In January, a group of wine producers in Australia’s Heathcote region gathered at a local winery to study their competition.
Turns out, the competition was anyone, anywhere, making wines that used the same grape varieties grown in their region.
Hour after hour, glass after glass of 46 wines, the examination went on. Each wine was discussed. Questions were asked, dissections performed. A dip into Côtes du Rhone, a splash of Marsanne and Roussanne from Saint-Joseph, a host of Viognier from outposts far and not so far, from Condrieu and Hawke’s Bay to Geelong, Eden Valley, and Canberra. To close, a bunch of Heathcote wines.
As the hours went on, some makers had to leave, but the core remained solid, intent.
This was important.
The Heathcote wine region is located in the state of Victoria, two hours west of Melbourne, a largely isolated rural area and a big one at that, running close to 63 miles from north to south. Gaining insight and tapping into the broader national and international wine picture for its 72 producers means working together, learning from each other.
It is red wine country; 75% of plantings are red, with Shiraz by far the dominant personality. Almost every producer makes a Shiraz. Still, it can seem a lonely pursuit at times.
“I just wanted to get a feel for where our wine sat in terms of quality, character, and style in Heathcote,” says the man who started the Heathcote winemaker tasting group 10 years ago, Simon Osicka, of Paul Osicka Wines. He says it seemed daft to open lots of bottles for himself and his father, the late Paul Osicka, “so I invited some other local winemakers along.”
Soon they were spending time at each other’s wineries. When winemaker, Phil Meehan, died in 2018, the group planned a three-day working bee of winter pruning at his family’s vineyard. So many turned up, the job was completed in one morning. Helping each other out is taken as read.
Heathcote winemakers have banded together to provide wine for a special magnum release to financially assist one of their group suffering aggressive brain cancer. And Simon Osicka tells the story of the time his old 1969 air bag press blew up. His winemaker wife, Alison, happened to mention it at the local kindergarten when she dropped off their daughter. Not long after, there was a call from a colleague; it was followed by the arrival of a replacement press.
Back in the late 1970s, there was none of that. There wasn’t even an understanding of Shiraz, or what it might do in the local conditions. That came with the arrival of tall, gangly wine scientist Ron Laughton at Jasper Hill, who literally saw something in the region’s ancient Cambrian soils, so eye-catching as to be hard to miss, a glistening copper-colored earth with chunks of iron oxide.
He took a gamble and planted Shiraz. It seemed like a good idea. Acknowledgement was slow to come, but he persisted, and as the tide turned toward Shiraz across the country, Jasper Hill rode the wave. The deep, impenetrable color of Heathcote Shiraz became a regional trademark, together with an intensity of black fruits riding rivers of spice.
Cambrian, the word is marketing gold. What’s not marketed or talked about too often is the fact that not every vineyard is on the 550-million-year-old soils. Or, that while the southern parts are well served for water, changing rainfall patterns over recent years have made dry grown viticulture problematic toward the north.
Heathcote, like every Australian wine region, has its challenges ahead.
And whites, too. Rhône stars continue to thrive. Chalmers, a particularly adventurous wine family, helped pioneer new white grape names: Fiano, Greco, Falanghina.
“What has made Heathcote famous, makes it famous now, won’t be what makes it famous in the future,” offers chef-turned-winemaker, Adam Foster at Syrahmi.
His money is on Grenache, bush vine Grenache to be specific. “I think Heathcote’s true beauty is in medium-bodied, textural, fragrant wines, both white and red,” he adds,
“And continuing to push the boundary.”
And while they’re pushing, the winemakers will keep tasting together, checking the competition.
3 Heathcote wines to try:
Tyrrell’s, the noted Hunter Valley wine producer, saw the potential of Heathcote Shiraz to excel early on. With Rufus Stone, it presents a different side to the usual cellar-worthy expression, one that is warm, inviting, and ready to go, rich in black fruits, plum, spice, and smart French oak.