Heathcote Wine Region: Ancient Soils and Full Bodied Wines

Producing wine is no easy task. With so many variables to contend with – geography, climate, the nature of the wine market, the list goes on – it’s a wonder anyone puts themselves through it.

Of course, there are many regions in Australia full of passionate winemakers who are producing some fantastic wines, and Heathcote is no exception. Making use of its ancient Cambrian soils known for their depth, their red hue and their water-holding capacity, Heathcote is producing fantastic, full-flavoured wines that are becoming more and more sought after as time goes on.

CEO of the Heathcote Winegrower’s Association and Director of the Heathcote Wine and Food Festival, Chris Earl says that wines coming out of the Heathcote region have really come into their own in the last 10-15 years – particularly of the Shiraz variety, the region’s main offering.

“Over that period of time, the Heathcote Region has built an amazing reputation on the world stage for its Shiraz,” Earl says.

Greg Flynn, owner of Flynn’s Wines, says the great thing about wine is that every region has its own characteristics, or “terroir” – a French term meaning the totality of the climate, the soil, the location of the vines, how the vines are pruned and other characteristics that make up the character of a wine.

“It’s hard to put your finger on exactly one reason why wines turn out the way they do,” Flynn says. “A lot of Heathcote wines are single vineyard or from the same area, and you can taste the climactic variation from year to year. The vintage then becomes important because you see mother nature’s influence from one year to the next.

“Take Shiraz for example: [we’re in a region where] we get very low crops, it’s a fairly hard arid soil, dry climate, so the vines don’t over produce. They have very small berries and intense flavour, and because of [those characteristics], we get wines that are very intense in fruit flavour, and they have tannin, acidity, a good balance of all those structures, which can give a wine good longevity. So a lot of Heathcote wines have good cellaring potential. And even though they have good cellaring potential, they can still be enjoyable drinking when they’re younger.”

Flynn says that Heathcote wine enthusiasts often talk about the distinctive tannin in Heathcote wines. Tannin comes out of the skin of the grape and gives the wine its colour; it also gives the drinker a dry puckering sensation on the side of the mouth. A natural preservative, tannin is also part of what helps a wine age.

“People often say that Heathcote tannins are finer [than tannins from other regions], so they’re not too harsh on the palate. This means you can enjoy Heathcote wines a little bit earlier on in their life, but they also have great capacity for aging for a greater length of time.”

Flynn says that the great thing about the wine industry is the variation, making Heathcote wines, and wines from other regions, entirely unique products.

“You could compare Heathcote Shiraz to, for example, Barossa Shiraz and they will be quite different. That’s what’s brilliant about the whole wine industry – you have this great variation. You can try a Shiraz from any region you go to and it will be a little bit different from the next. Wine is one of the few products like that.”

While the region is known for its Shiraz, Earl says in the last decade there has been a rising trend in winemakers experimenting with Mediterranean-style wines like Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

“In the last few years, winemakers of the region have really begun to make a mark with their Mediterranean-style reds as well,” Earl says.

“This diversity of styles coming out of the region is being loudly applauded by the industry and judges of wine shows, and it really says a lot about the degree of innovation and passion of the winemakers coming out of the Heathcote region.”

Flynn is one of these innovative winemakers. He started the Flynn’s Wines winery from scratch 17 years ago, from the building up of the winery infrastructure, to the actual winemaking itself.

While Flynn’s Shiraz is the most popular wine produced at his winery (like most of the wineries in the region), Flynn’s decision to also plant Sangiovese grapes 17 years ago was the beginning of a diverse offering that went beyond the renowned variety.

“Sangiovese is an Italian variety mainly from Tuscany. At the time we planted the grapes, there was only one other vineyard in the region who had also planted Sangiovese around six months before which we didn’t even know about, so we couldn’t do any research on [how the variety would grow in the region]. So we put in two acres and had a crack.

