Gippsland has been steadily making a name for itself as a region able not only to produce, but also excel in all manner of alcoholic delights: wine, beer, gin, cider – the list is constantly growing.
With a classification as a cool-climate wine region and an area of over 40,000 km2, Gippsland is often defined according to shire boundaries: South, East, West, Latrobe Valley, Bass Coast, etc. Yet this doesn’t reflect the reality of the climate, topography and geology differences across and within the shires, which can have a profound effect on the development of flavours. Each region is unique.
My task was threefold: to go in search of purveyors of fine beverages, particularly those who may not be well known outside of Gippsland; to explore how different climates and conditions influence the produce being created; and lastly, specifically in reference to wine, to see if “cool-climate” is a sufficient description of such a vast region.
I set out from Melbourne one brisk October morning, a path ahead that would take me from the foothills of the Great Dividing Range of western Gippsland, through the undulating, forested areas of the south, up to the fertile, expansive lands in the east.
The first stop was Cannibal Creek winery in Tynong North, a former dairy farm that in 1997-98 saw chardonnay, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon vines replace the cattle. Since that time, owners Pat and Kirsten Hardiker have moved the cellar door from a charming but poky and spider-infested shack-cum-laboratory-cum-barrel room into a spacious, gleaming and thoroughly welcoming restaurant, which recently won the 2017 Casey Cardinia Hospitality Awards.
The restaurant is now a drawcard for the area, which reputedly serves the best lemon tart you’ll find for many miles. The majority of the produce is sourced locally or grown in their own garden, and is prepared to perfection by the Breton chef, Philippe Desrettes, while his wife, Karine Saille, manages the restaurant.
Cannibal Creek’s wines are excellent and reflective of the granite soils and cool conditions beneath and around the vines, with pleasant minerality in the whites and berry notes and flavours in all the reds. Their chardonnay and pinot noir have been particularly well received by wine judges and the public alike, for good reason; they’re balanced, refined and moreish. Of special note is their vin de liqueur, a “sticky” made in the style of a Pineau des Charentes, where lightly fermented pinot noir juice is mixed with brandy – it’s truly a delicious wine.
The next destination was due south in the small town of Loch, which was established in 1876 with the coming of the railway. Over the years the town’s population has fluctuated, yet it’s recently seen a steady jump in tourist numbers thanks in no small part to the Loch Brewery and Distillery. Housed in a century-old, former bank, the distillery was established by Craig Johnson and Mel Davies and began commercial production in 2014.
The original desire was to create single-malt whisky, after conversations spurred them on, followed by a journey to Tasmania to learn how to make it. After visiting Scotland, Craig and Mel discovered that to make whisky, you need 80% of the equipment for a brewery, so why not make some ales as well? The majority of the brewing paraphernalia was crafted nearby in Leongatha, a special Alembic copper still was sourced from Portugal, and soon enough, they began making whisky (to be released in the coming months), beer and, of course, gin. Oh, the gin…
I won’t mince my words here: the gins are incredible. Three styles are available: a gin liqueur (32% a/v), which is sweet on the palate; a ‘London Dry’ (41% a/v), which is drier and more fragrant; and The Weaver (50% a/v), a beast of a gin, which has so much happening on the palate, thanks to the assortment of botanicals, some of which are sourced locally from Brushtail Bush Foods in Boolarra. A shout-out must also be made to their chilli dark ale, which reels you in with the chocolatey tones, then punches you in the throat with a pleasant burn, thanks to chilli supplied by Alan and Diana from the nearby (and awesome) Rustic Cacao Factory.
My journey then took me to Korumburra, to the home of Dean and Dayna Roberts of Lithostylis wines. Gippsland locals who’ve travelled the world and learnt much about winemaking all over it, they always felt a beacon call back home, and when a vineyard in Leongatha went up for sale, they felt it was time to settle down. The plot in question had been planted around ten years earlier by Phillip Jones, of the renowned Bass Phillip label, and Dean was able to learn a great deal from him.
