Victoria is Australia's most dynamic and innovative wine state. In the space of four decades it has gone from a viticultural footnote with less than 20 wineries to a situation where it has half of the nation's wine producers. In volume term it produces much less than South Australia as nearly all of its producers are small-medium sized but they produce a disproportionate amount of the nation's cult wines.
Victorian Wine Industry Association:www.winesofvictoria.com.au
Please note that the three regions that travese the border with NSW (Murray-Darling, Swan Hill and Pericoote-Echuca) are listed under the NSW part of ths website.
Typically these wines are made in tiny amounts by obsessive artisan wine makers. Melbourne has a thousand local producers scrambling for the attention of its extensive restaurant and wine bar scene. It has many of Australia's finest wine stores and is the only city to host a monthly public showcase featuring a different region each month.
Victorians have embraced light-medium bodied red styles more so than any other state. Pinot Noir is absolutely mainstream compared to Perth and Adelaide. Food friendly Italian and Spanish varietals such as Tempranillo, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo have also much more familiar to Melbourne wine drinkers than interstate.
As elsewhere Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc rule supreme in the white wine market but Pinot Grigio/Gris seems to have knocked the local Rieslings out of third place.
Victoria's boutique and artisan wine industry is the product of its turbulent history. The first vineyard in Victoria appears to have been established at Portland by Edward Henty in 1834, the same year that Melbourne was founded. However, there is no record of any wine being successfully produced from the vineyard. The first vineyard that we know that did lead to commercial wines was William Ryrie's 12 ha vineyard that was established in the Yarra Valley in 1838.
Charles Latrobe was a wine fan
The first Governor of the Port Phillip colony (Melbourne), Charles Latrobe was a wine fan and was instrumental in getting quality wine-making off the ground in the fledgling colony. He spent his early twenties at Neuchatel in Switzerland where he fell in love with the alpine Jolimont Estate of the Swiss Counsellor of State - and then with the Counsellor's daughter, Sophie. He also acquired an appreciation for the fine sleek wines produced in the region. When he and Sophie moved to the fledgling colony he planted a small vineyard in the garden of what would become the first government house.
The Swiss influence
More significantly for Australian viticulture he convinced some of the leading Swiss vigneron families to move to new towns established Port Phillip Bay. Like the Germans in South Australia they brought generations of viticultural and wine-making experience to Anglo-Irish settlements who had been brought up on rum and ale. A famous trio of wineries - Yeringberg, St. Huberts and Yering Station were established in the Yarra Valley in 1840s.
The Swiss influence also led to the foundation of the Geelong wine region with David Pettavel and Frederick Brueget established a winery in 1842 at Barwon with cuttings from the France's Dijon region. The gold rush in nearby Ballarat provided a ready market for the expansion of the Geelong wineries. More Swiss established wineries in the Barabool Hills, while German immigrants established wineries at Germantown (now called Marshall).
130 vineyards in Bendigo region by 1880s
Subsequent gold rushes and large population influxes in Bendigo and north-east Victoria, particularly the Rutherglen, sparked similar large clusters of wineries. By the 1880s there were 130 vineyards just in the Bendigo region while the Rutherglen region had thousands of hectares under the vine making it easily Australia's largest wine region.
Another major centre of viticulture was the Great Western region in the central Western Victoria. A Frenchman, Jean Trouette, began plantings vines from Geelong at his St. Peters property in 1863. Seppelts Great Western and Best's are two survivors from this era. A Melbourne syndicate established the Tahbilk winery in the Goulburn Valley in 1860. Around that time but much closer to Melbourne, a former Victorian Premier, James Goodall Francis established the Goonawarra winery at Sunbury, while his neighbour, a Scottish born businessman, James Johnston, established Craiglee.