“The Sangiovese is the last to be picked each year. We generally start around the 20th of September, but that depends on mother nature each year and this year, [the grapes are] a few weeks early.”

While the Sangiovese is the last to be picked, it also has the longest ripening period. “That’s actually a good thing with wine grapes because that means they have plenty of time to build colour, flavour, reduce acid, build sugar, so that it all becomes nicely balanced,” Flynn says.

Alongside the Shiraz and Sangiovese varieties, Flynn’s Wines also produces Vermintino, Viogner and Verdelho wines, as well as other Mediterranean-style varieties that grow well in the area. “We’re also doing other Italian varieties, other Spanish varieties. It’s just the right climate.”

Flynn says a combination of trend, the climate, and the development of complexity in Australian wine lovers’ tastebuds may have influenced the decision by winemakers in the area to experiment with Mediterranean varieties.

“10-15 years ago there was a general trend in the wine industry towards experimenting with alternative varieties. I think Australian wine drinkers started to get more mature and open minded about trying new varieties as well, and that slowly built momentum over time.”

Flynn says that Australia’s wine culture has matured alongside our food culture, which has taken off in the last decade and has seen peoples’ tastes for food mature and expand. So too has peoples’ taste for different varieties of wine – and food and wine pairings.

“A lot of these new varieties can match with so much more food than Shiraz. With food and wine pairings, you’re looking for that balance; so to find something to match a full-bodied Shiraz, you’re looking at a big meat dish, like a steak. Whereas these alternative varieties like Sangiovese will go with a lot of different foods, such as pasta, cheese or seafood.”

“I think we probably deal with the top 10 per cent of wine drinkers – the ones who love to visit vineyards, love food, want to see behind the scenes… the wine drinkers that travel overseas to try wine. Heathcote’s attracting that sort of customer now.”

Flynn says that while other more commercialised wine regions in Australia may no longer cater to this type of customer, it’s great that the smaller producers of the Heathcote region can provide a more intimate experience for real food and wine lovers.

“The great thing about the region is, when wine drinkers come to Heathcote, they’re generally speaking to someone who is involved in the process, such as the winemaker, while at the cellar door. It’s more of a personalised experience.”

Heathcote Winery’s Alex Dickson says he’s proud of this authentic experience the region can offer. Dickson’s role has developed from starting as a cellar door casual around five years ago, to becoming cellar door manager, assistant winemaker, and assistant vineyard manager.

“We’re a very small team at Heathcote Winery, so you have to be a jack of all trades,” Dickson says. “We do pretty much the lot at our winery… we go from vine to bottle because we grow the grapes, we make the wine, we bottle the wine on site and we label it and sell it at the cellar door. So it’s a whole in-house production.

“It’s nice to be out at the vineyard pruning the vines, then looking after the vines through the growing season, harvesting the grapes and then finally selling it and tasting it with our customers and seeing how much they’re enjoying it. It’s very satisfying.”

Dickson says that, while he would encourage people to get involved in the industry, you’ve got to be prepared for some hard work.

“It’s a fantastic industry [to be involved in], but you’ve gotta be willing to put in the hours. I say to people, if you like the idea of making wine, you need to write to a winery and ask them if they need any help one year. Go and work a vintage; it will quickly dispel any romantic illusions about winemaking!” Dickson laughs.

“It’s a lot of hard, dirty, sweaty work. And winemaking is about 80 per cent cleaning, which a lot of people aren’t too into! But it is fun, it is satisfying; and being a part of a small business in Heathcote, we’re always doing something different,” Dickson says.

“You’re either in the vineyard, you’re in the winery, you’re at the cellar door, you might be down in Melbourne doing a tasting, you might be interstate promoting your wines. It’s a very diverse, enjoyable role. That said, I probably wouldn’t be saying I’m enjoying it as much if I was up at 4am looking after the vineyard at minus six this morning!”

