Sunbury the quiet achiever

Patrick Carmody walking through the Craiglee vineyards (Photo: Craiglee Wines)

Sunbury is one of those tiny wine regions that fly under the radar. It has only a small number of wineries (12, according to the 2017 Wine Industry Directory), no large winery to attract attention, and the area of vineyard plantings is small at 70 hectares (2016 Wine Australia figures).

However, it’s one of the oldest in Australia, with the original Craiglee vineyard dating back to 1863. It was planted by one James Johnston, a member of the Victorian Parliament and co-founder of the Melbourne newspaper The Argus. His name is preserved on Johnston Street, Collingwood. In the 19th Century, there were 300 acres of vineyards around the town of Sunbury, according to the present owner/winemaker of Craiglee, Pat Carmody.

These days, Sunbury is almost an outer suburb of Melbourne and the vineyards are ringed by housing estates. Apart from Craiglee, other wineries of note are Galli Estate, Witchmount, Goonawarra and Ray-Monde Deux.

Goonawarra, which also dates from 1863, is just across the road from Craiglee. It’s another vineyard property which underwent a revival late in the 20th Century, thanks to the Barnier family. It recently changed hands and the new Chinese owners have plans to spend ’millions’ on accommodation and tourist facilities. There’s already a restaurant, and there are plans for 76 accommodation units.

Unluckily for Carmody, Craiglee has no future in development: the property (which has 10 hectares of vines) has been declared a protected zone because it is the supposed habitat of an endangered frog species. Its name is – wait for it – the Growling Grass Frog. Pat Carmody has been making wine at Craiglee since the late 1970s and has never seen one. Not so much as a croak, let alone a growl. Asked if anyone else has spotted a frog, Carmody says somebody claimed to have seen one a long time ago.

While Carmody is mildly irritated that 80% of his land was declared a frog habitat (this has recently been revised to 40%), he seems content enough to continue in the same way he’s done for 40 years.

“We can carry on with our existing rights,” he says.

Asked whether he has family who would be interested to carry on after him, he replies that he has two sons, one is a child psychologist and the other works in Los Angeles as personal assistant to well-known Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn.

“He has also been selling natural wines in the US.” So there is some interest in wine in the next generation. However, “There’s no succession plan as yet.”

Curiously, Goonawarra is just next door – 50 metres away according to Carmody – but suffers no development restrictions.

The Craiglee winery is a solid 1863 bluestone edifice, and there are two bluestone houses on the property from the same era. The Carmodys live in one and rent the other out.

The early date puts Craiglee on the same timeline as other esteemed, venerable Victorian wineries such as Chateau Tahbilk, Best’s Great Western and Yeringberg.

Since its beginnings, Craiglee’s name has been closely linked with shiraz. Indeed, a case of 1872 Craiglee Shiraz was discovered back in the 1950s and those lucky members of the Melbourne wine mafia who tasted it in the 1970s at 100 years of age reckoned it was still pretty good.

While famous for shiraz, Craiglee also produces very good chardonnay and viognier. The whites are underrated. There are several vintages in my database. The shiraz is quite variable, as might be expected from such a marginal climate. At its best it is superb, usually spicy and elegantly structured, and often quite peppery. Oak is always restrained. In colder years it can be lean and a trifle bony with lots of white pepper; in hotter years it is richer, more chocolaty and less defined.

The current vintage is the 2014, which I recently rated a gold-ribbon (AUD $59, 96 points). It’s a classic Craiglee shiraz: beautifully aromatic, ripe, spicy and medium-bodied.

Regrettably, the name Croak Rotie has already been taken.

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