Book Review – A Vision for Wine – A History of the Viticultural Society of Victoria by David Dunstan.

David Dunstan’s A Vision for Wine – A History of the Viticultural Society of Victoria is a must read for not only those in the wine business but also those who drink wine– and that’s a good many of us given that the average imbiber consumes 304 glasses of wine annually.

Wine came of age as a popular drink in the 1960s, a relatively short time ago,  and the history of both vine and wine in Victoria and their contribution to Australian wine owes much to a relatively obscure wine organisation that is the oldest of its type in Australia.

Great credit is due to Dunstan for this fascinating glimpse into the often perilous travails of all things wine in Victoria, which at times teetered on extinction, as much from indifference, the occasional hostility of Governments and the unrelenting influence of the Temperance movement – as it did from the dreaded phylloxera disease.

This riveting, richly rewarding social history is of relevance from many perspectives, not least of which is that it shines a light on issues that still resonate today. The most obvious and vexing is the incandescent, anti-alcohol lobby that presently threatens wine’s good name in much the same way as the Temperance movement and prohibition of the past once did.

True, the Viticultural Society of Victoria was not the only organisation that fought the good fight, but especially in its first 50 years it played a much more significant role than many would have believed.

From its birth in 1905 as a vociferous defender of the then imperilled Victorian wine industry – through many a turbulent decade which eventually saw the creation of a representative national wine industry peak body –  to the present day – it helped influence and advance the cause of wine. And still does in its convivial, unobtrusive way.

Industry politics aside, much of what we take for granted today in regard to wine enjoyment, appreciation, education and connoisseurship is due to the likes of the Viticultural Society of Victoria and to the many Wine & Food Societies and Beefsteak and Burgundy clubs that helped put wine on the modern-day map in the early 1960s and beyond.

As Mike Veseth says in his book Extreme Wine – wine (in America) is still recovering from the dark days of Prohibition when it was reduced to its alcoholic content in the minds of many producers, consumers, and (especially) regulators.

In reading this book it’s obvious that wine is a valuable cultural component or temperate, healthful product that unites people. It’s as much about people, places and stories as it is about the wine itself.

I, and many a Melbourne wine scribe, learnt much about European wines by attending a Society lunch (or two) in much the same way as we did about Aussie wines (and life) at the renowned Jimmy Watson’s Wine Bar in Carlton.

The revival and ascendency of wine today owes much to the individuals past and present of the Viticultural Society of Victoria and likewise the Society owes much to this book’s author.

Anyone remotely interested in wine and colonial history, and how both are inextricably linked, will enjoy this book’s insights into the significance of the Society itself, its relationship to The Royal Agricultural Society; its contribution to show judging; its relationship to other industry bodies like the influential, feisty, Rutherglen Winegrowers Association – and its political and social contribution to the creation of a national wine industry peak body.

As Hubert de Castella said in the late 1880s within the compass of Victoria alone could be produced all the great wine styles of Europe. Fast forward to today and this holds true now.

So if you want to find out how we have got to where we are today I suggest you read this compelling history of a Society few would have heard of, but on reading, many will begin to appreciate.


RRP $49.95 Hardbound & Illustrated

Dimensions : 297mm X 210mm

Published by: The Viticultural Society of Victoria

Produced by: End2End Books, Clayton Victoria

Heard it Through the Grapevine goes national

From Sunday 15th June 2014 my weekly Heard it Through the Grapevine program on Saturday evenings on 1179 AM Vision Australia Radio Melbourne will go national via the Community Radio Network (CRN).

CRN creates and distributes a selection of the best news, talk, music and entertainment programs to a network of 160 independent community radio stations. Through them the network reaches over 1.5million listeners per week.


Nagambie Lakes – The Modernity of Tradition

Spent a week recently in and around Victoria’s Nagambie Lakes region, which like its near neighbour the Strathbogie Ranges has much to offer. These regions complement one another well.

There’s plenty to reward the most fastidious of wine lovers, including the ubiquitous Rhone whites and reds (long the region’s mainstay) and latterly some emerging, contemporary varietals such as savagnin, primitivo (aka Zinfandel),  nebbiolo and sangiovese (some of which whose fruit is sourced from Heathcote, but made locally).