Like all regions, Heathcote has experienced its fair share of hardship throughout its winemaking history – drought, pests, frost. In the late 19th century, a phylloxera outbreak affected vines and required swift eradication to ensure the area was free of the aphid-like insect.

“A lot of vineyards were wiped out. But the Heathcote region is one of the few in Victoria in the modern era that is phylloxera-free,” Earl says. “The biosecurity [of the region] has to be protected.”

Even in a phylloxera-free environment, it’s a constant battle to protect your vineyard. But with innovation and hard work, it’s possible to ensure your vines are progressing as they should be. Frost is another big challenge in the Heathcote area for wine producers, Dickson says.

“Frost and drought are our biggest threats in the region, and we’re just in the midst of frost season now,” he says. “[We protect out vines against that] with sprinkler systems that we have in the vineyard. What happens is, we’ve got weather stations in each vineyard and, basically, they ring our phones and send us messages when the temperature gets to two degrees, which gives us time to go out and check the vineyard and the sprinkler systems.

“The idea is to basically simulate rain in the vineyard. The water then freezes around the new buds rather than the buds freezing themselves, insulating them. If you’ve got access to water and a frost system, it’s the best way to protect your vines.”

While it’s obviously a challenging industry, Flynn says that the strong collaborative culture and sense of community among business owners in  Heathcote makes it easier to overcome these challenges. The result is a wonderful product, and a wonderful culture of mutual support.

“Working with the local area’s really important because as visitors come to the area, they might go to restaurants to eat out, or maybe buy one of your wines take away from an outlet in Heathcote, rather than come to your cellar door. Of course we love people to come to the cellar door to give them that experience, but we definitely need to support the [broader] local area,” Flynn says.

“The Heathcote Winegrowers Association [is made up of] people with local businesses who are all keen to see the area [forge ahead]. So you’re all working together. It’s so important [for regional areas] to put forward a united front, because it benefits all of us.”

Flynn says this is probably more prominent in regional rather than metropolitan areas because of sheer necessity in more isolated environments.

“You’re often not just involved in regional businesses, but also your broader community in regional areas. When I used to drop one of my daughters off at kinder in the morning, there were four different kids from wine families. I’d chat regularly to the mums and dads who are part of similar organisations and [understand the challenges of the industry]. And we’ve lent equipment to other wineries when they’ve had things break down and stuff like that. It’s just a good way of operating, really.”

A great way to experience the Heathcote wine region is by attending the Heathcote Wine and Food festival, held in October. This year, the festival will showcase around 45 wineries, with tasting sessions presented by wine writer Max Allan that will include new releases and other varietals of the region that have established great reputations.

Flynn, whose winery has been involved in the festival since the inaugural event 15 years ago, says that while it’s a fantastic festival for food and wine lovers alike, it’s also really important for the wineries too, particularly the smaller wineries in the region.

“It’s a terrific country festival. The wineries involved, some of them are big, some small. And a lot of the smaller wineries don’t have cellar doors, so for them, the festival is the only place people may be able to try their wines [in a tasting session environment]. And for us, we make a lot of good connections and see a lot of repeat customers.”

Regional festivals such as the Heathcote Wine and Food Festival are a brilliant way to really get behind the scenes and get stuck into how wine is produced, and to meet the characters behind the wineries.

Earl says celebrating Heathcote’s very passionate winemaking community is what the Festival is all about.

“The winemakers in the Heathcote region are small business people. It’s not the big end of the wine industry. These are wine-loving people who a decade or more ago planted their vines, put passion into every stage of the grape-growing, of the wine production, and then even more passion into sharing that experience and that love for their craft,” he says.

“Because it really is a craft. And when you have a conversation with the Heathcote winemakers, you know the passion is there. And that’s part of what makes the Heathcote wine region so unique in Australia – it’s a group of like-minded winemakers, operating their own businesses, but working collectively and celebrating a very exciting wine region.”


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