Best’s is synonymous with Great Western in Victoria’s Grampians, and its Concongella vineyard is home to one of the world’s most precious resources of pre-phylloxera grapevines, containing some of the oldest vines of their type in the world. With 22 hectares under vine, the vineyard has ancient vines of riesling, pinot meunier, pinot noir, dolcetto, cabernet franc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz – plus a mixed planting of some 40 rarities – which produce such iconic wines as the Best’s ‘Thomson Family’ Shiraz and ‘Old Vine’ Pinot Meunier. And while the Thomson family are respectful custodians of the past, they are also progressive ones, with the community always at the heart of their thinking.
Best’s Concongella vineyard is a place of history, but it is a living museum, vibrant and progressively managed. The vineyard is so named for the creek that trundles past the vines in the notoriously dry region. Henry Best had the foresight to plant the first vines around 1867-1868 along that creek line, with the winery established a year later. After Best’s death in 1920, the Thomson family bought the property, which they still care for today.
“We still look after vines from the 1860s and have some of the oldest vines in the world here,” says Ben Thomson, the fourth-generation custodian. “We are still making wine from these vines, which not many people can say. Sometimes it gets lost on you until someone asks you about the history.”
“We still look after vines from the 1860s and have some of the oldest vines in the world here,” says Ben Thomson the fourth-generation custodian. “We are still making wine from these vines, which not many people can say. Sometimes it gets lost on you until someone asks you about the history.”
That history includes what are thought to be the oldest vines of their type anywhere in the world. Pinot noir, pinot meunier and dolcetto were all planted by Henry Best in the 1860s, though the 25 percent of his then vineyard that Best devoted to dolcetto was likely a mix up of cuttings, having intended to plant malbec instead.
And as Thomson notes, those old vines are still very much active, producing their iconic ‘Thomson’ Family Shiraz, as well as an ancient vine expressions of pinot meunier, while the pinot noir and dolcetto are supplemented by later – though many still significantly old – plantings taken as cuttings from those original vines.
That resource of old vines also includes the Nursery Block, set out in front of the old redgum winery, which is a treasure trove of over 40 varieties, including eight that have so far defied identification. As a pre-phylloxera resource, it is unrivalled in Australia, and perhaps the world. And the Thomson’s are more than generous with that living archive, frequently hosting visiting ampelographers and viticulturists.
“We have had visitors from Geisenheim University in Germany take cuttings to try and discover the mother origin of riesling, as our vines predate any in Germany,” says Thomson, as an example that starkly underlines the importance of both the vine material and the value of that co-operation.
That generosity has led to many growers sourcing vine material from the Concongella vineyard. So much so that there are Best’s Clones of various varieties – though prominently shiraz – planted right across the country.
Today, the Thomson’s have 22 hectares under vine, including riesling, pinot meunier, pinot noir, dolcetto, cabernet franc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, plus that Nursery Block of rarities. The younger vines were planted in the 1980s and 90s, while the vineyard was also expanded in the late 60s and 70s to supplement the ancient vines – which were all around 100 years old at the time.
Thomson puts the survival of one of Australia’s oldest wineries and some of its oldest vines down to a considered approach. But he notes that it is not enough to just occupy that history, with a constant process of evolution necessary, especially in a warming climate.
“We think about climate change a lot and listen a lot to what people have to say,” Thomson reflects. “It’s always in our minds. Growing grapes is a very long process, it takes a long time to see a change in something that you have tried in the vineyard. We just keep trying to think of new approaches and ways to combat it.”
Many of the old Concongella vines are dry grown, but Thomson says water is an issue in general. “The biggest problems at the moment, and the last few years, is the lack of average rainfall. The less rainfall we have the more frosts we seem to have – it’s a hand in hand thing.”
The Thomsons have invested in bespoke pipelines for the drip irrigation of the vines, which allows for the use of resources from natural catchments though low-impact infrastructure, rather than trucking water in, like many regions now do. The pump for that irrigation is also run on solar power, with a 100-kilowatt system installed in 2018.
“We have increased our water resources and we have remote controlled irrigation to be able to react quickly to heat events,” Thomson says, “and we are working towards powering both our vineyards and winery entirely by solar energy.”
Fans have also been installed in the Concongella vineyard to mitigate against frost, and the Thomsons worked with a local tour operator – who conducts helicopter flights to the winery – to gain night-flying certification, meaning they can now control high-risk front events. It’s a last-ditch measure, but one that benefits the pilot as well protects the crop that contributes to the livelihoods of so many locals, with Best’s the Great Western’s largest employer.
In the vineyard, beehives have been placed adjacent to the vines to improve fruitfulness, and Thomson says practices and plantings are continually being reevaluated. “We are investigating under-vine cultivators and eliminating herbicides, and we’re layering and reworking old vines during winter to improve vineyard balance. We are also planting new vineyards at higher elevations of mainly chardonnay, pinot noir and riesling, but also possibly some other varieties from the nursery block.”
At its core, Thomson says the philosophy at Best’s is one that can’t be looked at in isolation, with the key to their success – both past and future – relying on everything from those precious ancient vines, to their local community, to people who travel from afar to see their historic site.
“Most of the property is not under vine,” says Thomson. “We think that management of all land is important, whether you are growing grapes, wheat, tomatoes or blue gums. There are native bush lots and we have planted thousands of native trees to rebalance the landscape, prevent erosion and provide habitat for native animals. We also farm cattle, agist sheep and horses, grow hay for feed and mulch. We collect stalks and white marc for feed and along with red marc and cow manure for compost. We have picnic grounds, conduct tours and hold events to allow visitors to enjoy the beauty of the site. We look for a holistic approach to our use of the land.”