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Groundbreaking Heathcote
– 2020 Top 50 Winemaker Feature

Wines Of Now
Words by YGOW.

Heathcote is rugged country, a tinder-dry landscape of rusty iron-rich soils littered with sculpturally stacked granitic boulders. It’s mythical territory, ancient land, and home to some of the world’s oldest viticultural soils. But as a wine region, it is a relatively young one, which saw an explosion of growth in the 90s. Shiraz led the charge, and it became Victoria’s answer to the Barossa or McLaren Vale, producing wines of significant power. But Heathcote is very different to both those places, and it is not that easily defined. Today, shiraz finds myriad expressions, and other varieties are taking a firm grip. This year’s Top 50 features Bart van Olphen from Italian variety specialist Chalmers.

The Heathcote wine region is largely celebrated for shiraz grown on its red Cambrian soil. Indeed, it is probably one of the few regions where those not completely obsessed with wine – or geology – could pin soil type to region. Coonawarra and terra rossa, Heathcote and red Cambrian… For most of us, that’s about it. And that soil is often associated with powerfully built wines born under the hot sun. But the GI is a big one, and one where generalisations inevitably fall short.

“Heathcote is a long, relatively narrow region, and it goes from relatively cool climate (even cold) and granitic hills to pretty warm and rich red soils in the north,” Chalmers’ Bart van Olphen says. “We are on the warm end near the top of the Mount Camel range where we have amazing Cambrian soil, and the summer daytime temperatures on that site are only a few degrees less than up in Mildura.”

Looking over Chalmers vineyard in central Heathcote at sunrise.

Adam Foster of Syrahmi (2008 & 2009 YGOW People’s Choice Award winner), believes that Heathcote’s reputation as a place for epically proportioned wines is more to do with choices than it is with regional character. “You look at the wines that say Steve Webber [of De Bortoli] is now making out of Heathcote, and all those other medium-framed wines, and that’s what I think is more suited to the region.”

Foster believes that while the Cambrian soil is of major importance, there’s much more to the picture. “Yes, the red Cambrian earth is something, but there’s very little of Heathcote on that soil, compared to how much it’s talked about,” he says. “The diurnal swing is, I think, the most important thing. Whatever the temperature is during the day, it’s a minimum of half that at night. There are not many regions in the world where that happens. If it’s 40°C during the day, it’ll be under 20°C at night.”

Adam Foster’s vineyard. Granite boulders are littered throughout the landscape in Heathcote.

Bucking the trend

In 2001, when rich and powerful reds were at their height, Michael Dhillon, of Macedon’s Bindi, started making shiraz in Heathcote from a high and relatively cool site near Colbinabbin, on the Mount Camel Range. Dhillon makes fine and elegant chardonnay and pinot noir from his cool, quartz-riddled vineyard in Gisborne, and his foray to Heathcote wasn’t about indulging in the zeitgeist, but rather to make shiraz in a mould that many a maker would label syrah – elegant, fragrant and spicy, but still with power and reflecting the rugged minerality of the area.

“Look at a 1991 or ’92 Jasper Hill. They’re 13.2% alcohol. That’s how all Heathcote wines were made back then,” says Foster. “They weren’t 15 or 16% like they can be. If you try any of the old Zuber wines [a Heathcote pioneer], they were glorious. For me, the catalyst was the 1997 ‘Duck Muck’ [from Wild Duck Creek]. That’s the first wine that got 99 points in the heyday of [Robert] Parker. A wine that was $50 at cellar door went for $1,000 or $1,500 US at auction. And everyone thought, we can make wine like that.”

In 2003, and in partnership with British Master of Wine David Gleave and Alberto Antonini – one of Italy’s superstar consultant winemakers – Mark Walpole (Fighting Gully Road, Beechworth), set up the Greenstone vineyard in Colbinabbin. Walpole, who is one of Australia’s leading viticulturists, had isolated the site as being somewhat unique with its red soils speckled with limestone, and he planted it at high density, encouraging less vigour and lower crops. The trio also invested heavily in sangiovese, a variety that has since found meaningful purpose in the region.

It was something of a watershed moment, with Walpole planting the vines in an east-west orientation, rather than the typical north-south. His aim was to shield the grapes from the hot sun, rather than expose them, resulting in more elegant styles, though ones that still spoke of the territory. It was a statement of intent for a region that not only made imposing wines but also had a strong following for them.

“What Heathcote has been known for in the past is not what Heathcote will be famous for in the future.”

What followed was a burgeoning interest in making less-brooding styles. Greenstone became somewhat of the hub for that, and principally for the fruit they sold to other makers, who were able to imprint their own sensibilities on it. Indeed, that vineyard became the source of wines over the years that began to unpick the notion of Heathcote as the home of big reds. And that’s a notion that Foster believes is a relatively recent phenomenon.

“Look at a 1991 or ’92 Jasper Hill. They’re 13.2% alcohol. That’s how all Heathcote wines were made back then,” says Foster. “They weren’t 15 or 16% like they can be. If you try any of the old Zuber wines [a Heathcote pioneer], they were glorious. For me, the catalyst was the 1997 ‘Duck Muck’ [from Wild Duck Creek]. That’s the first wine that got 99 points in the heyday of [Robert] Parker. A wine that was $50 at cellar door went for $1,000 or $1,500 US at auction. And everyone thought, we can make wine like that.”

The new generation

The opportunity afforded by Greenstone meant that the arms race of Heathcote-based vignerons to make more profoundly expansive expressions had a counterpoint, ready access for younger makers – or simply those from other regions – who wanted to experiment. Heathcote began to draw makers, like Luke Lambert (2008 YGOW Finalist) and Jarad Curwood (2015 YGOW Finalist), intent on interpreting the region in their own idiosyncratic ways, as well seeing the second generation of local makers, like Emily McNally (daughter of Jasper Hill’s Ron and Elva Laughton), forge their own path.

