Beechworth steps up to the plate

By Ned Goodwin MW

28 Nov, 2018

Ned Goodwin reflects on a blind tasting of Beechworth's best chardonnays, pitted against top examples from other regions here in Australia and over there in France.

I have long admired Beechworth. My introduction to the region was around a decade ago, arriving to meet a winemaker for dinner as twilight struck the Victorian lace of its broad main drag. I had come directly from skiing and was besotted by the thrill of discovering a town so attractive and in such proximity: architecture, food and wine.

While still a relatively young region, Beechworth is but a stone’s throw from north-east Victorian stalwarts Rutherglen and Glenrowan. And yet the contrasts in temperature, soil types and subsequent wine styles between those places couldn’t be starker. Beechworth boasts altitudinal vineyards pocked with screes of granite, conferring a cool air to the wines, juxtaposed against ample fruit clad with a mineral pungency.

While pinot noir was once thought to be a player, seldom is it as intoxicating as the region’s syrah, gamay and chardonnay. Nebbiolo, too, is proving exciting. It was for chardonnay that I recently visited, invited by the Vignerons Association of Beechworth to taste across every local example (except for those from a couple of miscreants who declined to submit any wine).

The aim of the exercise was not only to assess Beechworth chardonnay as a paragon of exceptional quality – already an established archetype, furthered by the praise of commentators such as Jancis Robinson MW – but also to pit the best examples against superlative wines from other premium chardonnay regions. Those on show included wines from Margaret River, Mornington Peninsula, the Yarra Valley, and the inevitable benchmark of Burgundy. The hope was that the Beechworth wines would exhibit a strong regional commonality.

While there were outstanding wines from Sentio, Domenica, Piano Piano, Giaconda and Sorrenberg – all from the warm and for many challenging 2016 vintage – my favourite was from Savaterre. The vintage’s heat may have explained the volatility leading off the nose, however, the generous palate billowed across multitudinous layers of stone fruit, tangerine, kumquat, toasted nuts and creamed kernel, unfolding across an exceptionally long finish – a brilliant wine and only just overshadowed by an outsider, Domaine Dujac Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatieres.

Other memorable outsiders were the Vasse Felix Heytesbury 2016 and Seville Estate Reserve 2017, each marked with strong regional gumption while affirming their top-drawer pecking order: peaches, cream and flinty mineral on the former, a beguiling restraint and lime curd match-strike to the latter. A shout out, too, should go to local Serengale 2016, which was among my five top-scoring wines: transparent, mid-weight, nothing out of place. Perfectly drawn across a bow of granitic mineral tension flecked with stone fruits.

While there were many striking Beechworth chardonnays, I was unable to recognise any firm commonality across the 30 wines tasted. In contrast, Beechworth syrah is clearly ‘of place’. That said, the enthusiasm, skill and international experience binding a motley crew of winemaking talent across generations stand Beechworth in such good stead that frankly, at this nascent stage, I couldn’t care too much about regional inimitability. The plantings here are still young, and the day will come when Beechworth chardonnay is as recognisable as any from the first whiff.