The French Rhône: Fatherland to the Barossa Valley

Why the Rhône region in France is commonly compared to Australia’s Barossa Valley…

James Busby kick-started the Australian wine industry with a collection of 570 grape varieties shopped from France in 1831. His catalogue listed: No 1 Carignan No 2 Grenache No 3 Mataro No 9 Hermitage.

… the latter now known as Shiraz/Syrah, the original vines sourced from the hill of Hermitage in the northern Rhône Valley. (Mataro is a synonym for Mourvèdre with both names used here). These varieties remain the cornerstone of Australian red wine due to a simple climatic synergy. Australia is a warm-to-hot continent and the Rhône Valley the warmest of France’s major regions.

Syrah is the mandatory grape of the (somewhat cooler) northern Rhône appellations Hermitage, Cote Rôtie and St Joseph – all to the south of Lyon. Grenache takes the lead in the warmer southern Rhône regions with syrah in a supporting role.

The appellations of Côtes du Rhône and, the highly revered, Châteauneuf du Pape have inspired our GSM wine style. The juicy red fruit flavours of Grenache are given focus and drive by the black-fruited Shiraz and a bit of funk by Mourvèdre’s inherent earthiness. This trio occasionally forms a quartet with the more rustic grape, Carignan.

Journals of a wine buyer: Day Two

Driving up into Beechworth I realize that this is going to be a very different wine experience. At 530m it is approx. 360m higher than Albury and Wangaratta – both less than 40 minutes away.

Entering the township is a trip into yesteryear. Obviously an extremely rich centre in the mid 1800’s gold years, the heritage architecture is nothing short of magnificent, and is maintained in pristine condition. The town is beautiful – clean and well preserved with English tree lined streets. Its heritage, Ned Kelly history, arts and crafts shops and wine industry draw large crowds of tourists.

Beechworth’s most recognised and revered wine label is Giaconda, who produce some of Australia’s premier chardonnay that is sought after by wine lovers and collectors the world over. They have been named as one of the world’s top 10 white wine makers. Many of their wines sell in excess of $100 a bottle. This is clearly my first call! To my surprise- and disappointment- there is no cellar door.

Next up is Golden Ball, just over the road from Giaconda. This place is seriously tiny and boutique. Founded, grown and made by James McLaurin, it is only about 3.5 hectares. A recent Chardonnay of his received 98 Halliday points and top Chardonnay in Australia! Amazing stuff. His wine graces the wine lists of 28 of Australia’s top hatted restaurants.

I spend time with James, explaining the Vendimia project. It was clear that he didn’t have wine that fitted anywhere near the prices we needed to include in our subscriptions. But, after much persuasion he agreed to sell us a pallet of his 2011 Egalitaire, a wine that would normally retail for around $60… what a coup!

Beechworth…a wonderful area, great countryside, amazing wines, a beautiful part of the world – but I could soon see that we wouldn’t be able to achieve many wine purchases here. This is an area of small producers, high retail prices, high cellar door and restaurant demand and not enough quantities produced to sell us the full pallets we need for our subscriptions.

Region Insight: Heathcote

Heathcote is Victoria’s premium Shiraz producing region. It is positioned in the heartland of central Victoria – mid way between Shepparton and Bendigo. The countryside is truly Australian – harsh, dry, dusty and has a low rainfall. The conditions here are difficult, with some years suffering from drought and others from too much rainfall or frost. The vines are low yielding, small and gnarled. The lack of moisture and harsh circumstances sends the root structure deep into a narrow belt of Cambrian high mineral soil that runs north from Heathcote township. This unique terroir produces intense, deeply coloured and flavoured fruit – and wine with unique savoury flavours.

If you ever visit the area, there are a few standouts that you shouldn’t miss. Ron Laughton is from Jasper Hill Estate – he started the whole Heathcote journey some 40 years ago and is hailed as the pinnacle producer of the region. His wine is simply stunning. Over the road from Ron is Bob Downing, from Downing Estate – his vines planted in the same Cambrian soil. You can’t go past his Shiraz. Sanguine Estate – this winery’s outstanding Shiraz’s are regularly rated amongst the 10 best in the world, along with the likes of Penfolds’ Grange. To see a broad selection from the region (without doing the ‘hard work’ of stopping at each winery) – visit The Wine Hub Cellar and Store in Heathcote Main Street.

Check out our Heathcote pick: Dirty Boulevard Wanted Man Shiraz


Region Insight: Adelaide Hills

A cool climate region producing stunning, fruity fine wines.

Adelaide Hills’ cool climate produces vibrant whites with punchy Sauvignon Blanc and fine restrained Chardonnay being the two traditional varietals. However, with its unique topography creating several micro-climates, the region is also perfect for Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio. Some Pinot Noir is also produced here. Shiraz and other red grape varieties are grown in the lower reaches of the Adelaide Hills, but due to the cooler conditions are lighter bodied than those produced in other parts of the state.