Firstly Nagambie Lakes

Despite its proximity to Melbourne (about an hour and a half by road) and its historical significance, Nagambie Lakes has lived in the shadow of the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula for decades and of late has played second fiddle to Heathcote, especially in regard to shiraz.

If ever a region is exemplified by the Peter Allen song everything old is new again its Nagambie Lakes – its back from the brink in a big way and cries out to be re-discovered, thanks in most part, to Gerry Ryan’s ongoing reincarnation of Mitchelton.

And an ambitious Rivers & Ranges (Central Victoria) regional, re-branding strategy (still in its infancy) by the influential  triumvirate of Mitchelton, Tahbilk and Fowles Wine nearby in the Strathbogie Ranges.

Rivers & Ranges (Central Victoria) is designed to leverage what’s best and common to both regions – their capacity to produce consistently good wines, especially Shiraz and Riesling. But there’s much more to it than just Shiraz and Riesling – read on.

To paraphrase Aldous Huxley, to the outside world nothing changes (in Nagambie Lakes) and yet everything is completely different.

Well not quite, not so much completely different more a case of tradition juxtaposed with the new, or to use a quote I’m very fond of which encapsulates today’s Nagambie Lakes – the modernity of tradition.

What makes the Nagambie Lakes GI so special?

In 1993 the Australian Wine & Brandy Corporation set up a Geographical Indications Committee to identify and re-define viticultural regions throughout Australia, including Nagambie Lakes.

What distinguishes it apart, not only from other Australian wine regions, but also other regions around the world, revolves around two clearly identifiable factors that, when combined, give Nagambie Lakes a unique position in the world of wine.

Firstly, Nagambie Lakes is the only Australian wine region, and one of only six worldwide, where the meso-climate is dramatically influenced by inland water mass. The effect of the many Lakes and Lagoons (which are linked by the Goulburn River) is a more moderate and cooler than expected within such a climate.

An apt example of this meso-climate is Mitchelton and its varying vineyards which are very much influence by the Goulburn river that wraps itself around the Mitchelton site. The course of the river that envelopes Mitchelton helps create this meso-climate.

Secondly, the region has a unique soil type (duplex 2.2) which is only found in one other location in Victoria. The soil is red/sandy loam and is so coloured because of the very high Ferric-oxide content, which has a positive effect on grape quality and adds a certain distinctive regional character to the wines.

Mitchelton’s Modernity

Enter Gerry Ryan and the re-birth of Mitchelton, now accessible by a blissful boat trip along the Goulburn from Lake Nagambie.

There aren’t many regions in the world when you can catch a boat, in this case the purpose built Goulburn Explorer and discover two vividly contrasting wineries –   modern Mitchelton and traditional Tahbilk –  in such comfort and style.

The $500,000+ Goulburn Explorer has only been in operation since last November and Gerry Ryan has completely transformed Mitchelton from a cellar door, restaurant and overall visitor perspective.

Restaurant Terrace at Michelton Winery

What really sets Mitchelton apart, aside from its architecture, is its picture-postcard, serene location.

There’s more to wine than just the wine itself – Yes, the wine needs to be good (and is good, and getting better, especially the Riesling); but it’s the people, places and stories behind the wine that invariably create the best memories.

There’s an obvious sense-of-place or terroir in the vineyards and the wine that Ryan is aiming to capture at Mitchelton by making it a must visit destination and a mecca for functions, including future live concerts and performances – akin to Rochford in the Yarra Valley and Leeuwin Estate in WA. If successful this should have a positive ripple effect in helping draw cellar door visitors to the smaller producers.

Nagambie Lakes wine has long been good, and at times excellent – as typified by some vintage Tahbilk Shriaz and cabernets and some Mitchelton Print Shriaz.

There’s a buzz and palpable sense of excitement in and around Nagambie Lakes; not only in the renewed quality and variety of its wines, but also about its future as a wine destination – replete with dramatically improved regional cuisine and dining – especially at Mitchelton’s Muse Restaurant.

Just catch the Goulburn Explorer at 11 am and alight at Mitchelton around 12.30, lunch at the Muse and hop back on board for the return trip, stopping off at Tahbilk on the way back – to best get a feel for what I’m on about.

