Australia’s Central Victoria and Tahbilk, Victoria’s Torch-bearer of Tradition

Tahbilk Vineyard View

Vineyard view of Tahbilk, Nagambie Lakes, Victoria, Australia

I’ve been on an Australian wine kick lately, so it just seems natural to explore some of the diverse regions that make up this great wine-producing country. Victoria is the southernmost state of mainland Australia, and is perhaps one of the most interesting to wine students. It is a region that rose to the pinnacle of production following the gold rushes of the 19th century, and in the modern era, has recovered from the ravages of phylloxera to become the state with the largest number of wine regions and the greatest diversity of wine styles. From the hot, inland regions of Rutherglen that produce the historically-important “stickies” crafted from Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains and Muscadelle, to the cool-climate vineyards circling Melbourne that are cranking out seriously delicious Pinot Noir, Victorian wine regions run the gamut of possibilities. Victoria is also the state of small producers: Victoria contains more wine producers than any other state, yet produces only slightly less than 20% of Australia’s total wine. This is an entirely different picture than was painted by the wine media in the late 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. The Australian story thus far has been one of monoculture, that of bombastic and super-ripe Shiraz produced primarily in South Australia. I’m not about to pile on more of that too-oft-written rhetoric. Australia is on the cusp of rediscovery by a thirsty public, finally acknowledging the rich history and incredible diversity of this New World wine nation.

The central part of Victoria was one of the first areas in this state to be developed, being near the gold mines and near the major port of Melbourne. Here are the GIs that constitute Central Victoria:
Bendigo
Heathcote
Upper Goulburn
Goulburn Valley
Strathbogie Ranges
Nagambie Lakes

Most of these regions experience warm, dry climates conducive to growing varieties such as Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Many of these regions should also be considered relatively young. Phylloxera landed in Australia in the 1890s and devastated the fledging wine industry here, and many regions have only just been replanted in the past 40 years or less. Fortunately, the phylloxera louse was confined to Victoria, and strict quarantine measures ensured the survival of many old and highly-revered vineyards, the likes of which are rarely encountered in the traditional wine-growing areas of Europe.

One winery, however, survived and overcame the economic devastation associated with such a natural disaster. Tahbilk, located in the Nagambie Lakes subregion of the Goulburn Valley, is one of the most significant growers and producers in Victoria. This region is notable for the ameliorating effect of the chain of inland lakes and wetlands, however, warm-climate varieties of the Rhône Valley dominate, along with Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition to being the oldest continually-operating and family-owned winery in Victoria, Tahbilk can also count among its claims to fame some of the oldest plantings of Marsanne in the world. The original holdings were planted in the 1860s, and the current ownership took over in 1925. Now on their fourth generation of Purbrick family winemakers, Tahbilk has established a bustling cellar door operation, complete with restaurant and wetlands ecotourism attractions. Tahbilk’s 1860 Shiraz Vineyard (.5 ha) is listed in Langton’s Classification as “Outstanding”–the second tier, which contains 31 others within that tier. Langston’s was first compiled in 1991, and contains 123 of the top-ranked vineyards in Australia. While Tahbilk has initiated some important modernizations for themselves and for the Australian wine industry as a whole (such as the early implementation of varietal-labeling for their wines), they have also preserved traditional winemaking techniques, such as utilizing large, 100-year old barrels for aging their entry-level wines.

That brings us to the wines that we tried for today…Tahbilk’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. The 2009 vintage was marked with significant brushfire concerns in Victoria. While the wines were certainly not effected by smoke taint, the vintage also showed considerably lower yields, due to the extended drought conditions throughout much of the country. The wines that I tasted were full of character and were quite brawny. Grippy tannins held consistently over several days of drinking. I liked the wines equally well, and they were both balanced in terms of fruit character to earth and spice notes. It wears the 18 months of oak aging well, as the drying tannins seemed more grape-driven than oak-driven. That said, bold wines such as these are not my normal forté, but I like to dabble, and frankly need to more often, considering that I suffer considerable palate fatigue when drinking tannic red wines. The quality to price ratio is exemplary, and I am excited to get a few more bottles to sock away and see where they go in about five years or so. Overall, I really liked these wines and have gotten great feedback from people that have tried them in the store for tastings or have enjoyed them at home. In addition to tasting great, these wines represent a great deal of promise from other passionate and conscientious Australians eager to share their wines with wine lovers everywhere.

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