Find your way to Crawford River
GPSs are remarkable things – remarkably good at stuffing up a journey.
A group of us were driving back from Coonawarra to Melbourne via the Crawford River vineyard, which is off the beaten track, to put it mildly.
Overcoming mobile phone drop-outs and back-seat drivers, we made it to Condah, a one-horse town not far from the vineyard in far western Victoria.Riesling is the vineyard’s calling-card. It’s made in a richer, higher-alcohol style than many and has enjoyed great success, especially in the restaurant trade.
It’s in the middle of nowhere. The GPS took us in a complete circle, via dirt tracks and one car width tar-strips, ending up back in Condah, still in the middle of nowhere.
Good thing winemaker Belinda Thomson was in a good mood. She’s used to city slickers getting bushed. She guided us in like an instrument landing system, in between mowing lawns and racking barrels.
Surveying the vineyard from the panoramic windows of the modern upstairs tasting room, the first thing that impresses is the good fortune the Thomson family had when they chose this site to plant vines. It wasn’t just luck, though: Belinda’s father John Thomson, a sheep and cattle farmer, did a substantial amount of research before planting. He chose a gravelly piece of land with a gentle slope and a northerly exposure. This is cool-climate viticulture but the vineyard is frost-free most years and manages to ripen all of its fruit every year. There have been just two devastating frosts in 40 years: in 1982 and 2006.
“Cabernet ripens most years,” she says. “I think it’s because we aren’t really continental or coastal, and we have a longer growing season than you might expect. But the real key is that we don’t have big crops: we bunch-thin to 1.5 to 2 tonnes per acre with cabernet.”
Early mentoring for the Thomsons was provided by the late Trevor Mast when he was the winemaker at Best’s Great Western and later Mount Langi Ghiran Vineyards. Belinda has been involved in every vintage since 2004, gradually taking over from her father.
The varieties are not exactly what you might expect in cool-climate southern Victoria: mostly the Bordeaux varieties – cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot for reds, with semillon and sauvignon blanc for whites. And of course riesling.
Riesling is the vineyard’s calling-card. It’s made in a richer, higher-alcohol style than many (more like 13 to 13.5% than 11 or 12), and has enjoyed great success, especially in the restaurant trade. An occasional sweet, late-picked version labelled Nektar is also outstanding, the 2016 an absolute stunner.
There is no pinot noir, chardonnay or shiraz – although it’s possible these would perform well on this site. Belinda has re-planted some of the riesling, partly to replace old vines, partly to introduce new clones. The total area is 10.5 hectares. She is a big believer in cabernet franc, and much prefers it to merlot as a partner for cabernet sauvignon.
Belinda is a seriously experienced winemaker for someone so young. She has worked in Marlborough, Bordeaux, Tuscany, Germany’s Nahe, Toro and several other regions in Spain, and continues a long-standing involvement in Spain. She worked 10 years there and became fluent in Spanish. Originally graduating with a degree in arts and a diploma of education, she followed this with a post-graduate wine and viticulture course in New Zealand.
She became interested in organic and biodynamic practices while at uni, and is working towards being fully organic at Crawford River. She did away with herbicides 10 years ago and has used no botrytis spray – only copper sulphate – for the last five years.
Perhaps the very thing that makes Crawford River vineyard hard to find – its isolation – has also helped in this matter: fungal disease pressure is worse in intensive vineyard areas.
Crawford River does what very few boutique producers do, in holding their top wines back for extra time before release. The current release riesling is 2016, while most Australian wineries released their 2017s months ago and are probably readying their 2018s right now. And there were two older vintages available when I visited the winery – 2010 at AUD $75 and 2006 Reserve at AUD $95. As well, the current cabernet merlot is 2014 (AUD $35) and cabernet sauvignon, 2010 (AUD $50). You can also buy a 2004 museum release cabernet sauvignon (AUD $76). Talking to Belinda, you get a real sense that the owners appreciate that bringing the best out of their wines demands patience – patience and storage space being two things their clients don’t always have.
Fine wine is partly about the vineyard and partly the people; great wine is partly about time, too.
*The Crawford River tasting room is open by appointment, so phone first and don’t just drop in. Phone reception is hit-and-miss, so be prepared. Telephone: + 61 3 5578 2267.