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.
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.
What really sets Mitchelton apart, apart from its architecture, is its picture-postcard 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 undoubted 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 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 of what I’m on about.
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.
They 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 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 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, Garners Wines over the road, and time permitting say hullo to Snow Barlow & Winsome McCaugheyat 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 in to see local butcher Scott Reid at Avenel Meats and picking up some of Scott’s fabulous snags or David Fowles’ yummy lamb chops.