Tahbilk’s Tradition

Tahbilk from the Goulburn River

Tahbilk’s distinction is that it has the oldest single planting of Marsanne vines in the world and, from an Aussie perspective; it is Victoria’s oldest, family owned winery. Obviously, there’s far more to Tahbilk than this, as most would know.

Tahbilk make a staggering variety of wine styles including whites such as their benchmark Marsanne (including the 1927 vines Marsanne) Viognier, Roussanne, Verdelho, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Then there the reds including the1860s vines Shiraz.

Also there’s the yet-to-be-discovered eco walks (boardwalks) within Tahbilk’s Wetlands & Wildlife Reserve, an underutilized riverside café with potential (if it gets its food and hospitality right) and the historic cellars and cellar door – all of which could be made much more visitor friendly in their respective ways. Some good food, welcoming service, a few seats and picnic areas would help!

Sadly, Tabhilk is looking a bit tired, almost as if it’s weighed down by its history.

And there’s more…

There are a few smaller producers – for example Don Lewis and Narelle King are doing some creative things at Tar &Roses – Don’s 2013 Lewis Riesling [80% Nagambie Lake’s fruit & 20% Strathbogie Ranges fruit] –  is a ripper.

While Sarah Gough at Box Grove is making some excellent Rhone whites including Roussanne and a Sparkling Roussanne (sadly much under-appreciated, as many think them too phenolic). Also she has added Savagnin to her white wine repertoire.

Enter the Strathbogie Ranges

And, whilst not in the Nagambie Lakes GI, Fowles Wines in the adjoining Strathbogie Ranges with its catchy (slightly politically incorrect) Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch & Are You Game? labels and its popular cellar door and restaurant (which is thankfully open for breakfast) on the Hume highway at Avenel – is a regional mecca.

Fowles Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch & Are You Game? wines are enjoying great success locally and in export markets including the USA (Washington & Texas) and in the UK.

Gastronomically, Fowles is helping raise the profile of game and the role of recreational hunting in Victoria (and by implication) Australia. Smart marketing!

Coming up – more about the Strathbogie Ranges.

Next I will venture into the rugged climes of the Strathbogie Ranges where I will meet the likes of the universally, well-liked and popular Sam Plunkett (late of Plunkett Fowles) and now busy at Elgo Estate making ripper Wines By Sam wines (including Shiraz, Chardonnay, Riesling and Savagnin) with the help of investor Angels from Naked Wines Australia (watch this space).

I will also meet Jenny Houghton at Magyars Hill in Longwood East and taste some of her much sought after cabernet; and visit Garners Wines over the road, and time permitting say hullo to Snow Barlow & Winsome McCaughey at Baddaginnie Run further north along the Hume.

And no visit to the Strathbogies would be complete without meeting Lindsay Brown at Fowles winery; eating at Fowles’ Cellar door restaurant in Avenel, or popping into see local butcher Scott Reid at Avenel Meats and picking up some of Scott’s fabulous snags or David Fowles’  yummy lamb chops.



Make Muscat a Must


Jancis Robinson readily admits that neither her palate nor her brain were at their freshest when the late John Charles Brown of the famous Brown Brothers clan at Milawa, dropped her off on a hot summer’s day in 1981 at Morris of Rutherglen.

Australia’s most lauded fortified winemaker, Mick Morris, resplendent in filthy shorts and an even filthier shirt greeted a bemused Jancis with a laconic “We’ll have yer full before yer leave” – very Australian, very laconic, very Rutherglen!
Those Rutherglen vignerons are a tough, knockabout, distinctive lot – Walter Senior James, the doyen of wine writers in the late 1950s and 1960s, may well have described them as Rutherglen Ragamuffins.

As may have the august André Simon, of The Wine and Food Society fame, who visited Australia 17 years earlier in 1964 and somewhat prosaically described Rutherglen as “a producer of good sherries and a large amount of dessert wines, which must be better than most, since they are always given top prizes at Wine Shows”.

Such Gallic – English insouciance! Morris Wines alone have won more gold, silver and bronze (but mostly gold) medals, awards and international acclamations than I have had hot dinners. Translate that into how many medals Rutherglen fortifieds have won collectively – probably enough in sheer volume and weight to sink Clive Palmers’ yet to be launched Titanic!

