The promise of gold: Discovering the wines of Australia’s Heathcote

Nina Caplan finds precious nuggets in Heathcote, a region with much to offer the wine-loving traveller in Australia's cooler south east

Words by Nina Caplan

A grape harvest in a vineyard in Heathcote
A harvest in Heathcote, a small but increasingly talked-about wine region just an hour north of Melbourne

It turns out that, when it comes to long-haul wine-tasting, there is an even better match for the best bottles than the right dish: a massage followed by a long soak in a professionally constructed Jacuzzi. I have been coming to Australia all my life but the jetlag was a lot easier to handle as a small child, ecstatic to be awake when there were no lucid adults to prevent me bingeing on kids’ TV.

A few decades on, it’s harder, not least because my interests are more sophisticated than cartoons. I would have liked to step off the plane in Melbourne and straight onto a whistle-stop tour of northern Victorian wineries: Heathcote followed by Nagambie, where Tahbilk is based, then Beechworth, home to Giaconda, which makes some of the best (and most expensive) Chardonnays in the world.

Giaconda’s Rick Kinzbrunner stands between amphorae (Photo: William Craig Moyes)

I visited Giaconda’s Rick Kinzbrunner and his winemaking neighbour Julian Castagna a decade ago: Rick set up a tasting underground in his granite caves, next to his giant amphorae, while Julian brought the Castagna wines out to a wraparound veranda overlooking the vineyards. Both men farm biodynamically and use oak with care, aiming for elegance. The wines were exceptional, a worthy retort to anyone who still thinks Australia only makes entry-level fruit bombs.

On that trip, I dealt with the jetlag via a two-pronged attack: get hold of a state-of-the-art campervan with toilet and shower (the latter involved standing on the former, which had a hole in the lid for the water to run off) and oblige my partner to walk off a long-haul flight and get behind the wheel. Neither was terribly clever. The van shower never worked and the toilet soon packed up too. It was April, late autumn in the southern hemisphere, and wine regions in hot countries tend to be up hills or in cool valleys: the Beechworth vineyards are at 500m, so we were so cold in our pull-out bed that getting up was an act of courage. As for the driving: at one point, I had to sing at Craig to keep him awake.

Provenance is a restaurant in a beautiful former bank that was built in 1856

It was all worth it. After the tastings, we parked outside Provenance, a restaurant in a beautiful former bank that was built in 1856, during the Gold Rush. These days, the riches are edible: Michael Ryan is a self-taught chef obsessed with Japan and his wife Jeanette a former wine retailer and qualified winemaker who has willingly added sakes to her inventory. The dishes were delicate blends of Australian and Japanese products; the sakes made from red rice or brewed in wooden tanks. And when we finished, rather than an expensive hotel room, we walked outside and climbed into our mobile bedroom. Which was still freezing.

This trip, I was both cannier and more realistic. I only went as far as Heathcote, a small but increasingly talked-about wine region an hour north of the airport. I found a driver who wasn’t jetlagged. And I stopped, en route, at Hepburn Springs, the oldest bathhouse in Victoria, established in 1895. These soils allow water rich in minerals to reach the surface and soothe tired travellers, rendering them ready to taste this land’s other great liquid product.

A glass wall looks out onto a small creek: it is possible to prop yourself on the edge of the baths and watch the magpies and rosellas flap among the trees at the water’s edge. Outside and inside are close. The body unfurls, the mind flutters from tree to tree, idea to idea. It is as relaxing as a glass of good wine in the presence of its maker.

Guests bathing at Hepburn Springs
Hepburn Springs bathhouse proved restorative after a long flight

Ron Laughton also recognised the potential of this land. A food scientist, he used to drive back and forth to work at a dairy farm up the road. ‘This was a gold-mining area, so normally it’s all stunted trees and hungry soil, but here it was different,’ he told me, standing in his home at what has been, since 1975, Jasper Hill Winery. The soil here is Cambrian and ‘bloody old’ – over 450 million years. The two single vineyard Shirazes, named for his daughters, are beautiful: Georgia tightly packed with red fruit, Emily more eucalyptus and tomato.

The plots are near each other but with very different soils, the former clay, the latter sandstone, thanks to the geological faults beneath the hospitable soil. The mineral-laden springs seeping through the fissures, the promise of gold that sent hungry men fossicking in these creeks and breaking through the basalt to the promising sandstone beneath, and the soil that nourishes the vines – they are all connected. What with the wealth, the wine and the waters, Victoria could lay claim to being one of the most relaxing places on earth.

The Castagna vineyard, where farming is biodynamic (Photo: William Craig Moyes)

Laughton was a fan of the northern Rhône, and certainly Syrah (or Shiraz, Australians use both names) does well here – so well that the Chapoutier family of Tain L’Hermitage now also make wines in Heathcote. At Syrahmi, surrounded by giant granite boulders in Tooborac, Adam Foster also makes beautiful Syrah: he is so indebted to the northern Rhône that he has naughtily called one of his wines La La, in homage to the three Guigal greats – La Mouline, La Turque and La Landonne – that are collectively known by their many admirers as the La-Las. But he also makes a Mourvèdre sweetly salty and bobbing with wild fruit, and a juicy Grenache.

Heathcote is one of three celebrated northern Victorian wine regions

Australians are often more easily adaptable than their Old World colleagues: Alan Cooper at Cobaw Ridge used to make Shiraz but says that the last that worked was 2019: ‘it’s too cold here – we are at 615m, atop the Great Divide. Adam [Foster, just 16 miles north-east] picks four weeks earlier than we do’. So he turns his Shiraz into two excellent rosés, one considerably darker than the other, and for reds, focuses on Pinot Noir and Lagrein, the grape of northern Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige region, as well as buying in fruit from western Victoria to make a gorgeous Grenache, all spice and iron.

By the time I reached Cobaw Ridge, I was no longer in Heathcote but a wine region they call the Macedon Ranges: I was heading south again, back towards the city. My last stop was Bindi, where Michael Dhillon’s Pinot Noirs have haunted my tastebuds since I first tried them, years ago. The Darshan is named for Dhillon’s father, originally from the Punjab, who came here in 1958 and, with Michael, started making wine in 1988. Only 1% of the 170ha property is under vine; the rest is forest and grassland, of which there is little left elsewhere in the region. The soil gives us so much, feeding, watering us – even soothing us. It is a pity that we always want more.

Nina Caplan
By Nina Caplan

Nina Caplan is the Lifestyle and Travel columnist for Club Oenologique online and wine columnist for The New Statesman and The Times’s Luxx magazine. Her award-winning book, The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, came out in 2018