Beechworth, Victoria: Diamond in the Rough
Beechworth is not a region for the faint-hearted. Dominated by rocky soil and a harsh climate, it doesn’t relinquish its gifts easily. But those who have toiled long and hard are now reaping the rewards in the form of glorious wines.
Step back 30 years and you’d hardly find a grapevine in Beechworth. But go there today and you’ll find a cluster of the Australian wine industry’s elite, producing wines across a remarkable range of varieties and flavours. The story behind that rise belongs to the land, the skies and the remarkable folk who persevere there.
Persevere: if ever there was a region where this was a prerequisite, Beechworth, in north-east Victoria, is it. Standing at the foot of the Giaconda estate vineyard and peering up the steep hill, you see a granite-strewn land that would break the back of most. When you think that Giaconda’s owner and founder, Rick Kinzbrunner, worked tirelessly to clear this land before the region gained a reputation, you quickly know why his name has become legend. Giaconda may now produce the most exquisite chardonnay (among other varieties), but the road to today’s glory was an arduous one.
It hasn’t been much easier for the newer entrants – more money and more equipment have helped, but the land and the skies will forever attempt to stymie growth. This is a beautiful, glorious region full of sharp undulations and blue-mountain views, the Victorian Alps bursting up from its doorstep. However, the seasons can be extreme: drought and bushfire-prone in summer and bitterly cold in winter. In the growing season leading up to the 2007 harvest, one of the region’s stars, Julian Castagna, noted that he’d had 15mm of rain when he’d normally expect between 450mm and 650mm. The lesson from this region is never to feel too comfortable: Beechworth is an historic, gold-rush, Ned Kelly kind of town, and sustaining any kind of agriculture long-term is not going to be easy.
But the harsh conditions produce quality wines. Beechworth will never be a broad-acre, cheap-and-cheerful region – there isn’t the land for it, and what land there is tends to be so hard, rocky and dry that the only incentive in farming it is to achieve quality. Thus the region’s wines are not cheap but enjoy a fine reputation.
Giaconda chardonnay and shiraz; Castagna syrah, sangiovese and rosé; Savaterre chardonnay and pinot noir; Battely syrah; Sorrenberg gamay and chardonnay – all these wines belong at or near the top of the Australian wine ladder. If you look at the number of great wines from the region compared with the number of producers, you see that Beechworth has the best producer/performance ratio in the country. That Smiths, Brokenwood, Golden Ball, Star Lane and others are rising rapidly makes the story even better. A couple of years ago, Julian Castagna said that Beechworth would become known as a small-scale, exclusive Margaret River. He may have underestimated its potential.
Beechworth has remarkably diverse wine styles. It is wet in winter, dry in summer, has cool or freezing nights all year round and, while technically a cool-climate, relatively high-altitude region, can ripen just about anything. Its modern reputation was built on chardonnay and pinot noir, but cabernet, merlot and gamay have always done well, and the past few years have seen shiraz bolt to the top – in the past nine months, Castagna has planted more shiraz and Savaterre has planted its first section of the grape. The region has quickly proven that powerful, elegant, characterful shiraz can be produced in most years, and so the race is on.
It is not the only race, however; there are several producers now growing nebbiolo and sangiovese, with sangrantino also making an appearance. The Beechworth story in five to 10 years may well be quite different, with the winemaking Italophiles exerting their influence.
The reason for this variation is twofold – the land itself and the people working it. All those steep undulations mean that what we refer to as the Beechworth region spans a wide variety of altitudes, and hence a wide variety of average temperatures. It also means that aspect – the way the vineyard faces in relation to the elements – is also very important and can be easily used to a particular variety’s advantage.
The other reason is a less tangible one but perhaps all the more fascinating. Long before the wine rush, Beechworth had an uncanny knack of attracting folk of fierce, stubborn, do-it-my-own-way character. It continues to do so. The Beechworth wine region is full of intelligent, highly idiosyncratic, headstrong people, a situation that may not always lend itself to the warmest of relations between neighbours but often results in wines of such forceful character that they are impossible to ignore.
Top Cellar Doors
Beechworth is not a place for the grand cellar door. Indeed, it’s mostly a closed shop – visitors to the region are often bemused by the fact that all the bigger wineries are open by appointment only. This, however, should not deter you because there are some good cellar doors, and a private appointment at a leading winery can be a very rewarding experience.
Source: Gourmet Traveller