TWO winemakers have taken their place among central Victoria’s grapevines.
Melanie Chester has been the senior winemaker at Sutton Grange Winery since August last year.
She found her love of wine growing up in a family of barrel makers in South Australia.
Ian Hopkins has just retired from his engineering business to spend more time on his 14-year-old winery, Tellurian, near Heathcote.
Originally from Corowa on the Murray River, Mr Hopkins has always been a fan of Heathcote wines despite working a lot of Rutherglen-based vines in his youth.
“The Rutherglen connection is there, I worked in the vineyards during school and university holidays,” he said.
“But I have been following Heathcote, and particularly Jasper Hill, wines since the early 1980s.”
Mr Hopkins said he was reluctant to go into the winemaking business when the opportunity first arose.
His first planting was in 2002 with some business partners but when that venture didn’t work out, he bought some adjacent land and established Tellurian in 2003.
“When the guys I initially got involved with were talking about it, I wasn't really interested,” he said.
“Then it came up that it was at Heathcote and I said ‘well, if it's Heathcote I might reconsider’. There have been a few stumbles but it’s been a fascinating and enjoyable journey.
“I always felt that if going to do it anywhere, Heathcote was the location of choice. I loved the shiraz that was being produced in the region. That was the catalyst.”
The 2003 plantings resulted in his first vintage of shiraz in 2008 and Tellurian expanded in 2010 when Mr Hopkins was joined by his son Daniel.
Mr Hopkins and his son bought another 100 acres, revitalised the derelict vines that came with it and produced a strong vintage in 2012.
At the same time, the father-son team introduced a number of varietals at the winery.
“Daniel was keen to get involved and has a strong marketing background including a period with Domaine Chandon. Those skills and capabilities are vital parts of our success,” Mr Hopkins said.
“My focus from outset was on shiraz, aiming to produce a top quality shiraz, following in the path of Ron Laughton at Jasper Hill. Ron has certainly been an inspiration for me in starting (Tellurian).
“From 2011 we added other varietals with Rhone Valley focus and two Sicilians which are adding some variation.”
Mr Hopkins said the central Victorian winemaking region has grown.
“The number grew through the 1990s with general wine boom and certainly with people taking the opportunity to plant on irrigated area around Colbinabbin,” he said.
“I arrived in 2003 at the tail end of the expansion. The main changes since then have been the move to work on additional varietals other than shiraz.”
Wine variations are proving key for a number of wineries in the region.
“There’s quite a diversity coming through, which I think is a good thing,” Mr Hopkins said.
“It makes region multi-dimensional and attractive to wine buyers and will be a good catalyst for greater wine tourism to the region.”
Sutton Grange Winery’s Melanie Chester is also beginning to work with other wine varieties but said the quality of the region’s shiraz was what attracted her to Sutton Grange.
After starting at Sutton Grange in August last year, she picked up the Gourmet Traveller Young Winemaker of the Year award.
“I worked at Seppalt in Great Western, which is where my first introduction to shiraz came from. I knew growers in Bendigo, so have been making wine from the region for a while,” she said.
“The award is about recognising potential and talent and gave me a good boost going into first senior winemaking role.
“I love making Shiraz and am really excited to make Shiraz in this pocket of Victoria.”
As well as preparing for her first vintage of Shiraz, Ms Chester has enjoyed offering a number of varietals.
“I love winemaking. In my last job made a lot of wine from all across Victoria but I loved central Victoria's shiraz the most, which is probably why I came here,” she said.
“It’s good that as a region we have such a strong offering and so many wine styles.
“The Longest Lunch showed us an interesting taste in what we have on offer.”
The Longest Lunch, which was co-hosted by the Wine Bank on View and the Bendigo Winegrowers Association, showcased six different wines from all around the central Victorian region.
The February event also provided a small cause for celebration as winemakers worked to harvest their vintage, which arrived early this year.
Ms Chester said a few factors had combined to bring the vintage in earlier.
“We had a pretty dry winter, spring and summer,” she said.
“There was below average rainfall for the growing season and the first week of October was hot, it didn't ease us into spring.”
Mr Hopkins said despite arriving early, the vintage was still very good.
“We are happy with what’s in the tanks and barrels, the 16 wines should come up well,” he said.
After harvest, the wines spend a few months in barrels before being bottled in July.
“Some wines will spend longer on the barrel before being bottled.
“Our flagship is shiraz stays in oak for 18 months, will be bottled in July next year and held onto for another six or 12 months,” Mr Hopkins said.
“I guess there is a moment of a relief to get the crop in without frost, hail or storm damage. When you get the fruit into winery unscathed.
“As you start tasting samples and get sense of what finished wine be like, it’s great to it get into bottle.
“Then it’s exciting to open the bottle and confirm that all is as good as hoping for.”