Any visit to Tahbilk is immersive. The glisten of the white mudbrick buildings. The yeasty scent of the underground cellars that echoes winemaking. The gentle hum of insects in the wetlands. And most symbolically, the plush mid-palate of old-vine shiraz that tastes ripe, plush and generous. On this visit, our conversations with Alister Purbrick shed light on his personal journey with Tahbilk.
The Lowdown - Whitlands High Plateau
Many of our mapped wine regions cover vast areas, which don’t always do justice to the differences in soil, rainfall and climate that can result in strikingly different wines from ostensibly the same area. Officially lumped in with the King Valley GI, the Whitlands High Plateau is a place of singular character – elevated, bitterly cold and somewhat stunning. We asked Clare Burder of Eminence – whose family have grown grapes there for over two decades – what makes her area so unique.
The Whitlands High Plateau is a high-altitude ridge that runs above the Western side of the King Valley in North-East Victoria. Only about 9 km long, it ranges from 750 m above sea level at the lowest point, going up to about 900 masl. It’s sort of a peculiar place, not quite alpine, not completely agricultural, with very dense forest that breaks occasionally to reveal magnificent views across the snow-covered mountains. No pub, no post office or shop, but with a population of 31, there is a thread of determination that runs through the families here. There are easier places to live, but the remoteness seems to bring out an industrious approach – and vineyards are a product of that.
The soils, although varied, are relatively fertile – my Grandad planted potatoes long before grapes were viable, and cattle farms seem to stay green even through summer. The soil is a loam base with seams of more granitic areas depending on the site. At our place, we have about 140 cm of rain annually, yet the ground is never muddy – the balance of water retention and drainage is critical to the success of our site – negating any need to irrigate.
Being a cold area, it is perfect for grapes destined for sparkling base, aromatic whites and pinot noir. Brown Brothers kicked off in the late 1970s and were followed in bits and pieces by local families looking to invest. That’s how my Dad came to plant vines on his family property at the top of the plateau. We enjoyed the end of the wine boom in the late ’90s and similarly suffered through the bust that followed. And, like so many others, it’s in those tough years of unsold grapes that the idea of starting a wine label came to life. Eminence started making wine ‘on purpose’ in 2008 and now produces tiny batches of méthode traditionelle sparkling under The Assembly label.
In 2019, Whitlands is starting to come to the attention of the wine industry. Domaine Chandon have released a single site sparkling from their site (formerly owned by Brown Brothers), and there are a new crop of makers purchasing fruit such as Vignerons Schmölzer & Brown (VS&B ), Le Timbre, Story Wines, Neil Prentice & Konpira Maru – all making the most of the varieties and sites available to them.
About Clare – After a solid career educating professionals and the public alike in the dark arts of all things alcoholic, Clare returned to the family vineyard to fulfil her-long-term dream of crafting world-class sparkling wine. Not content with idle moments, Clare also runs Vintuition, a consulting program for improving cellar door operations. She is also a published author and a respected MC and speaker.