After a two year hiatus that spoiled the AAVWS’s 20th birthday celebrations (thanks COVID) the team and wine-loving public was back in full-force for 2022. And, as the 2022 Fellow, early November saw me hop in the car and make the drive from Adelaide to Mildura. I arrived in the afternoon, in time to check-in at the Hotel Mildura Grand before heading to the wine show venue for an early dinner with the judges and associates.
This was just a gentle introduction to a very action packed next few days – not all of which was wine focussed. The next day I met my host, Wendy, from Mildura Regional Development, at 8am to head to breakfast before a busy day visiting Mildura. The day started at Brother Chris and once fueled and caffeinated we headed to the Mildura Chocolate Company and Murray River Salt before crossing the border to check out the Australian Vintage’s Buronga Hill winery site.
Buronga Hill is just incredible. So much of wine marketing and writing is focussed on the small or boutique or artisan (or other adjective of choice) and yet my visit to Buronga Hill was a great reminder that for every tiny winery and every wine drinker who, like me, seeks out the niche wines, there is a really important place in the wine landscape for mass production. A rooftop tour of the tanks meant we were able to take in just how vast the site is, with views extending to its own solar farm. One thing that really came through from this visit was just how important the large producers are likely to be in trailblazing (and thus making more affordable) sustainable wine production. Almost every aspect of production at Buronga Hill focuses on, or looks towards, a closed circle: from the solar farm providing almost all the energy used to the way in which various waste products are taken off-site to be upcycled into new products (many of which come back to the winery). The use of technology to drive efficiency and new products is everywhere, even including spinning cones used to produce non-alcoholic wines.
The next day was a complete change of scale – although still an early start! Ashley Ratcliffe (RiccaTerra) & Graeme Wellman (viticulturalist) played Mildura’s Tour Guides with the Mostest with aplomb, and we headed out to Chalmers vineyards in Merbein. Here, the winery was tiny and the vineyards, while extensive, often featured just a row or two of a given grape variety. It was fascinating to see so many different grape varieties and the level of experimentation that the Chalmers family is committed to. When you see the next big thing in alternative varieties, there’s a good chance it will have come about through the hard work of Bruce Chalmers and his family. This visit wrapped up with lunch and wine (of course!), before heading back to Mildura for wine show activities.
Which is, after all, what I was really there for! The AAVWS hosts four public events over its weekend: the feature dinner (2022’s was themed “Weird and Wonderful”), a Talk and Taste session, the show tasting and the Awards Long Lunch. As Fellow, I was lucky enough to attend all these sessions – and they were incredibly diverse, and, obviously, all featured wines made from alternative grape varieties. For anyone with an above average academic interest in wine, the Talk and Taste and show tasting are the must haves of the event. The Talk and Taste session provided some great insight into where the industry has been and where it’s going accompanied by some incredible, and interesting, wines. And while starting tasting at 8am might seem a bit much, the show tasting provides the opportunity to take a really deep dive into the current Australian alternative varieties scene. You’ll need to adopt a strategy (and arrive early!) because there is simply too much to taste everything – and in my case I tried to focus on things I hadn’t tried before and the medal winners in some of my favourite grape varieties.
The Awards Long Lunch is definitely the showpiece event and we all headed out to Willow and Ivie for an amazing lunch matched with the trophy wines from the previous year. Each course was paired with four wines and there were some unconventional matches, such as the Wagyu beef paired with a bracket of whites. Surrounded by winemakers, it was also a great opportunity to dissect the wines and pairings in a way that others don’t always appreciate!
And, as quickly as it all began, my time as Fellow was over and I was back in the car, but now with a hefty list of new grape varieties and wineries to chase up.
The one unanswered question of my trip … when does a grape variety lose its ‘alternative’ tag?