July 06, 2022

On the road to Rutherglen - a wine adventure

To continue my theme of devious detours, I had the opportunity to deviate via the famous Victorian High Country wine region of Rutherglen while transiting from Melbourne to Sydney.

Up there with the Barossa and Huner Valleys in terms of brand recognition, if not volume, the first vines were planted on the lands of the indigenous Bangerang people in the 1850s by a chap named Lindsay Brown, now acknowledged as the father of Rutherglen wines who planted a four-acre vineyard on his 'Gooramadda Run'.

By the end of the century, Rutherglen had created an international profile for itself thanks to the excellent red ‘Rutherglen’ loam soil which works in tandem with the warm, dry climate. A gold rush quickly followed, cementing the region as a prosperous and productive territory.

Unfortunately, the dreaded phylloxera disease all but destroyed the fledgling industry at the beginning of the 20th century, but vigorous replanting quickly followed and the region is now best known for its fortified wines and excellent Shiraz, Durif and Cabernet Sauvignon varieties.

My first stop was at Jones Winery, an institution in Rutherglen with a heritage going back six generations. I roll up to the tasting room and I’m met by owner, Mandy Jones, who quickly wipes the bright red Durif crush from her hands.

“We’re right in the middle of harvest, so please excuse the mess,” says Mandy as she prepares to hand me over to her tasting staff.

Arthur and Mandy Jones of Jones Wines Rutherglen
cultivate specialties of Durif, Shiraz and Muscat (supplied)

Her brother Arthur is out the back getting the juice ready for the 150-year-old oak fermenters, while young, sixth-generation winemaker, Ben Jones contemplates his next vintage of J6 wines.

The tasting room is artfully decorated with antique and vintage items as well as photographs from the last 90 years of the Jones winemaking dynasty. While Jones has an impressive range of red, white, rose and fortified wines, the standout in my opinion is Ben’s own blend, the J6 “Jimmy’s Block” with grapes grown in the 50-year-old vineyard.

Ben says Jimmy’s Block is “mostly Shiraz, but there is also some Muscat of Hamburg and a smattering of Chasselas, Sultana and Muscat Gordo Blanc. The palate is delicious, well rounded, fruity with a soft plush finish and, chilled slightly, is great with pasta or pizza.”

J6 Jimmy’s Block retails for $28

Speaking of food, chef Briony Bradford serves delicious fare in the adjacent restaurant which she describes as ‘nose-to-tail’ and uses predominantly local and seasonal produce. The menu may include “Murray Grey beef, bred on the property; local pork, trout, duck or goat; and a rainbow of local vegetables, including some from the kitchen garden.”

With delicate flowers and colourful embellishments such as snow pea tendrils, baby asparagus heads and butterflied snow peas, her plated presentations clearly indicate an artist’s eye.

Over at Lake Moodemere Estate, I meet Belinda Chambers at the original 1850s homestead that bears the winery’s name. Along with partner Michael and sons Harry and Joel, the family has 15ha under vine and focuses on sustainability. Their Reisling, Chardonnay and Shiraz/Cinsaut ‘field blend’ helped garnered them ‘Australian Top 50 Vineyards 2021/22’ status in the Young Guns of Wine Awards last year.

Entertaining at Lake Moodemere (supplied)

“All our grapes are estate grown on 70-year-old vines right here on our property,” Belinda tells me, “and that sustainability certification is the result of a very gruelling audit.”

The very thought of that certification process almost brings visible sweat to Belinda’s brow. Clearly, this was no simple ‘tick box’ process. The family also raise sheep and lambs which form part of their paddock-to-plate dining philosophy.

There is also a cottage overlooking the lake available for overnight stays - which reminds me it’s time to head back to the ‘tiny house’ at Jones.

Before continuing my onward journey, there’s time to see a couple of the big guns of Rutherglen winemaking.

Gerald Judd, David Whyte and Michael Murtagh are all locally-based co-owners of the sprawling Bullers winery where they lead the way with extraordinary Muscat, Topaque and Tawny fortified wines.

“We bought the 100-year-old winery almost ten years ago now,” Gerard tells me as we wander into the business end of things. “Apart from the fortified, we’ve grown a really exciting range of gins distilled right here.”

Gerard points me to the rack labelled London, Elderflower, Citrus, Muscat and Shiraz. All are sold under their Three Chain Road label, named after the drovers' byway that intersects the property. I sip them all studiously and the Muscat is a clear winner. A flavour and velvety texture that defies comparison with regular gins and is rich with notes of raisin, rose petals, musk sticks and Christmas cake.

Three Chain Road gins sell from between $80 to $95 for a 700ml bottle.

The 22ha property was first planted in 1921 and under the stewardship of talented winemaker Dave Whyte, Bullers attained a coveted 5-star rating from James Halliday.

Marc Scalzo, the chief winemaker
at De Bortoli (United Media Group)
In a prestigious send-off from Rutherglen, I catch up with Marc Scalzo, the chief winemaker at De Bortoli at their palatial premises in the township precinct. Established as cellars in 1886 for the Seppelt family, De Bortoli has occupied the site since 2018, making substantial improvements, adding the Tuileries Complex – a cafe, a la carte restaurant, luxury accommodation and conference facility.

Following a quick tour of their expansive facilities, Marc introduces me to some of the family company’s newest wine varieties.

“We work hard to make fresh varieties,” explains Marc modestly.

He's not kidding either. Durif and Shiraz are the mainstays of many wineries in Rutherglen, but Marc is keen to show me his Fiano and Grenache Blanc, two varieties not well known in the Australian market.

“Fiano is definitely worth a try,” Marc suggests, “and you can expect to see more of these wines being made in Australia in the next few years as their suitability to warm-climate means a natural habitat in many wine regions of Australia.”

Marc’s tasting notes describe Fiano as “... briny, gently aromatic with wild herbs and chamomile. Textural, slightly salty, gentle but assertive flavours.” All of this makes it ideal for barbecued seafood, salads or milder spicy dishes - a perfect summer drink. The Grenache Blanc shows a similar character and could easily be paired with fresh oysters or lightly seared mussels. Both retail for around $20, making them all the more approachable.

Even though this was something of a whirlwind visit, Rutherglen amply demonstrated it is more than visitor-ready with many of the prominent wineries offering quality boutique accommodation as well as impressive gourmet eateries utilising the abundance of local produce.

If you’re planning a cross-country drive or even a weekend escape, check out the Winemakers of Rutherglen or the Explore Rutherglen websites.

Rutherglen Wine Experience and Visitor Information Centre
[Google map link]
57 Main Street, Rutherglen VIC 3685
Phone: 02 6064 2100
Opening Hours
Monday – Sunday: 9am-5pm
Closed Christmas Day

The writer is grateful for assistance from Winemakers of Rutherglen

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