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Australia’s Cool-Climate Regions Are Redefining Wine Down Under

Close your eyes and imagine an Australian vineyard: red dusty soil underscores vast, flat swaths of vine rows baking beneath the blinding sun, kangaroos hopping along. Now throw that image away. (Except for the kangaroos; you can keep them.) Most of Australia’s southeastern state of Victoria is the exact opposite of that image: It’s filled with small vineyards dotting verdant, rolling hills that tumble toward the sea; 400-million-year-old mountains are accented with granite boulders; the climate shifts from misty mornings to windy afternoons and downright frigid evenings.

It is in this landscape that some of the nation’s smallest inland wine regions, including Macedon Ranges, Beechworth, Grampians and Heathcote, have achieved global renown. Acclaim hasn’t come because of corporate investment—there’s very little of that in these parts—but due to a handful of small-scale, multigenerational wine families who carry with them a deep love for and connection to their land.

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Macedon Ranges

Welcome to Australia’s coolest mainland wine growing region. Despite its location just 30 miles north of Melbourne, Macedon feels like a hidden treasure. The sprawling region’s dramatic granite hills, native forests, extinct volcanoes and slate and gravel soils are home to over 40 vineyards, at elevations ranging between 984–2,624 feet and with coastal influence from the south.

Macedon originally gained its reputation as a sparkling wine region, but today its trademark is vibrant, long-lived Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Wineries like Curly Flat, in central Macedon, and Cobaw Ridge, on its 2,000-foot-high granite perch in the Cobaw Ranges, have been instrumental in carving this reputation with sensitive farming and beautifully textural Chardonnay and spicy, chiseled Pinot Noir.

But Bindi is arguably its most precious gem. On a slope south of Mount Macedon surrounded by towering eucalyptus, Michael Dhillon crafts Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that are, like the man behind them, profound, understated and refreshingly truthful.

On his mother’s side, Dhillon’s family goes back seven generations in the region. His parents bought the 420 acres where his home is still located in the 1950s to farm sheep.

“Dad had the notion of planting vines here in the mid-’70s but was advised by a consultant at the time, ‘Don’t do it; it’s not a very good site.’ So, he didn’t.” Ten years later, the local council encouraged farmers to diversify as a way to deter encroaching urban development, and Dhillon’s Indian-born father, Darshan “Bill” Dhillon, received the opposite advice. “They said, ‘Oh, what a fantastic spot for a vineyard! You should do this,’” Michael Dhillon recalls.

Bindi Vineyards
Bindi Vineyards / Images Courtesy of Victor Pugatschew For Bindi

Today, just 17 acres of vineyards are planted on ancient soils that differ in age by 475 million years from top to bottom—the oldest being quartz over siltstone and sandstone, the youngest being volcanic brown soils, both over clay.

Though his father passed in 2013, Dhillon continues the legacy. In 2014 and 2016 respectively, Dhillon close-planted two new vineyards, Darshan and Block 8. He now makes six separate Pinots in an approach as close to Grand Cru Burgundy as Australia has perhaps ever come. The Pinots are often cellared for many years before release.

“We have seven vintages of Darshan sitting that we haven’t sold. What have we learned? The more you wait, the more you receive,” says Dhillon.

Dhillon’s humility, thirst for knowledge and community-mindedness has made him one of Australian wine’s most respected figures. But Dhillon’s main focus is in stewarding the land he inherited, through his fastidious (uncertified) organic farming, done predominantly by hand to allow for greater attention to his viticultural decision-making.

“You have to honor the place. The land that tells the story now through our wines was opened, cultivated, cleared and managed for tens of thousands of years in a meaningful, thoughtful way beyond what we could ever understand … we’re just starting to get an inkling of it.”

Grapes at Bindi
Grapes at Bindi / Images Courtesy of Victor Pugatschew For Bindi

Beechworth

Tucked into the foothills of the Australian Alps in northeast Victoria, Beechworth is a beautifully preserved historic town that, like many in Victoria, tells a story of mid-19th-century colonial occupation, a Gold Rush and a booming wine industry that went bust by the early 20th century. After nearly 80 years, Beechworth’s wine scene was revived in 1982 and 1985 respectively by two pint-sized but now-iconic wineries: Giaconda, known for its opulent, cellar-worthy Chardonnays, and Sorrenberg, famed for elegant, silky Chardonnay, Gamay and Cabernet blends.

A third producer, Julian Castagna, arrived in Beechworth a decade later, but both his farming and his wines have been equally game changing.

In 1996, Castagna decided to leave his career as a Sydney-based filmmaker behind. “If I was going to change my life, I needed to have a chance at making a world-class wine,” he says.

Beechworth was a still-unknown (and therefore affordable) territory. So, Castagna moved his wife and two young boys into a trailer 1,640 feet above sea level in the Beechworth foothills. The whole family chipped in planting Shiraz and Viognier vines, building a winery and their future home. Never one to follow the grain, Castagna became the first in Australia to commercially plant Sangiovese—a tribute to his Italian heritage. He also became one of the first Aussies to farm biodynamically in the early 2000s, as a way to build up the topsoil in his rocky granite, quartz-filled vineyard.

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“They thought I was this crazy hippie from Sydney,” he laughs.

