Hanging Rock — bubbling along nicely

There’s a fascinating wine pilgrimage you can make driving to or from Melbourne: heading south on the Hume Highway, take the Kilmore exit, at Kilmore turn right towards Lancefield and at Lancefield follow the Woodend Road through to Newham, and then the signs to Hanging Rock Winery.

Coming home from Melbourne, take the airport freeway — ignore the Tullamarine exit — and continue north on the Calder highway. Take the second Woodend exit, follow the signs to Newham and from there the signs to the winery.

Either way it’s a short detour with a huge payoff. But be prepared to linger in the tasting room as Hanging Rock offers one of Australia’s greatest cellar experiences.

Why here, you might ask, on a southerly, elevated site on the Great Divide where most grapes, even in the warmest vintage, simply don’t ripen sufficiently to make table wine?

It’s a description that also fits France’s Champagne region – a climatically marginal wine area producing annually about 300 million bottles of top-shelf bubbly.

The marginal climate at fifty degrees north means that chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes struggle to the high-acid ripeness behind Champagne’s unique, delicate flavours.

Thirty years ago no Australian winemaker could even approximate these flavours for the simple reason that we didn’t have the right grapes growing in the right region. Yes, we’d long since replicated Champagne methods. But we’d applied them principally to neutral varieties, like ondenc.

By the early eighties several winemakers, including Dominique Landragin, Brian Croser and John Ellis, had been thinking of possible cold growing sites at high altitudes or low latitudes, including Tasmania.

For Ellis the search – based on a brief to a geologist to find the coldest site in Australia – led to Jim Jim hill in Victoria’s Macedon region. John and his wife Ann bought the site, established chardonnay and pinot noir on Jim Jim’s cold southern slope and established a winery.

While the site was chosen specifically to make world-class sparkling wine, commercial reality meant the production of table wines using sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer and pinot gris from Jim Jim and other varieties from neighbouring regions.

For a visit to cellar door, the starting point – perhaps the highest point – are the sparkling wines reviewed in Top Drops. These are unique in Australia, not just for the extraordinary fruit flavour with its Champagne like intensity, but for the texture and complexity added by the making and maturation methods.

All top-end bubblies receive prolonged bottle maturation on yeast lees. But the Hanging Rock sparklers spend three years in old oak on lees prior to bottling. This is not so much about oak but about the oxidative environment, contact with lees and prolonged ageing – something that makes the flavour of this unique fruit flourish.

And if you love Bollinger, the French classic that’s also fermented and matured in old oak, you’ll appreciate the comparable nuances in Hanging Rock.

It’s worth the trip for the bubblies alone. But the a range of shirazes from Heathcote ($27 to $60), varietals from the Jim Jim vineyard ($24 to $27), regional varietals under the ‘Yellow Label’ ($16-$20), single vineyard specialties ($18 to $27) under the ‘Black Label’ and the delicious ‘Rock Range’ at $12 guarantees an exciting tasting experience.

And the journey seems set to continue as John and Anne Ellis’s children, Ruth and Robert, have joined the business as marketer and winemaker respectively.

WINE REVIEWS

Rock Riesling 2005, Rock Red 2004 $12
Hanging Rock Winery’s Rock range gives cellar door visitors a real alternative to the discounted big-company brands offered in retail stores. Riesling 2005 – a Strathbogie Ranges/Swan Hill blend – is a delicious, dry expression of the variety and offers outstanding value at $12. The most popular of the range, though, says Ann Ellis, is Rock Red 2004, a fresh, fruity, medium bodied style with vibrant acid and fine, soft tannins. It’s a blend of shiraz, pinot noir, malbec and grenache – strange but effective bed partners, in this instance. The range includes, as well, merlot, rosé, semillon sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. Available at www.hangingrock.com.au

Hanging Rock Rosé Brut $27, NV Brut Cuvée $49, Cuvée Six $110
Hanging Rock’s sparkling wines are unique and sit at the very tip of Australia’s quality pyramid. Quality begins in a now mature, south-facing vineyard rising from 650 metres above sea level near the winery to 700 metres on the slopes of Jim Jim hill. This extremely cool site (too cool to grow table wine) produces the intense-flavour, high-acid pinot noir and chardonnay essential in making top-notch bubblies. The wines from these superb grapes flourish in the long journey from vineyard to bottle (see main story) to emerge as bubblies of unique complexity. They possess great freshness and beautiful fruit flavour as well as a patina of characters derived from prolonged cask and bottle ageing.

Hanging Rock Heathcote: Shiraz $60, Cambrian Rise Shiraz 2003 $27
The Heathcote region — a little to the north of the Hanging Rock winery and vineyard at Macedon – provides shiraz for several Hanging Rock reds. The flagship Heathcote Shiraz 2003, an impressively powerful, balanced and potentially long-lived drop, comes principally from the Athol’s Paddock vineyard near the centre of this 110-kilometre long region. The delicious, soft, approachable-now Cambrian Rise Shiraz 2003 is a blend from seven vineyards sprinkled the entire length of the region. And Rowbottoms Shiraz 2003 ($33) expresses the striking ‘white pepper’ character of a single vineyard at the cooler southern end.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007

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