Digging for gold in Beechworth
Sitting off the back of the Victorian Alps and a short drive South of Albury sits the picturesque town of Beechworth. Despite its small size it is a town steeped in history evident from a grand Victorian era main street and range of historic buildings carved from local stone. Rich deposits of gold saw Beechworth’s population thrive and multiply in the 1850s while Ned Kelly also spent time in the local court and gaol. Today its mix of natural beauty and growing reputation as a destination for fine food and natural produce brings tourists from far and wide to visit.
Scattered in the rolling hills around Beechworth are also a small collection of wineries. Most are tiny, family affairs and their wines have to be searched out as they are handmade, and produced in miniscule volumes thanks to the many challenges that face local winemakers.
Beechworth can be incredibly dry with occasional bursts of baking heat and bushfires in Summer. The soil is also rocky and unforgiving – marked by granite outcrops, which makes planting difficult and generally gives meagre crops. With all the effort required to make wine here it is no wonder that Beechworth is one of the country’s smallest wine producing regions. It is also one of the best.
Beechworth is blessed with one of the most unique climates of any wine region in Australia, if not the world. In the middle of winter it can receive the odd dusting of snow while Summer peaks are well over 30 degrees. Its proximity to the alps is a saviour bringing cool breezes helping to protect the area from the worst heatwaves while also helping to bring Summer night-time temperatures down to single digits. That wide variation is a characteristic of a number of extreme quality European wine regions bringing both ripeness and power to wines due to Summer warmth while helping them also to retain their acidity and balance.
The land is also very distinctive from an Australian perspective in that nearby volcanic activity has laid veins of granite and quartz . In some vineyards the soil is dominated by granite buckshot in which only the hardiest vines can survive by driving their roots deep below the surface in search of water and nutrients. These stony soils give the wines of Beechworth an attractive earthy minerality that adds a distinctive regional character.
The magical climate and soils combined with the region’s challenges has attracted a unique breed of winemaker – driven purely by the desire to make exceptional wines. The first was the quietly spoken mechanical engineer Rick Kinzbrunner of Giaconda, whom planted the region’s first wines in 1982. Quite savoury and reserved in style the early Giaconda wines were ahead of their time when most Australian wines were marked by their layers of sweet, bright fruit and vibrant personalities. They are also textural wines – a hallmark of Beechworth – that impress as much for their mouthfeel as fruit complexity. It took a little time but these wines eventually were regarded among the country’s finest.
In the years since Rick has been joined by a handful of dreamers searching for their own stake of Beechworth’s vinous gold . Some like Mark Walpole of Fighting Gully Road, whom planted his first vineyard in 1997, have seen the full transition of Beechworth from an experimental folly through to a coveted source of high quality fruit. “I guess I saw the potential, perhaps helped by getting to know Rick Kinzbrunner and Barry Morey pretty early in the late ‘80’s and tasting their wines. So as their wines became sought after, it has clearly attracted many others.”
Others such as Peter Graham of Domenica and ex- Melbourne sommelier Rocco Esposito at Project 49 are relatively new labels crafting exceptional wines that are true to the area’s unique style. But none are resting on the region’s reputation with plenty of fire in the collective belly to uncover more of what Beechworth has to offer, exemplified by Adrian Rodda and the wines released under his A. Rodda label “As a wine producer, you are always on the look out for that magic piece of dirt to produce the next great wine. If the opportunity arises, we may put some more sticks in the ground!”
Imagery generously supplied by Mark Walpole from Fighting Gully Road