Straddling the peak of the Great Dividing Range – Australia’s eastern mountain spine – Victoria’s spectacular High Country is one of our most exciting wine regions.
Nowhere else does your glass of wine come served with such history and adventure. This is a place where winemakers work the same lands that once inspired Banjo Patterson; where vines grow beside goldfields; where you can drink a glass of fortified with the ghost of Ned Kelly.
Home to a diverse group of vinous sub-regions, in High Country you can enjoy the delights of Rutherglen’s warm-climate reds before indulging in the King Valley's cool-climate prosecco, all within an hour’s drive.
High Country History
Victoria’s High Country is a region rich in history. Before the first vines were planted, Indigenous people had lived off the land for centuries; bushrangers patrolled the scrub; European explorers Hume and Howell arrived in 1824 and discovered gold in its rivers.
Precious metal was first found in Beechworth in 1852 and it brought with it thousands of international prospectors wanting to try their luck on Australia’s golden hills. What came next was wine.
One of the first vignerons in the north-east was Lindsay Brown, who took up the Gooramadda run in 1839. Despite gold coming later, Brown was convinced there was greater (and surer) wealth in viticulture. He had been recorded saying: “To get gold you need sink only about 18 inches and plant vines.”
Rutherglen and Glenrowan were at the height of their wine power at the very end of the 19th century, having made a name for themselves in the United Kingdom thanks to their luscious red wines and fortifieds. Unfortunately, the boom was short lived, the new century bringing with it a phylloxera outbreak that ravaged the district. The winemakers pushed on, however, and the north-east winemaking region soon embraced its cooler sites in Beechworth, King Valley and Alpine Valleys – a joining of forces that created the High Country wine region as we know it today.
Wine styles of High Country
There’s a fairly extensive list of wine styles coming out of Victoria’s Alps, largely due to the diversity of its sub-regions. While your shiraz, pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon varietals can be widely found, the High Country does have a few specialities up its sleeve:
King Valley’s Italian varietals
The King Valley has long been home to Italian migrants who brought with them a love of Mediterranean-style wine, like sangiovese and pinot grigio. These styles took off in the sub-region, as did Australia’s first-ever sparkling prosecco and some benchmark nebbiolo.
Rutherglen and its reds
Rutherglen is a warmer climate and with its low-lying land and long, dry seasons, it’s no surprise the region is renowned for its richer reds. If you’ve been wanting to test your palate on wines such as durif, muscat and topaque, then this is the region for you.
The long and moderate growing conditions in the Alpine Valley make for outstanding cool-climate white varietals. In the region surrounding Bright, make sure you taste the chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.
High Country's sub-regions
Nestled in the northern foothills of the Victorian Alps, if the name of this sub-region is not sufficiently evocative, then Mount Beauty (snow-clad in winter) and Bright should allude to how spectacular its areas are.
It consists of four basins or valleys created by the Ovens, Buffalo, Buckland and Kiewa rivers. Altitude here rises from 150 metres to more than 320 metres, with the highest sites having significantly cooler growing seasons and a much higher rainfall. In regards to wine varietals, there is a more or less even split between reds and whites, a fact that reflects the wide range of microclimates that exist at different elevations and sites. Mix up sampling excellent chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, merlot, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon with walks along incredible trails.
The King Valley started out as a tobacco-growing region, the rich soils and hard work of the predominantly Italian farmers ensuring a highly profitable business. But times change, and as the tobacco-leaf market dwindled away, other crops had to be found. Enter viticulture.
Today, the King Valley is all about celebrating its Italian heritage. Lesser-known Italian (Russian and Spanish) grape varieties have blossomed here, so if you’ve been wanting to test your palate on a barbera, nebbiolo or saperavi, then this is the region for you. Otherwise, prosecco-style sparkling, chardonnay, pinot gris, merlot and cabernet sauvignon are the main varietals being produced in the region.
This is a part of Australia steeped in history, with character and personality that's second to none. One of the first vignerons in the north-east was Lindsay Brown, who took up the Gooramadda run in 1839. Gold came later, but Brown was convinced there was greater (and surer) wealth in viticulture.
With warm summer days and cold nights (excellent for acid-retention), it was quickly realised that this was a region perfect for producing full-bodied reds and fortified wines. This led to the establishment of the first three great vineyards and wineries of the region: Mount Ophir, Fairfield, and Graham’s. You can still visit the magnificent Victorian mansions today to soak up the 19th century history, with a glass of shiraz/durif/muscat/topaque in hand, of course.
Beechworth had a dazzling start in the 19th century, and there are those who believe its 21st century future is every bit as bright; if they are right, it will prove that size does not matter, for the region is a mere pocket handkerchief compared to, say, Geelong.
The town of Beechworth was built with gold, discovered in March 1852, the year before the town was proclaimed. Perched precariously on a steep hillside with streets plunging at precipitous, unexpected angles, its stone buildings and array of exotic European trees are a sight to behold in autumn. Honestly, it’s beautiful.
Beechworth has also never overextended itself when it comes to wine production, choosing to focus almost solely on chardonnay, shiraz and pinot noir. This makes for regional excellence in these three varieties.
This is Ned Kelly country, as immersed in history as Rutherglen, but with an added touch of romance from the days of the bushrangers. The feel of the country, too, is subtly different, flanked as it is by the Warby Range on the eastern side and Lake Mokoan on the south-western side.
In a somewhat repeated story, vines here followed in the footsteps of gold. In 1866 Varley Bailey planted vines. In 1870, the first vintage was made and the demand for wines – particularly fortifieds – led to expansion. Today, Glenrowan is all about red varietals, in particular shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and, of course, fortified.
High Country geography, climate and soil
High Country is home to a diverse range of sub-regions, each with its own geography, climate and soil types. One of the main distinguishing factors here is altitude, rather than distance. Within an hour’s drive in High Country you can go from hot to cool-climate areas due to a change in elevation.
For example, the Alpine Valleys lofty position makes for a significantly cooler growing season than that of low-lying Rutherglen. Where the Alpine Valleys crafts first-class, cool-climate chardonnay, Rutherglen produces full-bodied reds and fortifieds.
In the King Valley, the climate is ideal for the production of fine sparkling wine, and so are fertile soils and good drainage. Beechworth is home to two major soil types: very old sandstone gravel, and granitic soil over clay derived from volcanic deposits. Glenrowan is somewhat milder than Rutherglen thanks to the moderating influence of Lake Mokoan.
Things to do in High Country
Besides tasting your way through every cellar door in the Victorian Alps, there is a long list of other activities to keep you busy on your travels. What else goes hand in hand with wine and Food. The gourmet scene in Milawa and Beechworth especially deserves your culinary attention. Focusing on farm-to-table produce, eating the High Country is an experience you’ll want to share with a loved one.
For the more adventurous, you can ski in winter, cycle in summer and jump in the saddle of a horse anytime. Horseback tours are readily available and make for a picture-perfect way to see the Banjo Patterson landscape.
And then there are the lakes and rivers. If you’re a fisherman (or woman), the Taggerty, Acheron, Rubicon and Steavenson rivers are flush with brown trout. Otherwise, Lake Eildon provides an excellent view to relaxing.
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