King Valley Victoria part one of two

Australia’s current vineyard explosion, should it continue as envisaged through to 2025, could add more vines to the continent than were planted in the first two hundred years of white settlement.

The pace of change is too rapid for anyone to accurately monitor in any single region, let alone across the whole continent. A sustained expansion may create a southern Australia somewhat like Italy where vines are planted in dribs and drabs all over — literally a new ‘Enotria’, or land of vines as the Greeks called Etruscan Italy — forging a wine map almost unrecognisable to drinkers of the mid nineties.

In Victoria’s King Valley, the remarkable growth sees not just new vineyards, but new wineries springing up overnight.

During a visit last October, Miranda Wines’ presence was a recently-acquired cow paddock on the Wangaratta-Oxley road, and a press release announcing plans for 60 hectares of vines and a 2000 tonne (150,000 dozen bottles) capacity winery.

Last week, after a pleasant drive across the alps to northern Victoria, I was astonished to see the winery approaching completion in time for the 1998 vintage. There was no sign of grape vines, but word is that about 60 hectares are to be planted on the site this winter.

A few kilometres south, near the village of Moyhu, another large paddock was being prepared for planting by the De Bortoli family, Miranda’s wine-making neighbours from Griffith, NSW; and in the neighbouring Ovens Valley to the north, a consortium of King Valley grape growers and Murray-River-based Kingston Estate Wines, has another large winery under construction with a proposed 1998 crush of 2,500 tonnes (175,000 dozen bottles).

Further south up the valley, on a line of low hills to the west of the King River, Brown Bros are establishing a major new vineyard, ‘Banksdale’ in the Myrrhee sub-district. It sits on thin, red volcanic soil — the weathered remains of a lava flow from Tolmie during the tertiary era.

At 410-486 metres, Banksdale provides a notably cooler grape growing environment than at Brown Bros old Milawa vineyards, on the deep, alluvial Oxley Plains at around 170 metres.

Seventy hectares of vines are already in the ground at Banksdale with another 25 to be planted this winter, giving this single vineyard a potential output of around 70,000 dozen bottles a year — more than the output of the entire Canberra region.

While Banksdale may be bigger than the average King Valley planting, its broad acres are typical for the region.

Where Canberra in its pioneering phase was characterised by tiny winery-vineyard developments, the King Valley seems to have been driven by one large winery — Brown Bros — fed by comparatively large-scale independent grape growers with no original interest in wine making.

Thus, according to the King Valley Grapegrowers Association, there are now about fifty families in the region “dependent on grapes as their primary source of income”.

And the focus on planting has moved away from the warm northern end of the valley to the cool southern end, thanks to he pioneering work of independent grape growers and, later, the establishment of Brown Bros ‘Whitlands’ vineyard at 800 metres above sea level.

Independent growing in the valley was pioneered by Guy Darling and John Leviny. Both established vines in the higher, cooler northern end of the valley in 1970 (between Moyhu and Whitfield).

(Guy Darling’s ‘Koombahla’ vineyard at Whitfield lent its name to a Brown Bros wine for many years but is now used only on Guy’s own wines.)

Brown Bros absorbed most of the region’s grapes in the early days and remains the major player. But there are a number of small wineries in the area (John Gehrig, Avalon, La Cantina and more); Miranda, De Bortoli and Kingston Estate are setting up shop; virtually all of Australia’s major wine makers source wine from the valley; and, increasingly, grape growers are converting part of their crops to wine through contract wine makers — setting the scene for an explosion of King Valley labels.

The Valley — the northern end of it at least — is beautifully situated for tourism, being close to the Hume Highway, the Victorian alps and historic tourist towns like Beechworth. Brown Bros cellar door sales are
reputedly amongst the highest in Australia thanks to a 365 day a year stream of tourists — including a strong ski contingent during winter.

The sites of the new Miranda and Kingston Estate Wineries suggests an eye to passing trade and a big new impetus to regional tourism.

More on the King Valley next week.

Copyright Chris Shanahan 1998 & 2007