Back to the dust, flies and simmering heat of 1981 and a shell-shocked Jancis Robinson. On surveying the tin sheds comprising Morris at Mia Mia in the company of young Mick, she must have been struck dumb. Having come from an icy London winter to a sweltering North East Victorian summer she may well have contemplated saying to herself “beam me up Scotty”!

Hitherto the closest she had come to tasting anything that remotely resembled a renowned North East Victorian fortified was in northern Portugal’s Douro Valley, upstream from Oporto and home, of course, to the world famous ports.

No grandeur or aplomb in Rutherglen though, no famous Oporto Factory House, no airs, graces or beg you pardons, even for an up and coming Pommy wine writer of influence, just a motley collection of tin sheds, sweaty singlets and more flies than you could poke a stick at. Replete with an Aussie swagger, a rustic pot still, dusty cellar floor and barrel after barrel the contents of which were ready to be blended or had lain dormant for decades having been blended eons ago – that’s Mia Mia.

Who said unearthing liquid gold was meant to be easy?

A rapturous Robinson.

Robinson’s description of what she sampled that day in 1981 is thus: “They’re made from ultra-ripe, nearly raisined grapes which are allowed to just start fermenting before a great whack of fiery young brandy is added to the sweet, grapey mixture and the blend is then added to older wine to be matured for years in a sort of solera system of ancient casks in furnace like sheds. I can’t think of any other winery anywhere in the world whose buildings qualify only as sheds”.

Back in 1981 many an Aussie winery still resembled a collection of tin sheds, including some in the North East. Not everybody could afford a Mount Ophir homestead or an All Saints’ mock castle.
I wonder if Jancis ever made it to Best’s at Great Western and saw its eponymous tin shed.
Some bloody good wines come out of Aussie tin sheds, just ask Viv Thomson or Maurice O’Shea.

Laid out before Jancis that day were the crème de la crème of Rutherglen Liqueur Muscats and Liqueur Tokays (nowadays called Topaque) not just from Morris but from all its competitors.

And they say the life of a professional taster and wine scribe is easy – imagine sniffing, sipping, (you don’t need to swirl) your way through flights of fortifieds in the heat with only a flimsy corrugated iron roof to keep the bottles in the shade, if not exactly cool.

The canny, exuberant Mick has assembled thirty samples of wine whose average alcohol content nudged 18%, however after much pleading by Jancis, he shrunk the selection to a mere twenty three!
After all it was not every day that someone like Jancis dropped in.

And to think, all most of us have to do is jump in our air-conditioned car and scoot up or down the Hume Highway to savour these sublime, unique fortified wines and luxuriate in liquid gold. And Jancis’s verdict: “They were wonderful wines”. “The Liqueur Muscats in particular are quite unlike anything else, truly a sort of warm Christmas cocktail of sherry, port, madeira and Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, and I have remained a fan of this style ever since”. – Me and umpteen others too!

She concluded – “Having to write intelligible notes on and assessments of a score of these things (wines) in the baking Australian bush, after a long morning’s tasting already, was quite a different experience” – another English understatement!

Talk about extreme wines sampled in extreme conditions – I wonder if Mike Veseth of the Wine Economist mentions Rutherglen in his new book Extreme Wine?

Once you have tasted the likes of a Morris Rare Muscat, its essence is indelibly etched on your palate, it warms the cockles of your heart and sooths the troubled spirit – after all, so it should, it is liquid gold.

Fortunately I visited Rutherglen well before Jancis, the first time being around 1965 as a callow youth and have returned there numerous times. As many of my generation did, I armed myself with Doctor Sam Benwell’s Journey to Wine in Victoria guide – and in the company of some mates toured Rutherglen’s cellar doors and filled our car boot chock full with Durif, some sparkling reds, some Morris Muscats, Chambers Rosewoods, some Campbells, and some All Saints, to name but a few.

And from all accounts so did a young Will de Castella (the legendary Francois de Castella’s grandson). Said Will – “People from all over can tell stories of their trip to Rutherglen, on the Red Rattler, of couples on push bikes traveling from winery to winery loading their panniers as they go, of groups of wine-loving friends on bus tours”.