Around 90% of the vineyard is planted to pinot noir, with smaller parcels of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and gewürztraminer, though some of the pinot noir will soon be grafted to chardonnay to save them having to buy fruit and to offer a more consistent wine each year. The vines have a north-eastern aspect, meaning the grapes ripen across each row, rather than down them, and rainfall can vary dramatically; the 2017 season saw 250mm dumped just before harvest.
The Lithostylis range is small, but packs a huge punch. The blancs is an interesting blend of all their white grapes, while The Obelisk pinot noir is complex and delicious, with enough acid and tannin to reward cellaring. On the same label is an unusual, early and easy-drinking style called pinot nouveau (made like a Beaujolais nouveau), described as a “super-charged rosé”, which Dean hopes other Gippsland vignerons could adopt as a “calling card” for the region. Soon he’ll release a new wine on another label, Dr Folk, known as shiraz nouveau. Definitely, stay tuned for that one.
I headed further south to the coast, arriving in the relaxed beach town of Inverloch. In an industrial estate is the new cellar door/bar for Dirty Three Wines, run by Marcus Satchell and Lisa Sartori. The label was established years before with Cameron Mackenzie and Stuart Gregor, who departed in order to focus on the thriving Four Pillars Distillery in Healesville.
While ‘Dirty Three’ originally referred to Satchell, Mackenzie and Gregor, it now easily alludes to the three diverse soils on which their wines grow, referred to as the Berrys Creek, Tilson and Holgates Road vineyards, scattered around Leongatha. Each site brings something different to the pinot noir: Berrys Creek has high elevation on red volcanic soil; Tilson is lower, on similar soil, but has darker fruit; Holgates is grey sandy loam over clay, producing grapes with the best structure, nose and palate.
At the moment, Dirty Three produces a blend of the three grapes, as well as a single-vineyard from Holgates Road, which by far is the most complex and delicious, and a delightful off-dry (slightly sweet) riesling with great acid which “makes itself”. Marcus will soon release a blend of the three pinots as well as single-vineyard bottles from all three, so it’ll be interesting to examine in minute detail how terroir acts on these terrific wines.
Founded by Eric Walters in 1988 after taking over Strzelecki Brewing, Grand Ridge is one of Gippsland’s best known and most awarded breweries, situated in Mirboo North. Eric, a former linesman for Telstra, built the brewery at a time when even Heineken was considered a “speciality beer”, and he faced a very difficult time getting his beers onto shelves or pub taps.
Eric persevered, and now we find ourselves in a much different beer landscape in Australia. Always with an eye on sustainability and taste, Grand Ridge is powered almost exclusively by solar power, their water is drawn from a nearby spring in the Strzelecki Ranges, and none of their beers contains preservatives, chemicals or sugars. Grand Ridge is a beer drinker’s paradise, as they make over a dozen beers in many different styles. By far the standouts are the monstrous Moonshine (8% a/v) and Supershine (11% a/v) — if you can handle huge scotch ales — as well as the refreshing Gippsland Gold pale ale, and Mirboo Madness, an American red ale. Inspired by Eric’s four daughters, Grand Ridge also produces apple and pear ciders on the Twisted Sister label.
Far to the northeast in Glengarry, on land almost in the shadow of Mount Baw Baw, is the very slick operation known as Narkoojee winery. Like many in Gippsland, the vineyard was originally a dairy farm, until Harry and Val Friend planted vines in 1980. The first cellar door, a small weatherboard bungalow at the back of Harry and Val’s house, has been supplanted by a large tasting room and a modern restaurant, By Jorg.
The vineyard’s alluvial soils include a mixture of clay, silt, sand and ironstone gravel, and when combined with a generally warm climate, ensure the grapes are ripe and full of personality. Narkoojee uses a distinct trellis system known as Lyre Trellis, with two “arms” on which the vine canopy is trained, allowing high levels of light and air circulation, and therefore lower incidences of mildew and other diseases.
