Some 20 years ago, Rowly Milhinch left a career in visual communication to set up a vineyard and a family life in Rutherglen. It’s territory that his family have lived in for generations, and he was intent on honouring the traditions of the region but recasting them through his own lens. Under his Scion label, he makes fortifieds, a staple of Rutherglen, but they are twists on the classics, including a ‘Muscat Nouveau’, as well as making dry red from syrah, grenache and durif, with the later also getting the light red treatment, built to chill.
Milhinch is a descendent of George Francis Morris, who was a Rutherglen pioneer in the latter half of the 19th century, but his career path was as a graphic designer, before his home territory started to beckon. “I remember reading the quote: ‘To risk nothing can risk everything.’ This put an opportunity to start my wine journey in perspective, so I took it,” he says. “I left Melbourne to set up a life in Rutherglen because of a connection to family and the vigneron who helped establish our industry. We planted a vineyard, built a wine business, are growing a family and love Rutherglen for lots of reasons alongside wine. It’s a humble town with a sense of place, opportunities and good people.”
“A passion for the Rhône has guided travel and inspires my drinking. An interest in structured wines, and reimagining varieties that have been extensively grown in the region is my focus.”
A self-taught winemaker, Milhinch planted the first vines on his own Linlithgow property in 2002, making his first Scion wine in 2010. “I’ve never made wine anywhere else; my style is my own,” he says. “I once worked in visual communication, and I’d say this has influenced things as problem solving and risk taking was the job description. I guide two-staff to help manage our 12 acres of vines. It’s just me in the winery, and everything is done onsite.”
Milhinch says his wines are built around an interest in the wines of the Rhône Valley and a desire to reinterpret Rutherglen tradition. “A passion for the Rhône has guided travel and inspires my drinking,” he says. “An interest in structured wines, and reimagining varieties that have been extensively grown in the region is my focus. My mentors are my mates – drinking buddies who also make wine.”
In 2015, Milhinch began managing and remediating the 1.6-hectare Terravinia Vineyard, which is planted to shiraz. “Before my time, it was replanted in 1995 on a historic site, which was originally established in 1865, yet was in a derelict state when I took it on.” Over the years, he has replanted vines, restructured existing trellising architecture, improved bunch and canopy management, replaced all irrigation, seeded winter and summer grasses in the midrows, mulched under vine and planted on non-vineyard land to improve biodiversity.
“Ultimately, my wine style reflects my viticulture: flavour intensity with lower ripeness coupled with an expression of terroir – savoury nuance, texture and structure with good flavour expression is my thing.”
“Each year, consistency across the block improves, as does vine health and biodiversity,” says Milhinch. “Water efficiency, soil biomass and fruit quality are the big winners.” He also takes the same approach at his home vineyard, which provides the fruit for most of the Scion wines. “Water efficiency, biodiversity and minimising mechanical and chemical inputs are my focus across both sites. We are also participating in the Sustainable Winegrowing Australia program and feature as a biodiversity case study within it.”
Milhinch says that his viticulture is about improving wine quality and long-term sustainability in equal measure. “Ultimately, my wine style reflects my viticulture: flavour intensity with lower ripeness coupled with an expression of terroir – savoury nuance, texture and structure with good flavour expression is my thing,” he says. “I’m making wines with focus and engagement. Focus is on fruit character, and engagement with the place the grapes are grown. fundamentally, growing my own fruit gives me more options and outcomes, and a connection to place that’s important to my journey.”
“I’ve learnt to evolve my skills and winemaking style by learning to grow grapes. Grapevines respond to climate, and while the sites I work with are consistent, the seasons aren’t. So, you need skills to interpret place as conditions vary. It’s a bloody good challenge and has taken me a while to get my head around the idea of being guided by the season, not trying to guide it.”
In the winery, Milhinch is constantly looking at their energy and water use to make core practices as efficient as possible. “We’re got a 22-kilowatt solar array with battery storage, extensive rainwater catchment, provisions for electric vehicle charging and a range of farm and processing equipment considered around environmental impact.”
A core pillar of the Scion label is durif, a grape that that gets little airtime out of the region, but is a Rutherglen staple for making often rustic dry reds. “The key is experimentation,” says Milhinch. “It can be grown and made to suit so many outcomes, from rosé, a chilled light red, medium and full-bodied reds and as a fortified – it’s grown extensively in Rutherglen, yet it has only one identity. Here is an opportunity. Varying levels of stem inclusion, whole and partial berry combinations, viognier co-fermentation, ferment dynamics, maturation strategies and design solutions around packaging and appeal are all part of the mix for me.”
His dynamic work with durif is just one example of how Milhinch is making Rutherglen wine that challenges expectations. “This has taken me on a wild ride of growing grapes, making booze and running a business,” he says. “I’m not aspiring to make a single wine that’s perfect – I’m not sure this exists. If I can capture what’s special about where I am, while exploring what it can deliver, then job done. I love that my work is an expression of nature with creativity thrown in the mix. It’s an evolving combo of practicality, interpretation, ideas and challenge.”