As did Will’s Great Grandfather Hubert (of St Hubert’s fame) who went from vineyard to vineyard in a horse drawn buggy with wine loving companions. No radar speed guns then! That was well before .05 alcohol drink/drive limits came into force in Victoria.

True, there was the Yarra Valley then, but nowhere near as much of it as exists now and the Mornington Peninsula did not exist as a wine region back in the mid-sixties. Nearby Rutherglen was Milawa, then further south there was Tahbilk at Nagambie. Toward the West there was Seppelt and Best’s in Great Western en route to the Pyrenees and Grampians –and, of course Geelong – and nearer to Melbourne Sunbury. For the most part, that was it. Apologies to Mildura and the Riverland.

I cut my wine drinking and cellar door visitation teeth in the likes of Rutherglen and even at that young, unsophisticated, know-it-all age – I (and my friends) intuitively knew we had unearthed something special when we first dipped into the deep liquid brown and gold recesses of a Morris Liqueur Muscat.

Trying to describe the hedonistic, lingering, gob-smacking palate sensation of a rare Rutherglen fortified is like trying to describe a beautiful painting or Darwin sunset over water to a blind person – it’s a subliminal experience – and once had it stays with you seemingly forever.

Of course it helps to jog the memory occasionally by sipping a Morris Muscat when the urge grabs you – and what better time than now as I relive my recent visit to tin shed city – Morris at Mia Mia.

Fast forward to 2013

Fast forward to 2013 and wine critic Tyson Stelzer’s1 take on the Morris Old Premium Rare Liqueur Muscat:”Last time I visited the Rutherglen wine show, old Mr Morris got up to receive trophies so many times that he moved his seat to the front of the auditorium, amid hoots of laughter!
(I like the “old Mr Morris” – so, I suspect, would Mick).

“This wine accounted for most of the accolades, and deservedly so. ‘Rare’ means more than 20 years average age – but the real genius of Morris is its impeccable poise and seamless balance. This should be among the most expensive rare muscats, but it’s the cheapest”. “A treasure of the wine world”. – Vintage: NV Score: 98 points.

Read on and I will tell you about a 100 point wine I tasted recently!

Stelzer continues: “Morris is my house rare, because I adore it and because it is $57 at Dan Murphy s, making two 500mL bottles the same price as a single 375mL of most other rares. It’s a travesty that they can make a wine of more than twenty years average age and sell it at this price”.

“But the most bewildering thing is that most wine lovers don’t even know about it”.

Stelzer is spot on – most wine lovers don’t even know about this magnificent wine or about Morris and Rutherglen itself – let alone what vinous treasures lay waiting to be unearthed. Morris is a metaphor for Rutherglen and while the price of gold (or in this case liquid gold) may fluctuate the value remains constant.

Do yourself a favour and discover Rutherglen’s unique fortified Muscats and Tokays – once you have you will instinctively want to explore Rutherglen itself, many times over. It’s one thing for grumpy, oldish baby boomers like me to rabbit on about the good old days and historic wine regions like Rutherglen – it’s another thing altogether to say to Gen Y and the Millennials to ‘do yourself a favour and discover Rutherglen’s unique fortified Muscats and Tokays– and once you have you will instinctively want to explore Rutherglen itself, many times over’.

Wine is as much about people, places and stories as it is the wine itself. In this day of social media, wine apps and wine blogs it’s never been easier to dig for gold.

As Sam Benwell said in his Journey to Wine in Victoria – “the great wine families of Rutherglen are those who can claim their establishment during the years of gold, or before”. If you can pick up a copy of Sam’s book at a good secondhand bookshop I suggest you do, it will give you a sense of the rich history of Rutherglen and Victorian wine generally.

Yes, there are other fortified and sweet botrytis wines from other places at home and abroad – many of which are brilliant, however there is only one liqueur Muscat worldwide and that is unique to Rutherglen. Sam Benwell encapsulates Muscat perfectly: “Morris’s Mia Mia is to be found the complete performance with Muscat wine. The best Muscats in the world are found in Australia, notably in Victoria, particularly in the far North-East, supremely at Morris’s”.

