Heathcote Winegrowers Association: www.heathcotewinegrowers.com.au
The northern central Victorian region of Heathcote has become famous over the last couple of decades for its pumped up Shirazes. However, our tastings at recent Heathcote wine shows reveal that the traditional high-octane reds are now very much on the fringes with alcohol levels from most producers falling back to 14% and more complex, textured and savoury styles emerging
Like the Coonawarra the Heathcote region has a famous soil, the Heathcote Cambrian Greenstone, which is actually a bright red, calcerous clay.
The core of the Heathcote is a strip of wineries running in a strip parallel to the Mt. Camel Ranges. The Ranges tunnel the winds over the vineyards to keep their temperature down two or three degrees compared with the surrounding regions. The airflow also helps minimise the impact of spring frosts.
Like many areas in central Victoria the Heathcote was a sheep grazing area in its earliest white history, followed by gold mining and now wine production. The first vines were planted by German settlers in the 1860s to provide local plonk to the diggers.
Heathcote at the time of the gold rush had a population of 35,000, Heathcote has since dwindled down to a population of 3,500. The nineteenth century wine industry was wrecked by phylloxera.
It was not until after the 1960s that the wine-making was resurrected with Shiraz cuttings from the Rhone valley. It wasn't really the end of the 1980s that several Heathcote wineries such as Jasper Hill and Paul Osicka began to carve out an iconic status for the region amongst Australian wine buffs for their inky, concentrated Shirazes.
The small production levels meant that the premium Heathcote wines have been able to command super-premium process. This is changing with new wineries setting up in the region, and the large corporations also setting up their own extensive local vineyards. There are now over 40 wineries.
At their best the Heathcote Shirazes have deep and richly textured with savoury plum, red fruit and dark cherry flavours and can be cellared for 20+ years. It can be even longer as the wines have only been in existence for 20 years. Innovative new producers such as Vinea Marson and Syramhi are re-defining the possibilities for the region's reds.
However, there is a problem arising from limited local water and climate change. Since 2002 the region has been hit by a drought which has seen local lakes such as Lake Cooper vanish. Vineyards using dryland techniques have too often seen the 'concentrated' palates turn into the jammy, porty palates of basic hot climate Shirazes (with honourable exceptions such as Jasper Hill).
Modern low wastage computerised drip irrigation provides some defence but affordable availability of water is going to be challenge, particularly given the new extensive vineyards large corporations are establishing here.
Wine tourism is developing here with plenty of cellar doors including Heathcote winery's cellar door in the main street of Heathcote, near the Enuii Heathcote Regional Wine Centre. The Heathcote Wine and Food festival is held at the Heathcote showgrounds annually in October.