Consumption per head higher than spirits
Late in the 19th century another huge area of viticulture was established around the irrigation plains of the Murray River near Mildura. Victoria had become Australia's biggest wine state and even into the early 20th century had half the national acreage. Also Victoria and South Australia were the only states where wine consumption per head was higher than spirits. Yet within twenty years most of the Victorian wine industry was gone with the Geelong, Yarra Valley and Bendigo bereft of any wineries at all.
The critical, but not the only, factor behind the demise of the Victorian wine industry was the phylloxera disease which has been frequently called the Black Plague or AIDS of the vine. Phylloxera is an aphid that lives in the rootstock of vines. The aphid is able to co-exist in its home in America with the local species of vines such as Vitus Lambrusca. Unfortunately the rootstock of the principal wine-making species, Vitis Vinifera, is severely damaged by long term infestation. The aphid destroyed most of Europe's famous vineyards in the second half of the 19th century. The aphid was also accidentally imported into Geelong in 1875, perhaps through imported vine cuttings and rapidly spread. The Government ordered the destruction of all Geelong's vineyards and had the soils sterilised.
Prevaling winds transported the aphids
The Government had hoped to save the huge vineyards around Rutherglen. At the time it was not known that the larval stage of the aphid involves an airborne phase. It took a couple of decades but the prevailing winds transported the aphids in a gradual north-east trajectory across central Victoria and into the Rutherglen. Some of the Rutherglen wineries were able to resume production early in the 20th century by ripping out their vines and replanting with vines grafted onto American phylloxera-resistant rootstock.
Post gold-rush fashion for premium table wines
Other regions did not revive their vineyards - and regions such as the Yarra Valley that had been missed by phylloxera were in sharp decline. The post-gold rush fashion for premium table wines was fading. Various factors were at work: a financial bank crash, domestic and export preferences for fortifieds, the lifting of inter-colonial tarifs, the rise of the South Australian and NSW wine corporations in the new national market and a decade long drought at the end of the 19th century.
First new winery in Melbourne's 'dress circle'
It was not until the mid 1960s that a first new winery in a century was established in the Melbourne's 'dress circle'. Over the ensuing four decades Victoria has gone from a viticultural backwater with less than twenty wineries to nation's boutique winery powerhouse. There are now over a thousand producers making up about half the national total.
The North-West Victoria Zone has a couple of irrigation regions that traverse both sides of the Murray River: Murray-Darling and Swan Hill. These are hot regions that would have been desert without the irrigation. Along with South Australia's Riverland and NSW's Riverina these regions are responsible for the bulk of the wine that goes into the cheap retail, cask wine and export brands. The weather is reliable for mass production, although climate change has made water scarcity a pressing issue. Chardonnay and Shiraz are the most widely planted varieties, while Columbard is used to fill out many white blends. I have been more impressed with the late ripening variety, Petit Verdot, which seems to do rather well in these warm climes.
The Central Victorian Zone covers the cool northern slopes of the Great Dividing Range and the warmer plains leading to the Murray River. There are five regions: Bendigo, Heathcote, Goulburn Valley, Strathbogie Ranges and Upper Goulburn. Bendigo and Heathcote are most red wine focussed regions in Australia. White wine varieties make up less than 10% of plantings. Bendigo produces rich and earthy Shiraz and Cabernet with both varieties showing a distinctive regional eucalypt aspect. The warm and dry Heathcote is almost exclusively about Shiraz which are often in the high alcohol and super-charged spectrum. It is the closest that Victoria gets to South Australia's world famous Barossa Shirazes. The Goulburn Valley is a large and heterogenous region that also produces lush and full bodied red wines although a little more restrained than the Heathcote. Rich and peachy Chardonnay is the most common white vine variety. The region contains Tahbilk, the sole central Victorian survivor from the 19th century survivor. This historic link meant that the region had at one point the largest plantings in the world of the now rare white vine variety, Marsanne. The Upper Goulburn is a rather cool high altitude region around Lake Eildon that is having some success with elegant styles of Riesling, Merlot and Tempranillo. The often ignored Strathbogie Ranges is a transitional hilly region between the mountains and plains. The maturing vines are now beginning to produce some outstanding Shiraz, Cabernet, Viognier and Gewurztraminer that merit greater interest in the region.