It may be a Morris, or a Chambers Rosewood, an All Saints, a Bailey’s of Bundarra, or whatever, that’s a matter for your taste and your palate to decide. One thing’s for sure, you will have fun deciding which wine and wine style from which maker you prefer. For me the enduring benchmarks or bookends are Morris and Chambers Rosewood.

And if and when you make it to Rutherglen, I suggest you dine at the Terrace Restaurant at All Saints at Wahgunyah. (Another story for another time.)

Fast forward again to 21st October 2013 and David Morris’s 20th Anniversary Lunch and Tasting at Mia Mia – David and his dad Mick were a tad more sartorially attired than when Jancis Robinson visited 32 years ago, but outwardly the collection of tin sheds remained, likewise the old pot still, the cellar floor was still dusty and the welcome on arrival was typically exuberant and very Rutherglen!

From little grapes big wines grow – A New Age Durif

Prior to lunch, a vertical tasting of Morris Durif from 1990 to the 2013 vintage revealed a consistency in style and structure, despite some normal vintage variation. As the tasting progressed it unravelled to show that a bold, assertive wine, with bite and tannin grip which traditionally benefited from a good few years in the cellar, could be made into a more approachable, fresher, drink younger style, without sacrificing any of its attractive varietal characteristics. This was progressively evident in the 2007 through to the current 2013 vintage flight.

Other than above, I didn’t pick up any discernible difference between the pre 1993 and post 1993 Durifs, the ones Mick made and those David did, though others may have. Durif was first introduced to Rutherglen in 1908 by Francois de Castella.

Lunch amid the barrels within the old cellar, was a treat, imbued with a sense of timelessness that comes when the company, the conversation, the conviviality, the cuisine – and the wine – meld to create an unforgettable occasion.

Executive Chef Veronica Zahra’s fare was exquisite – the highlight being a traditional Oxtail soup paired with a Morris Aged Amber Show Apera (Sherry) and a double cooked pork belly with parsnip puree and Apera glaze paired with a Morris Rich Golden Show Apera.

Sadly, both these styles of local Apera remain grossly under-appreciated and should be readily available at the host of Tapas bars popping up in Melbourne (and elsewhere) as an alternative or introduction to their Spanish forebears. Don’t get me started on this!

Perhaps it’s a legacy of the bad old days when sickly sweet bulk sherry and plonk were synonymous. I suggest you buy a few bottles of both the Aged Amber Show Apera and the Rich Golden Show Apera and try serving them at the start of a meal by replicating the entrée above.

We lingered over lunch, so much so that the fortified tasting, which really demanded our full attention and concentration to match the style of the wines, seemed a mite too compressed for my post prandial palate. By then we had tasted thirty one wines.

Number thirty two opened up the fortified flight. A Morris 5 Generations Aged Port and ten wines later when the Morris Old Premium Liqueur Rare Muscat finished the bracket, I had ascended to vinous heaven or was at least knocking on heaven’s door. I now know how Jancis must have felt back in 1981, though it was nowhere near as hot as it was on her visit back then.

Heaven’s door opened!

For, on leaving Morris’s we were served a pre-Phylloxera fortified (which by my rough calculation had to be 114 years old – Phylloxera hit Rutherglen in 1899). Now I was truly in vinous heaven! The 100 point liquid gold was so thick and treacle-like – as though it struggled to get out of the pipette, as did some of us onto the bus afterwards.

What a day! I left with some questions still unanswered. That’s wine, it invariably throws up more questions than it answers, especially in regard to where each Muscat best fits into the ever-changing Morris hierarchy. This is a question I will ask David when I talk to him next on Heard it Through the Grapevine.

As for Apera and its nuances, that gives rise to even more vexing and complex questions for both Morris and Rutherglen. So it is best left to another time and a future blog. Rarely do you get to dine in the company of two consummate winemakers who between them have accumulated so many vintages crafting consistently good, brilliantly blended liquid gold.

Make Muscat a Must!

All Morris at Mia Mia needs now is an informal bistro and a concerted campaign to get the missing generations into Muscat – I’m launching my Make Muscat a Must initiative tomorrow by serving some Morris to my Millennials at home.

Time to luxuriate in some more liquid gold! – Cheers, Michael Hince

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