Hilltops flies solo

The Hilltops wine region, centred on Young, an hour and a half’s drive north from here, emerged at about the same time as Canberra’s. In 1969, just two years before CSIRO Drs John Kirk and Edgar Riek planted vines, independently of one another, at Murrumbateman and Lake George, cherry farmer, the late Peter Robertson, established a vineyard on his property, Barwang at Young.

The quality of fruit from Robertson’s vines encouraged its eventual expansion to 100 hectares and, ultimately, its full acquisition by McWilliams in 1989 after a period of joint venture with the Robertson family.

For a time in the late eighties, under McWilliams ownership, Barwang was seen by some in the company as a source of rich flavours whose best use might be to rev up multi-regional blends.

However, there were dissenting voices in the ranks at McWilliams. Two voices in particular, those of Doug McWilliam and chief winemaker, Jim Brayne, argued the case for an estate-grown wine bearing the Barwang and, hence, Young, name (the Hilltops region, its ultimate appellation, didn’t yet exist).

The McWilliams boss at the time, Don McWilliam, a proponent, as I recall, of the blend-it-away point of view, with support from Doug and Jim invited Australia’s wine journalists to visit Barwang, inspect the vines, taste its wines and to argue for or against a regional brand.

Doug McWilliam and Brayne anticipated support from the writers and got it – a unanimous vote to build Barwang’s regional identity. Perhaps our support twenty years ago played a small part in McWilliams’ decision to continue making and marketing the now well-known Barwang wines.

For the many other winemakers in the area it was a significant decision – a case where the presence of a large company in an emerging region raised the area’s profile through its nationwide distribution. Barwang also helped legitimise Hilltops through the high quality, and significant wine show success, of its wines.

But even after McWilliams’ decision to keep the Barwang brand, other forces made Hilltops, for a time, source of multi-regional blending material. In the mid to late nineties, Australia’s export juggernaut was sucking the country dry of red wine.

To meet what appeared to be endless demand, large makers, notably Southcorp, encouraged broad acre planting along the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range – from Mudgee in the north to Gundagai in the south. On an extensive tour of these areas in the late nineties with Southcorp viticulturist, Bruce Brown, the Hilltops region featured as one of the key sources of high quality red grapes.

The area under vine in Hilltops increased during this period. However, this put pressure on grape growers as demand waned this decade. But it also created opportunities for small makers outside the area.

Canberra’s Clonakilla, for example, built on the success of its flagship shiraz viognier blend with a comparatively big volume Hilltops shiraz that sells for about one third the price. And last year Eden Road Winery, based in the old Kamberra building, won the Jimmy Watson Trophy with a 2008 Hilltops shiraz, sourced primarily from Jason and Alecia Brown’s Moppity Vineyards. Importantly, these small external makers acknowledge Hilltops on the label.

The wines are simply too good and distinctive to blend away. And these successes add to the sizzle being created by Young’s resident vignerons.

Though Barwang shiraz and cabernet sauvignon remain perhaps the most visible of the Hilltops resident producers, Grove Estate, Chalkers Crossing, Freeman and Moppity Vineyards all make impressive wines.

Freeman, established in 1999, focuses on Italian styles. Brian Freeman’s flagship, a blend of the Veneto red varieties rondinella and corvina, is a brilliant Australian take on Valpolicella’s “Amarone” style, made from dried grapes. But rather than go the whole hog like the Italians, Freeman uses mainly fresh grapes, adding a portion of dehydrated berries during fermentation. The result is a very full, ripe red with a distinctive ripe black-cherry flavour – with undertones of port and prune and a pleasantly tart, savoury edge.

He backs the red up with the delicious “Fortuna”, a savoury, Italian-style, white blend of pinot gris, riesling, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and aleatico.

Another comparative newcomer, Ted Ambler, planted his first vines near Young in 1997, employing French winemaker Celine Rousseau to make the first Chalkers Crossing wines in 2000. Her graceful, elegant wines, shiraz in particular, have been some of the best to emerge from the region. Chalkers Crossing produces shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, riesling and semillon from Hilltops; and chardonnay, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc from nearby (and cooler) Tumbarumba.

Next we’ll look at the interesting history and wines from Moppity Vineyards, founded originally as Moppity Park in 1973 and bought by the Brown family in 2004 and Grove Estate, established by Brian Mullany and partners in 1989.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010