Riverland Wine Region
Many in the hospitality industry would consider 5am an early start, especially those in service the night before. However I did not mind getting up before sunrise this morning as today is Day One of the Wine Australia Trade Immersion Program I am attending along with four other Sommeliers. We met our host Ben Moroney from Wine Australia in Adelaide at 9am, after getting off my flight from Melbourne and headed straight, to the Riverland.
The Riverland, located approximately 200km due east of Adelaide is considered by many to be the engine of the Australian Wine Industry. It falls within the zone of the Lower Murray and is one of the biggest GI in Australia, and the most productive in terms of volume of wine production. In a nutshell 60% of wine produced in South Australia comes from this region and the Riverland accounts for over 25% of all wine production in Australia.
Other statistics that may interest you include that Berrie Estates (owned by Accolade) is the largest co-op producer in the southern hemisphere with some 600 growers and a crush of around 200,000 tonnes.
Kingston Estate is the largest family owned and operated winery in the region, with a crush of some 100,000 tonnes. The facilities are truly enormous, valid when you consider that this winery alone accounts for 8.8% of the volume of Australian wine exported and 5.5% of wine made in Australia. The majority of wine from Kingston Estate is exported, and this brand has championed the production of 100% Petit Verdot, the red variety that does especially well in this region and historically been seen as a work horse variety. Owner Bill Moularadellis is committed to the cause of putting affordable, approachable and everyday drinking Australian wine on tables around the world.
Angove is the oldest family owned winery in the Riverland, dating back to 1886. It also has the oldest surviving irrigated vines in Australia. This winery is behind many labels at various price points, including the production of St Agnes Brandy. With a crush of around 20,000 tonnes it is one of the bigger family owned wineries, although well below that of Kingston Estate, and more recently Mallee Estate (see below).
I had never visited the Riverland wine region before and my understanding was of mainly bulk wine production in an area that is consistently hot and dry with low humidity (giving low risk for vine disease) and completely reliant on irrigation. Whilst this is all true, the history and stories to emerge on our very brief visit suggest the region is supported by passionate growers and more recently winemakers who are in it for the long haul and keen to break the mould of the past.
The region was settled in the late 1800's by pioneers heading north from the Barossa Valley. Broad acre grain growing came first, followed by citrus, almonds and grapes post WW1 when returning soldiers were offered 10 acre settlement blocks in and around Renmark. At the end of WW2 soldiers were offered bigger blocks (20 – 35 acres) to re-settle.
As land under vine grew, so too did the interest from companies such as Orlando, Hardys / Beringer Blass / Pernod Ricard, Treasury and Constellation Brands, becoming the dominant force amongst growers, dictating varieties planted, styles of wine and even viticultural approach (organic / biodynamic certification in some instances). Successful global brands such as Oxford Landing, Lindemans, Hardys Wines and Orlando Wines have relied heavily on grapes from this region.
For a while things carried on in a harmonious manner, and then the bubble burst. Over-supply of grapes coincided with a fall in Australia’s biggest export markets the UK and USA. The global financial crisis followed by a strong Australian dollar compounded things and growers found themselves out of contract, without buyers for their fruit and when buyers were found, purchase prices offered have not covered expenses.
Some may say this has forced the hands of many growers to diversify and add value to their businesses by producing their own wines. Mallee Estate is one such winery that seems to be going from strength to strength. Established in 1969 by the Markeas family (migrants from Greece) it is now the second generation, brothers Jim & Arthur that have taken the vineyard holds from a 30 tonne crush around 2009 to 250 tonnes and more recently 500 tonnes. The majority of their production is exported and they are carving a niche in the dynamic Chinese Market.
In 2010 Riverland Wine was set up to support growers and producers in the region. Ensuring business sustainability was the focus for all viticultural and vinification practices. In addition the Riverland Alternative Wine Group has formed to support, promote and encourage the production of Mediterranean varieties (Fiano, Vermentino, Petit Manseng to name a few whites and Tempranillo and Montepulciano to name a few reds).
Our trade group had the pleasure of meeting several such families at the Wilkadene Woolshed Brewery where an alternative tasting and lunch had been set up for us. We had the opportunity to work our way through wines from Whistling Kite, 919, Salena Estate and Basshem Wines. Highlights for me included the following wines:
Whistling Kite Petit Manseng 2011
Whistling Kite Montepulciano 2011
Salena Estate Vermentino 2012
Salena Estate Bianco d’Alessano 2012
919 Touriga 2012
Basshem Fiano 2013
I would highly recommend staying at Paringa House (www.paringahouse.com.au) where hosts Trevor and Margaret Stoeckel went well beyond their remit in ensuring we had a delightful stay. They even took us by river on their boat to Renmark Club where we were guests for the evening with many of the wineries already mentioned above.
Breakfast was at Malle Estate where matriach Helen provided a delicious traditional Greek breakfast.
Our final visit was to Banrock Station, and ended up being the surprise visit in the region. Positioned in the heart of the wetlands I discovered that despite a land holding of 1900 acres, only 10% is planted to vines. There are 8km of walking tracks and two resident rangers to oversee the property, vegetation and wildlife. Of the four wines shown to us over lunch the Fiano 2013 and Montepulciano 2012 were the highlights.
The brief time we spent in the Riverland was enough to see that great things are happening in the area, driven by people with a common goal. This has become a wine region to not only know about but watch with anticipation.