In time, the Greenstone vineyard was sold, but the point was well made. Today, the centre of the renaissance largely revolves around the Chalmers vineyard.

The Chalmers family first planted their 80-hectare Heathcote property in 2009 – also with an east-west row orientation – but their agenda was firmly rooted in Italian varieties. The Heathcote site was an extension of their significant vine nursery (which is responsible for most of the Italian vines that have been planted in the last 20 years) and vineyards in the Murray Darling region. Heathcote offered a way to plant specific varieties – like sagrantino, aglianico, nero d’avola – where they would thrive, as the ‘fruit salad’ approach in their home site was always going to favour some varieties over others.

Aglianico – a late ripening grape variety, suited to warm climates – hanging on the vines in autumn at Chalmers vineyard, ready for harvest.

Italian styling

“I think the region has lots to offer and a great deal to discover,” says Van Olphen. “We have 25 varieties planted, and the wines are all distinctively Heathcote – there is just something about that soil that shines through with any variety. It’s particularly cool to work with lots of white varieties, as you might not expect them from Heathcote. Things like fiano and greco are cracking in that Cambrian soil, and now we have falanghina and pecorino that are looking amazing for their first vintage in 2020.”

Like Walpole’s vineyard, that resource of vines has also been an extraordinary benefit for producers both in the region and outside, with around 40 makers working with their fruit in any one year. “Nero d’avola and fiano have been taken up around the place, and greco and vermentino as well,” says Van Olphen. “I think because our vineyard sells fruit to so many winemakers, it’s allowed many to experiment and see what the potential of a variety is before they plant it up the road, which is a great advantage.”

Bart van Olphen.

Aside from the boom in Italian varieties, Van Olphen believes the swing to – or swing back to, according to Foster – more elegant styles is a major character of today’s wines from Heathcote. “Tasting through the young shiraz classes at the Heathcote Wine Show Last year, I was impressed by the elegance of the wines. I don’t think Heathcote wines are getting bigger; if anything, they’re slimming down,” he says.

Heathcote’s alter egos

Foster believes that along with style shifts, better understanding of potential subregional divisions will be another important step. “There are about 12 of us who get together every year, and we taste all the wines from the same vintage but break them down by the area,” he says. “And it’s incredible. You definitely see the difference in terroir. In central Heathcote, there’s a real thread of gunflint, of shotgun cartridge, then you go up to the more red soils and the wines change from being dark fruited to being red fruited, perfumed, a bit more aromatic but at the same time more earthy with dried herbs.”

“And it’s incredible. You definitely see the difference in terroir. In central Heathcote, there’s a real thread of gunflint, of shotgun cartridge, then you go up to the more red soils and the wines change from being dark fruited to being red fruited, perfumed, a bit more aromatic but at the same time more earthy with dried herbs.”

Adam Foster at his newly planted vineyard.

Steven Shelmerdine first planted in southern Heathcote in 1994, in Tooboorac, then extended his holdings in 1997 to capture the very different climatic conditions of Willoughby Bridge in northern Heathcote. “In southern Heathcote, which is cooler and more influenced by the Macedon climate, we planted chardonnay, riesling and shiraz, of course,” Shelmerdine says. “In northern Heathcote, we originally planted cabernet, shiraz and merlot, which were in high demand.”

That varietal mix, in each location, emphasises the subregional differences. But Shelmerdine has invested deeply in diversifying that offering, with the varieties planted now even more starkly highlighting those polarities, as well being a neat snapshot of the evolution of interest in less-traditional varieties. “In southern Heathcote, we’ve evolved the aromatic white side of things with pinot grigio and grüner veltliner,” he says. “In northern Heathcote, we are concentrating now on grenache, mourvèdre, fiano, greco, sangiovese, nebbiolo, montepulciano, touriga and tempranillo, and they’re performing very well.”

Much like Chalmers and Greenstone before it, Shelmerdine’s vineyards are supplying a who’s who of artisanal makers, some who don’t have vineyards themselves and some who are keen to dabble outside their home region. His clients include De Bortoli, Gilles Lapalus, Pat Underwood, Rob Ellis, Josh Cooper and Adam Foster.

There’s no doubt that the Heathcote wine region is dynamic, well into a deeper exploration of its possibilities, but time will tell what will truly thrive in one place or another. It’s an exciting and unfolding project. “What Heathcote has been known for in the past is not what Heathcote will be famous for in the future,” says Foster.

The Wines

Photo by James Morgan.

2019 Chalmers Vermentino

Lifted and pure citrus aromatics, with some savoury mineral and saline-edged notes. There’s a distant hint of orchard blossom, with white stone fruit flesh and savoury kernel. This is brightly fruited, but there’s a complexity of aromatics that carries through on the palate along with a chewy viscosity, giving this a detailed mouthfeel, with lemon pith and nectarine skin and a suggestion of yellow grapefruit like bitterness playing with the bright acid and textural flex that give the wine detail and moreish length.

2019 Chalmers Nero d’Avola

This is very bright and varietal, with earthy notes, dark but not richly hued fruits, plum skin, dried raspberry and sour-edged red berry notes. There’s a bright freshness to this and a very varietal feel, with vibrant acid and coolish tannins. There’s a whole berry, red-fruited undercurrent, skipping through the more rugged earthy notes of nero in a light-handed way. This isn’t super earthy and it’s not super pretty either, more finely tuned nero, vivid and savoury.


See the full list of Top 50 winemakers in the 2020 Young Gun of Wine Awards here. Join in our virtual events here, and also vote on who wins the People’s Choice until June 1.