Off at dawn, north back down the valley to the hot lowlands. Then across dry, brown country (past such gems as Burrumbuttock) to Griffith, the real heart of Aussie wine. In terms of volume. This is the Riverland. The vineyards that produce the most Australian wine and which many people have never heard of.
The town of Griffith embodies the Aussie phrase ‘Beyond The Black Stump’ – the back of beyond. And naturally it’s home to The Black Stump – your No.1 Aussie red (you can read about my visit to the lovely Casella family below.)
If you remember learning about the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme when you were in 5B Geography this is it. With irrigation the desert flowered and Italians moved in to grow fruit. One fruit was grapes. The way they irrigated back then was to flood the vineyards. So the yields were enormous, the grapes dilute and the wine terrible. Earned itself a bad reputation. But that all changed …
By the 80’s when we started buying seriously they had learnt to irrigate by pipes and miserly dripfeed. Just the same as every other vineyard in Australia. So the quality difference became much smaller. Our way of buying at Laithwaites is to bring all interesting possibilities back, put them in a row, all masked and anonymous and pick our favourites. We don’t look at labels. This way we came to buy loads of Riverland wines. Which were still not loved in Oz.
But they are now. However I guess global warming and drought threaten the whole set up. Griffith is remote. Although I come to Oz virtually every year I haven’t been here for 10 years. Shame on me.
First up was De Bortoli’s where Victor, the youngest took us for a quiet chat over to his Mum’s where we had to endure walking through the sensational Italian kitchen aromas knowing we were not going to get any. We chatted. Drank water. Moved on.
On to Vita’s on Mainstreet to meet up with the boys from Warburn Estate. Joe who will soon run this family winery with his brother, their genius winemaker; Sam Trimboli plus half the Managers. Table of ten. All in the neat black T-shirts. All wineries here kit their people out for harvest in team colours. Warburn are black. Virtually everything in Griffith is Italian. So when the waitress comes its “tell Lou just to cook for us” and the plates keep arriving as we go through a few new wines.
Back to the winery after. Mama Mia it’s grown. Tony’s (the owner’s) house is still there but lost in a forest of white and stainless steel tanks. Tony won’t move. He’s not that well. But he won’t move home. So the forklifts and trucks hurtle round his little home.
We go to pay our respects. In the huge white kitchen that takes up most of the house he sits at the head of the big table that seats maybe 25! Two big ranges, big freezers and fridges. This place is set up to feed on a big scale. That’s the way they do it here. A plasma screen permanently tuned to RAI (Italian) TV. Its a cooking programme! Pasta! We drink water but quickly bring out bottles for the photos. Tony says he’s handing over to the boys soon. Joe looks pleased .
Then on to a simply phenomenal place. The home of your favourite Aussie red, the wonderful Black Stump. A black wine made from a little- known grape, Durif. Extremely popular. Winemaking legend John Casella is behind this gem and he still gets e-mails, long-distance phone calls even, from Laithwaites customers, asking for more Stump when we run out. Give the guy a break! John used to work for Tony. He’d do 8 ‘til 9 then work ‘til 3am for his old man. He went home to help his Dad who had built a little tin winery in the back yard. Poured the first small concrete vat in 1969.
And then he started work. The real work. Built up an amazing reputation and even broke into the US. Not many Aussies can boast that. Seems everywhere his wines sell folks can’t get enough of them.
All this success and John remains unchanged. He speaks very quietly and doesn’t like to come out into the bright lights. But listening to him, he talks total sense every time. I like John.
His old Ma and Pa stayed on in the little house nextdoor. Still with the chicken run out the back and the Pinot Noir vines along the verandah. They moved out six months ago. Took the chickens two hundred metres to a new house across the way. John was just finishing up lunch with them when we arrived. I make it my rule to work with family businesses. Mostly they are small. But even when they are big they are family. And it’s so very important.
At 5.30 we finally make it to Bill Calabria; ex boxer, my age but ten times fitter. He runs West End Cellars out west of town. (Best bottle shop in town if your’e passing). Bill, President of the Riverina Wine Growers Association has done more than anyone to raise the quality levels in the area.
His revolutionary idea of vinifying the grapes from all his farmers in separate casks and tanks pushes them all to try much, much harder in their vineyards. No farmer will willingly settle for making a lesser wine than the neighbour he feuds with. This has resulted in Bill getting two runner-up medals for the Jimmy Watson Trophy (for Australia’s Supreme Champion Wine)
And huge success in Britain. He regularly wins Wine of the Show at the London Vintage Festival and that’s not all down to that Aussie charm stuff he does. Bill and his boys have moved on from the big tin winery, mostly muscle-powered, that I knew. But in true Calabria fashion it’s all been DIY. They are well up with the times. You only have to look at the long list of wines we buy here to see how successful it all is. We finish off in an underground pizza bar where everyone seems to eat Italian style in families, ten to a table. Noisy but fun.
An amazing day. Great wines but its the people who really inspire. Collapse.