But Castagna persisted, encouraging many others Down Under to farm biodynamically, too. Meanwhile, the wines went from good to great: The “Genesis” Syrah-Viognier is floral, textural, ethereal—more Côte Rôtie than Barossa Shiraz; the “La Chiave” Sangiovese is reminiscent of Brunello di Montalcino while treading its own path. The evergrowing range now includes Nebbiolo, Roussanne, Chardonnay, a serious rosé and one of the best Chenin Blancs in Australia. There’s a second, equally lovely, label made from younger vines called Adam’s Rib, which is made by Castagna’s eldest son, Adam, a winemaker himself now.

Two and a half decades in, Castagna’s caravan days are over. But his passion for Beechworth, and the distinctive wines that can be coaxed from it, hasn’t waned.

Best's Wines Vineyard harvesting
Best’s Wines Vineyard harvesting / Image Courtesy of Best’s Wines

Grampians

The craggy, sandstone mountain peaks of the Grampians and the Pyrenees ranges, in western Victoria, are a nature lover’s paradise, with some of Australia’s most spectacular waterfalls and hiking trails. The influence of both the mountains and the Southern Ocean results in radiant, cool-climate wines from leading producers like Mount Langi Ghiran, and from talented young gun winemakers who purchase Grampians fruit like Rory Lane of The Story and Ben Haines. The region is known for Pinot Noir but equally for Riesling, sparkling wines (red and white), Cabernet and Shiraz.

Although somewhat under the radar, Grampians is one of Australia’s most historic regions, due in large part to two well-known wineries, Seppelt and Best’s, which remained open throughout the Great Depression, when most wineries shuttered.

Best’s and Seppelt (originally called Great Western Vineyard) were planted to vines one year apart by brothers Henry and Joseph Best, respectively. Of the two, Best’s has remained out of corporate hands. Since the vines were first planted in 1868, Best’s has been owned by just two families. In 1920, upon Henry’s death, Best’s was bought by neighboring vigneron Frederick P. Thomson. The Thomson legacy continues today with Frederick’s grandson Viv, who has clocked over 60 consecutive vintages and remains one of Australia’s longest working winemakers. His sons, Ben and Hamish, run the winery and vineyard day-to-day, toiling away at everything from sales and marketing to tractor maintenance.

Ben and Viv Thomson in the vineyard
Ben and Viv Thomson in the vineyard / Image Courtesy of Best’s Wines

The historic winery, with its ancient red gum slabs and hand-dug underground cellar, is perfectly preserved and open to the public, as is Henry Best’s homestead and the Concongella Vineyards, which house the Nursery Block, a three-acre slice of history considered to have the most extensive pre-phylloxera plantings in Australia and possibly the world. Around 40 varieties are planted, including what is thought to be the first Pinot Meunier planted in Australia in 1868, and Dolcetto that is believed to be the oldest ungrafted vines of this variety in the world. There are also eight varieties that are so rare they remain unidentified and predominantly made into white and red field blends.

“I describe the old vines like my father. They’ve got loads of character, but their production rate is pretty small,” laughs Hamish Thomson.

The wines in Best’s vast range are stellar examples of cool-climate Australia: The “LSV” Shiraz is succulent, floral and spicy, and the “Foudre Ferment” Riesling is honeyed and highly textural. They both walk a tightrope between modern and traditional.

Cow horns waiting to be filled
Cow horns waiting to be filled / Courtesy of Castagna

Heathcote

Recent years have seen an influx of plantings in Heathcote, the fruit destined for labels of varying sizes. The Chalmers family, who own one of Australia’s most expansive vine nurseries, chose north Heathcote to plant a fruit salad vineyard of 24 (mostly Italian) varieties in 2009.

Heathcote’s north and south are quite different, due to the region’s long skinny shape. The former is warmer and drier, the latter, cooler and wetter. But it’s Heathcote’s soil that is most distinctive. The almost incomprehensibly old, iron-rich basalt soils are what drew modern pioneers Ron and Elva Laughton of Jasper Hill to the region in 1982.

“Dad came here because Heathcote has this lovely Cambrian-era soil,” says Emily McNally, the Laughtons’ daughter, who now makes the wines with her father. “It’s a bit hard to comprehend. We’re talking older than dinosaurs—650 million years old. It’s not just a little bit of topsoil either. It’s deep.”

The Laughtons purchased two vineyards in central Heathcote, planted in 1975 and 1976 on hillsides at 1,000 feet elevation. They named them after their daughters: Georgia’s Paddock and Emily’s Paddock, and gradually expanded the plantings. The unirrigated vineyards, planted on their own roots, are farmed with organic principles.

“We’ve always been organic and always will be,” says McNally. “We do this to sleep well.”

Emily and Nick McNally and Danny Wilson
Emily and Nick McNally and Danny Wilson / Images Courtesy of Catherine Black for Jasper Hill

Today, Jasper Hill makes a Nebbiolo and a minerally, waxy-textured Riesling. But the Laughtons are best known for their single vineyard Shiraz, one from each paddock. The heavy soils, long sunshine hours and increasingly short winters make for powerful, concentrated wines with a distinctive texture, flavor and tannin profile. The best vintages age gracefully for 25 years.

“We make big wines,” says McNally. “But I like to think they’re balanced and elegant.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!