The south west of the state (Western Victoria Zone) has three wine regions; Pyrenees, Grampians and Henty. The best wines from the Grampians are its complex and spicy Shirazes. The Pyrenees is also a red wine region although the style is softer and more earthy. Cabernet and Merlot often have equal billing with the region's Shiraz. Only the occasional Chardonnay or Riesling stand out from the pack of average whites. The opposite is true in the cold Henty region that borders with South Australia. Fine and elegant Riesling and Chardonnay are the norm here with Pinot Noir holding up as the best of the reds.
Despite being the smallest mainland state Victoria has 21 official wine regions that are spread around six broad zones.
Port Phillip zone
There are five regions that form the Port Phillip Zone 'dress circle' around Melbourne: Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Geeong, Sunbury and the Macedon Ranges. These regions are particularly well suited to the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The Yarra Valley is also famous for its Cabernet, while the Sunbury is capable of producing classic Shirazes that can last several decades. The Macedon Ranges is the coldest mainland region and produces some of Australia's best Gewurztraminer and Riesling. The Mornington Peninsula was the first Australian region to really do justice to the white vine variety Pinot Gris.
The North-East Victoria Zone is the most vino-diverse area in Australia reflecting the survival of 19th century varieties in the historic wineries and the array of Italian varieties recently introduced after the alpine tobacco growing industry was replaced with viticulture. It consists of five regions: Glenrowan, King Valley, Rutherglen, Beechworth and the Alpine Valley. The Zone covers is climatically diverse ranging from snow capped alpine mountains to the baking river plains of the Rutherglen. Beechworth is a small cool region that produces some super-elegant cult Chardonnay and Roussanne. Glenrowan, commonly known as Ned Kelly country, is a warmer region that is capable of producing some excellent Shiraz, Durif and a range of fortified wines. The Alpine Valley region produces the base stock for a lot of sparklings but in the better vintages can produce some good Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Saperavi and Petit Marseng. The King Valley is a trailblazer for alternative variety fans: Albarino, Arneis, Barbera, Marzemino, Muscato, Nebbiolo, Petit Marseng, Sangiovese, Tannat, Tarrango, Tempranillo and Verduzzo thrive here. The historic Rutherglen region is world famous and virtually unique for its style of super-complex fortified Tokays and Muscats that blend 80 year old wine with fresher stock. The region is the Australian home for the heavyweight red variety, Durif. The Rutherglen also has a range of other varieties rarely seen elsewhere in Australia: Cinsault, Mondeuse, Chasellas, Zinfandel, the nearly extinct Gouais Blanc and an eclectic range of rare muscat and frontignac clones.
The entire south-east of the state consists of the Gippsland Zone with no official regions. The lack of differentiation does not reflect a lack of wine producers or a homogenous terroir. It is simply that the producers are too small to meet the requirements of the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation definition of a region. In practice the Gippsland producers market themselves as three distinct regions: West Gippsland, South Gippsland and East Gippsland - a division that we will use on this website. Tiny amounts of some of Australia's greatest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are produced here but are usually only accessible through cellar door visits.
There are three main challenges to the Victorian wine industry. The first, as elsewhere, is climate change. Warming temperatures, water scarcity and severe frosts associated with drier spring nights will lead to a major rethink about the varieties most suited to particular regions. Secondly phylloxera remains an issue and periodically pops up in the north-east of the state, and recently in the Yarra Valley. The only region that has been officially declared phylloxera-free is Henty. Many growers have resisted using the phylloxera-resistant grafted rootstock as they feel it produces an inferior wine. Thirdly some regions such as the Yarra Valley seem to be reaching a point in the market place where they can not sustain the existing number of producers unless the export market is overhauled.
Nevertheless Victoria will remain Australia's most interesting and diverse wine state for a long time to come. top