LIKE all vineyards during vintage, wineries around Rutherglen are busy all hours now as summer fruit hanging heavy on the vines demands to be harvested.
But soon autumn will creep across this picturesque corner of northern Victoria, dressing its vines in shades of yellow, orange and red that stand out against the monotone greens of the surrounding landscape.
Hands still stained maroon by juice from the grapes, folks at the coal face will savour the gentle changing of the seasons and make time to chat with visitors to their cellar doors.
The first grapes were planted here, near the lazy bends of the Murray River, in the 1850s with today’s property owners a blend of newcomers and families who have been around for decades.
From All Saints Estate to Warrabilla Wines, the locals, many with winemaking in their genes and generations of relatives tending the vineyards before them, share the secrets of growing grapes.
They tell stories that lead to appreciation, knowledge that makes drinking bottles about more than just twisting a top and pouring a glass.
Autumn is the perfect time for a lazy Rutherglen escape. Cool mornings require a coat but layers are discarded as the sun climbs into the perfect blue above and we linger in restaurants and at cellar-door counters to sample reds, whites, sparkling and the fortified wines the region is known for.
Warrabilla Wine’s Andrew Sutherland Smith shares his perspective on making big reds, we hear about a happy accident that resulted in Lake Moodemere Vineyards’ famous late-harvest biancone from Michael Chambers, and Rowley Milhinch from Scion explains how a particular plant’s location in the block will influence flavour.
We learn about good years and drought, those putting their energy into making table wines rather than following the fortified tradition, the story behind the buildings where cafes and cellar doors now sit, and the quirky habits of people we meet around the traps.
And it’s not long before a bottle of Rutherglen wine is about more than just a familiar label, with every sip now revealing the story of these people and their special place.
MEET THE MAKER
If you like talking to the person making the wine, here are six Rutherglen estates where those with dirt under their fingernails frequent the cellar door.
Two generations of the Sutherland Smith family — fifth-generation winemaker Andrew, a descendant of the clan that planted All Saints Estate in 1864, and daughter Amy — established Warrabilla Wines in 1991 and now have a reputation for crafting robust reds.
Lake Moodemere Vineyard
It’s delightful to linger at Lake Moodemere Vineyard enjoying a platter of gourmet goodies, matched with wine made from grapes grown just metres away, and hearing about an estate established in 1886 from sixth-generation winemaker Michael Chambers and his wife Belinda.
Scion’s Rowly Milhinch is a recent Rutherglen addition — he and mum Jan planted the vineyard in 2000 — with the young vigneron, a descendant of Morris Wines’ patriarch George Morris, and his partner Sally Brown combining tradition with modern sensibilities to produce contemporary wines.
John Gehrig Wines
Ross Gehrig opened John Gehrig Wines in 2012, while holding on to family’s estate at nearby Oxley in the Milawa Gourmet Region, with this fifth-generation winemaker showcasing his thoughtful creations in the family-friendly cellar door on Gooramadda Road.
Environmental sustainability drives Valhalla Wines — natural farming, rainwater harvesting, composting, recycled packaging — with owner and winemaker Anton Therkildsen launching in 2005 and using traditional winemaking methods to shape premium Rhone Valley varietals.
Jones Winery & Vineyard
Brother-and-sister team Mandy and Arthur Jones run Jones Winery & Vineyard — one of Rutherglen’s oldest and smallest estates acquired by a relative in 1927 — with visitors invited into the smart homestead-style cafe and cellar door to savour meals and learn about wine from the makers.
The writer was a guest of The Winemakers of Rutherglen.
Rutherglen is 300km from Melbourne, three hours by car along the Hume Highway, with V/Line offering a train-and-bus combination via Albury or Wangaratta. See vline.com.au
Tuileries Rutherglen has 16 guestrooms with studio suites and two-bedroom apartments in cottage gardens while Taste @ Rutherglen is a special place to dine on the town’s main drag. See tuileriesrutherglen.com.au and taste-at-rutherglen.com
Seventeen wineries are taking part in Tastes of Rutherglen food and wine festival from March 12-13, each offering a “signature dish by a regional chef or producer’’ so visitors can indulge in the ultimate progressive lunch as well as other wine-related events. See tasteofrutherglen.com.au
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ESCAPE ON SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 28, 2016