Macedon Ranges — really cool

Look at today’s feature picture for an idea of how cool Macedon is – in both senses. What you see is Hanging Rock’s south-facing Jim Jim vineyard, one of the coolest wine-growing sites in Australia, covered in winter snow. And that’s winemaker John Ellis’s son, Robert, making the most of it.

John and Anne Ellis established the vineyard in 1982, specifically to produce top-end bubblies from pinot noir and chardonnay grapes.  And for that you need a cold climate, barely capable of ripening grapes. But they were not the first in the area with this aspiration as Gordon Cope-Williams had arrived at nearby Romsey in 1977.

The Ellis’s Jim Jim vineyard represents the coolest end of Macedon’s climate spectrum – a fascinatingly diverse region that rolls the equivalent of France’s Champagne, Burgundy and northern Rhone regions into one.

It achieves this largely through variations in altitude and aspect. Jim Jim vineyard, for example, sits on a southern slope of the Great Divide at an altitude approaching 700 metres. The site is too cool to produce still table wine. But it creates the perfect high-acid, delicate-but-intense flavours for sparkling wine.

Baynton, just a few kilometres to the north through the Macedon Ranges, sits at the other end of the climate spectrum. A drop in altitude to around 400 metres above sea level means a growing season that’s not only too warm for pinot and chardonnay sparkling wine but too warm even to make good table wine made from those varieties. Here, Granite Hills Winery (founded 1970) makes intense, peppery shiraz, a variety that doesn’t cut the mustard a little higher up.

This altitude-driven style variation is a feature that separates Australian wine regions of the Great Dividing Range from the more homogenous classic regions of France. In France, distinctive wine styles defined their regions over great periods of time. Legal confirmation of these followed long after the reality.

For example, after a long winemaking history Champagne emerged as a sparkling specialist, using pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay, in the eighteenth century – its specialty being driven largely by the cold climate at forty-nine degrees north. But the statute of Champagne, defending its name and boundaries, came only in 1927.

A little to the south, and again over many hundreds of years, sublime, elegant table wines made from chardonnay and pinot noir defined Burgundy. And a little south again, shiraz defined the appellations of the northern Rhone Valley.

In Australia our regional definitions grew less from the wines we made and more from an imperative to define legally defensible boundaries. Hence we rolled out our geographic indications system following wine agreements with Europe and America in the early nineties.

Along the Great Divide the boundaries we drew create far from homogenous regions. Mudgee, for example, has vineyards clustered mainly in the 500-600 metre range, but with at least one outlying extreme – Louee Wine’s Mount Nullo vineyard at 1100 metres. It’s almost another country in terms of the wine styles it makes.

But in high, cool Orange, the boundary makers recognised the importance of altitude on wine style and set a lower-altitude limit of around 650 metres. Famously, this put the boundary on the contours of the Little Boomey Vineyard. It literally rolls in and out of Orange.

Though the Macedon Ranges boundary covers a wide range of altitudes, in reality, the vineyards seem to be focused on the higher, cooler sites, with the very coolest sites focusing on sparkling wine production and the more moderate sites specialising in pinot noir and chardonnay table wines.

Judging at the regional show a few weeks back these were certainly the styles that shone. We tasted some attractive pinot gris, gewürztraminer, sauvignon blanc and shiraz. But the sparkling wines were the best I’ve ever seen at an Australian wine show – vindicating the judgment made by Gordon Cope-Williams and John Ellis several decades ago.

The pinots and chardonnays, too, were extraordinarily good and driven largely by a comparatively new wave of makers.

The gold medallists from the show, reviewed below, give a taste of what Macedon does best and are worth seeking.

Curly Flat Macedon Ranges Pinot Noir 2005 $46
Williams Crossing Macedon Ranges Pinot Noir 2005 $20
Portree Macedon Ranges Pinot Noir 2005 $33

The very cool climate of the Macedon Ranges wine region, an hour’s drive north west of Melbourne, produces top-notch pinot noirs – wines of great perfume, clear varietal flavour and silky, fine texture. Judging there two weeks ago 21 of the 29 pinots tasted won medals – three golds, three silvers and fifteen bronzes. The high strike reflected the quality, especially of these three gold-medallists. Portree wine, the fullest bodied of the trio, shows a more powerful face of pinot. Curly Flat, the most complex and interesting, needs time (it’s not released yet anyway). And Williams Crossing, Curly Flat’s second label, is taut, fine and delicious. See www.portreevineyard.com.au and www.curlyflat.com

Cope-Williams Romsey Brut Pinot Noir Chardonnay NV $26
Hanging Rock Macedon Cuvée VII LD $115
Mt William Winery Blanc de Blanc 2001 $35

I’ve never judged a class of Australian sparklings as striking and delicious as those at the recent Macedon show. A maturity of winemaking, coupled with the extremely cool growing conditions delivers flavour and structure seldom found outside of France’s Champagne district. These three gold-medallists show pretty well the full spectrum of the region’s sparkling styles: the ultra-fine, elegant, marvellously fresh, all-chardonnay Mt William 2001 (www.mtwilliamwinery.com.au); the classically fine and intense Cope-Williams Brut NV (www.copewilliams.com.au) and Hanging Rock’s idiosyncratic tour-de-force of powerful fruit, tight structure and edgy, tangy cask maturation complexities (hangingrock.com.au).

Shadowfax Macedon Ranges Chardonnay 2006 $35
Lanes End Macedon Ranges Chardonnay 2005 $28
Curly Flat Macedon Ranges Chardonnay 2005 $38

Macedon’s third grape specialty, chardonnay, probably faces more Aussie competitors than its pinots and bubblies do, partly because of the sheer versatility of this variety. That said, the chardonnays that it makes are in a very fine, restrained style — the best of which could take on any competitors.  Amongst twenty eight chardonnays judged we found these three zingy fresh chardonnays: the very fine, stunningly fresh Shadowfax 2006 (www.shadowfax.com.au), the more robust, slightly oakier, but still very fine Lanes End (www.lanesend.com.au), and the more restrained, slightly funky, deliciously fresh Curly Flat (www.curlyflat.com).

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007

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