Travelling. It’s a perk of the job, especially for me as a jovial loaner (happily single). Lots of time on the road isn’t so easy for my colleagues with families, but I was all too happy to take advantage of the opportunity to spend the entirety of October last year in Australia.
It was 2019 when I last travelled to the Antipodes. I had planned to head back in 2020, but the pandemic put paid to that. For the first time in my career, I really understood the importance of spending time in vineyards, meeting producers and gathering information direct from the source. I had a lot of ground to cover – flying into Sydney, out of Perth, taking in Melbourne, Hobart and Adelaide on the way. I didn’t honestly know what to expect. What I definitely didn’t expect is that I’d leave so excited and with so many new discoveries.
This was a wet trip, with incredible rainfall right into spring and early summer. When I landed in Sydney, I had one morning of sunshine before the heavens opened for the next three weeks. This was felt the most when I spent a few days with Mac Forbes, famed winemaker in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, where a treacherous three-hour drive from Yarra to Beechworth almost had us stuck in the middle of nowhere, with floodwater rising around us.
One of the takeaways from this trip was the collaboration and support among winemakers, each one only too happy to recommend colleagues’ wines for me to taste. Mac was a case in point, organising an evening for us in Beechworth so we could meet local winemakers. Erin Pooley of Little Francis winery was a standout. Erin is a rising star who has recently returned to Australia from the USA. Renting space in another winery and buying in parcels of grapes, she manages to get her plucky, smart and sharp personality into her wines. I am hopeful to bring a couple into the UK, so keep an eye out for those.
Starting out in the Hunter
There are a few regions that stuck out for me on my trip. It was my first visit to Hunter Valley, the oldest wine region in the country. Brokenwood and Tyrrell’s are doing fantastic things here, combining heritage and modern techniques. We don’t drink enough Hunter semillon, which seems crazy given its ageability, evolution and value. Spend £15+ and you will have a dry white wine you can cellar for years.
Top-notch Tasmanian chardonnay
Tasmania is always a treat to visit; I was particularly struck by the quantity of new plantings since my visit in 2019. The food-and-drink scene in Hobart is incredibly exciting, and I was also lucky enough to meet Pete Dredge, whose wines by the name Dr. Edge are some of the most exciting on the island. We have a parcel of his chardonnay and pinot noir on the way.
However, I found that other than a few key names, the wine quality on Tasmania doesn’t live up to the hype – yet. Despite this, there are some exceptions. Tolpuddle are famous for their delicious premium expressions of chardonnay and pinot noir. Freycinet, the producers of our Exhibition Tasmanian Chardonnay, are remarkably consistent and make excellent-value wines that reflect the terroir well.
New pinot noirs to look out for
After arriving back in Melbourne, the next leg of the trip was a drive to Adelaide. Joining me for this part of the journey was sommelier Gus Gluck. Gus moved to Melbourne a couple of years ago, married an Aussie and immersed himself in Australian wines, with a particularly good nose for underappreciated classics. We stopped off at Bannockburn in Geelong to try their hauntingly perfumed shiraz, before dropping in on a small producer in Coghills Creek, Victoria, called Eastern Peake.
The winery was set up in 1983 and is a little oasis in the middle of rural Victoria, accessible by sheep-covered dust tracks, which did the rental car no favours at all. Volumes are small but I had to snap up a couple of the pinot noirs for members because they are too delicious to miss.
The next leg took me to Barossa – proper Aussie wine country. I was excited to meet two people I’d started working with during the pandemic. Whistler Wines and Forage Supply Co, run by Sam Pfeiffer and Scott Rogasch respectively, are based in Tanunda and are excellent examples of modern Australian fine wine, with an ethos of drinkability, approachability and sustainability.
Sam and Scott are old friends, and staying with them while I was in town was a great way to gain insight into who to keep an eye on. One winemaker I was particularly glad to have met was Michael J. Corbett. ‘MJC’ works with Sam at Whistler, where he makes the wines, and he also has his own project, called Vanguardist, where he makes some of the best grenache in the country.
MJC is a perfectionist. Born in New Zealand, he has made wine in various parts of the world, including the south of France, before settling at his small winery in the Barossa and working with grapes from a vineyard in McLaren Vale. I have struggled with Aussie grenache in the past. When I visited Australia in 2019, I was presented by these light, ‘crunchy’ grenache wines that were either underripe or had disjointed whack of alcohol on the finish. But when I tasted the grenache made by Whistler, and meeting MJC, it made me realise that Vanguardist is a name to watch.
Following an impressive tasting, we took the opportunity to make The Society the sole UK partner for Vanguardist. Given the quality, the tiny production (only a few hundred bottles of some of these wines) and the buzz, this is one of the most exciting purchases of my career so far. Naturally the quantities of the top-tier V range are small. For appreciators of wines which are restrained, elegant, mid-weight and with layer upon layer of ethereal aroma, these are a must-buy.
Final stop – Margaret River
The final leg of my trip took me to Margaret River in Western Australia. It’s hard to get across how remote it is, but this is part of its charm. It’s also stunning, packed with green, luscious forests, healthy vineyards, and the most beautiful and dramatic cliff-lined coastlines I have ever seen.
Pre-1960s, the region was primarily used for farmland, then surfers started to arrive, as did those who saw the potential for grape growing. Surrounded by ocean on three sides, the climate is never too hot or cold and perfect for chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, in particular.
The region has a good balance of producers and has a strong fine-wine presence, home to the likes of Leeuwin Estate, Robert Oatley and Xanadu. But I was keen to discover some of the smaller, more boutique wineries – there are many here that are unknown in the UK.
LS Merchants was started by Dylan Arvidson, a New Zealander by birth and a former DJ. Through his career, Dylan has worked for wineries in Tasmania, New Zealand, Canada, Bordeaux and Tuscany. He loves to experiment and have fun with alternative varieties, but it was his Wilyabrup Margaret River Chardonnay 2021 that stopped me in my tracks. It’s not easy to get breadth and tension in a wine but this one nailed it. I was also extremely impressed with his petit verdot: unashamedly full-bodied but with real class and texture.
South by South West is another winery with a fantastic local reputation. Winemaker Livia’s Italian routes extend into the line-up of wines. Fiori is a deliciously aromatic, floral and textured white, while Super Margs – a blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and a twist of merlot and malbec – is a clever take on a super-Tuscan and was a joyful discovery.
Margaret River was the final stop on my month-long tour. The last night before I left for Perth, I joined Liv at scenic spot Surfers Point to enjoy a well-earned beer, watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean, as the most committed surfers caught the last waves before dark. Paradise.