road also has access to old-vine fruit, sourcing from 1978-planted vines for their top-rated Soho Road range. “A selection of pinot noir, chardonnay and blanc de blanc, to me, Soho is about saying these are the oldest vines on the Bellarine Peninsula, from this little hill that’s only five-acres and five kilometres from Banks Road.” The old-vine site's previous owner was selling the fruit to Scotchmans for their reserve red. It was only when the land was fortuitously sold to an acquaintance that Will was able to gain a 50 per cent share in the plot.
Of the Banks Road style, Will says, “Philosophically we don’t chase high alcohols – I have a preference for elegant, regionally expressive styles – but I vary that on the vintage. We’re really interested in optimal picking time, which is probably the most unscientifically proven aspect of winemaking. It comes back to the judgement of the winemaker, and it’s the most important decision we make.”
In terms of viticulture, Will says they’re “embracing the scientific end of biodynamics”. They have Babydoll Sheep in the vineyard taking care of the weeds. “We’ve also started using an organic feed, and we’re pleased with the results. When I dug a hole to plant the first vine back in 2002, the worms were tiny. Now, they’re big, fat and there are lots of them.”
A special site
Bannockburn Vineyards has the precise composition of a Jeffrey Smart painting. Fields of pale wheat run alongside the burnt orange drive, finishing in front of a vine-surrounded dam. On a wet and grey day in Geelong such as this one, it’s a beautiful, brooding sight. And these days don’t come often in the Moorabool Valley, so they have to be appreciated. This sub-region sits in a rain shadow, and making wine here has never been easy. It’s a testament to the skill of its producers that they make climatic factors work in their favour, producing styles of great complexity and character.
We greet Bannockburn’s new young-gun winemaker, Matthew Holmes. Matt has worked in wine regions around the world – from Australia to NZ, British Columbia, California, France and Italy – bringing diverse experience to Bannockburn.
While respectful of Michael Glover’s work for Bannockburn, Matt plans to bring his own flair to the brand. “I’m not as in favour of whole-bunch fermentation as Michael was; I prefer to have a lower percentage, but I still enjoy some of what that brings to wine. I pick on the early side, I don’t use any additions, and I prefer a moderate amount of oak only. I’m less tolerant of fruit and would rather it wasn’t dominant, so for me it’s about subtlety; it’s not an entirely different school of thought, it’s just a different way of saying something.”
Matt’s history with Bannockburn began when Gary Farr departed in 2005, working a harvest before heading to North America. When Michael left earlier this year, he got the call up to do the harvest again, at which point he wasn’t considering coming back to Australia at all. What changed his mind? “In the 25 harvests I’ve worked, Bannockburn is the best fruit I’ve seen,” says Matt. “The Serré block is especially hard to match.”
“Planted in 1982, Serré is Australia’s oldest close-planted block. My feeling is that the competition between the vines means none gets ahead or behind in terms of water status and therefore ripening. When I walk through our broader spaces, you have to average the flavour in the row or block to decide whether or not it’s time to pick. But when you walk through the Serré block, there’s no need for averaging – they all taste the same. It’s the only block I’ve ever walked through that has that uniformity of flavour,” he says.
Sue Dixon and Terry Jongebloed have been running Clyde Park for the past 18 years. Ex-business professionals with a family of three daughters, they bought the vineyard for a lifestyle change. “We wanted somewhere close to Melbourne, so on a Friday we could get out of town. Sue wanted a beach house, and I wanted a few vines. So Geelong was our compromise.” Terry drives us around the blocks, passing their house in the valley with a veggie patch and flock of chooks. He points out a hatch leading to an old-school underground cellar, and tells us of plans to rebuild it. They’ve created something beautiful for themselves, and the operation at Clyde Park is their way of sharing that – the good life, in the truest sense.
A vineyard formerly owned by the great Gary Farr, the two families have worked closely on Clyde Park to make it the winery it is today. We’ve talked a lot with Gary about how he’s gotten through drought and difficult conditions. We came into the industry as consumers – we knew nothing. And Gary and Robyn were fantastic to us, we count them as really dear friends. Terry shows us the old F Block, which is close-planted and low-planted in a similar style to Bannockburn’s. Gary planted this back in ‘89. We’ve worked hard to reinvigorate it, it’s really about a 10-year program but there’s a lot of fruit on there.
Clyde Park is leading the way in viticulture, with smart, sustainable practices at play. Until last week we had 47 days without a drop, yet our vines have never had a better budburst. And I think that’s because our viticulture has changed. We create our own compost now. Our sheep eat our weeds over winter and create organic matter for the vines. And we haven’t under-vine sprayed in a long time. You get lots of tough elements here, but ultimately if we’re tough in return and kind to our vines, we do well. Our yields are low – a good year for us is one-and-a-half tonnes to the acre. But we make great wine from the fruit that we bring in.
In 2006 a piece of research was undertaken to better understand the site, and by 2012 four individual blocks had been defined. “Of the blocks, the left-hand side is loamy, alluvial and with a little limestone, but not a rock. On the right-hand side, you’ll find a new rock every day – you didn’t trip over it yesterday but bloody hell, you did today. It’s dry, rugged black clay – it gets all the winds and westerlies – and it produces interesting complexities. About half the vineyard is pinot noir, and there’s one block we call B2 that produces more of an earthy style, definitely on the funky side, and definitely one that will split opinions. The B2 block is 10 rows, and it’s incredible because you’ve got this pinot planted next to it that just doesn’t taste as good. These 10 rows are special, and they’re special in a different way.”
While they've enjoyed guidance from the Farrs, Sue and Terry have truly made Clyde Park their own, and when it comes to hospitality, there’s nothing else like it in the Valley. “We’ve taken the same approach to our produce as we have to our wine. We graze our own lamb, we’ve got an active veggie garden, and there are 100 solar panels on the Bistro roof. All of our scraps from today will go to our chickens tonight, and they lay our eggs. And that whole process is just to be as natural and as practical as we can, which is not necessarily as easy as it sounds.”
Geelong, rightly so, is starting to be recognised for its wine. And the best is yet to come, because the intelligence and skill set of its people is developing. “We’re no longer just farmers making wine, we’ve transgressed to being more professional. You know we make mistakes, and geez we could be a lot better sometimes, but really, everyone is improving,” says Terry. “I think Geelong will become one of the powerhouses of pinot noir in the next few years, if it’s not already there.”
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