Winemaking duties are now shared with Axel, Harry and Val’s son, who has helped in the vineyard since the age of 15. One change has been the use of wild yeasts, naturally present on the grapes; while more unpredictable than commercial yeasts, they help the wines to show a greater character, depth and sense of place. Narkoojee’s wines lean towards the premium side, such as the Valerie range (their top-shelf offering), which is luscious and worth every cent.
Just outside the Maffra township is the boutique Avon Ridge winery. While not the original owners, the vineyard was purchased when local couple Mick and Karin Gray could no longer deny their desire to make wine. An impulsive bid at an auction secured them a 30-acre property, 10 of which were under vine, with cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.
In 2014 an old hay shed was converted into a cellar door and restaurant, managed by daughter Sarah Gray, which now regularly hosts weddings and other functions. On the day of my visit, the warm weather meant one could sit on the deck, look out over the vines, and while away the afternoon in utter tranquillity.
The wines are made by Mal Stuart and Brad Mason, and include a range of varietals and blends. All are well made and lean towards the light and easy-drinking side of the spectrum. Avon Ridge also makes a range of ciders with apples and pears from local growers that would otherwise go to waste. The strawberry and apple cider, in particular, is absolutely delightful.
Continuing east brings you to Bairnsdale, the largest town in eastern Gippsland. The area has generally a temperate to warm climate, with a high level of rainfall, and is mostly flat, except for north of the Mitchell River where the topography rises dramatically. It’s here that you’ll find all 75 acres of the Lightfoot and Sons vineyard, established in 1995, originally with the purpose of just making wines for themselves to enjoy. The business is managed by brothers Tom and Rob Lightfoot, while the wines are made by Alastair Butt, with assistance from Tom.
The vineyard sits atop red soil on a limestone bluff overlooking the Mitchell River and can be seen from the balcony of the new cellar door, itself in a picture-perfect location. Most of the area is dedicated to growing vegetables and is on alluvial floodplains, so the vineyard is fairly unique due to its elevation and geology. Every afternoon in summer, an easterly breeze passes over from Bass Strait, helping to cool down the temperamental pinot noir and chardonnay.
During my visit to Lightfoot and Sons, I was lucky enough to try many different wines out of the barrel (with the helpful aid of a spittoon). I tasted an incredible variety of whites and reds, some early in their maturation, others closer to release. The pinot noirs here are generally “gamier” and more savoury than their western and southern cousins, which will lead to a different flavour experience once you’ve done the right thing and cellared these lovelies for a while.
The last leg of my journey brought me to the quaint town of Orbost and the Sailors Grave Brewing company, which purposely stands out – but only in positive ways. Founded by Chris and Gab Moore, you just have to look at the ingredients and beer cans to realise they do things differently to the pack; the labels for each style were designed by a children’s book illustrator in Cornwall, UK.
Much of the produce, such as herbs and even weeds (nettle, milk thistle, etc.) is sourced from their own farm, and fruits and grains from local orchardists and farmers, with the beers fermented using wild yeasts.
While some of the ingredients might seem a little “out there” for the unadventurous, I can assure all readers that the beers are well balanced and not as weird as one might think; my favourites were the Winter Farm House Ale, a red saison fermented with pinot noir lees in a pinot noir barrel, and Squid vs Whale, a “maelstrom of hops” with citrus freshness and low bitterness that would satisfy any thirst.
Having tasted more wine, beer and spirits from Gippsland in 48 hours than I had in the previous two months, I can honestly say there is some truly diverse and exceptional alcohol being made. I was constantly gobsmacked by the quality and willingness of these vignerons, brewers and distillers to take risks, which almost always paid off.
So is “cool-climate” an adequate description of the wine being produced? In a way, yes, but the variety of wines on offer extends across a wide flavour spectrum, such as with pinot noir — more earthy and gamey in the drier east; more berry-rich in the wetter west and south — which can’t be explained simply
through winemaker influence.
There has been talk of delineating the region more given its immense size, yet that could be premature, at a time when Gippsland as a whole is still trying to establish itself as a “serious” wine region. At the moment, it seems the only thing standing in the way of Gippsland’s success is more people waking up to the gustatory gems we have in our backyard.