The Australian Pyrenees

  • By Michelle Bouffard
  • 22 Dec 2020
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 201
Made possible by
Pyrenees - Credit : Pyrenees Grapegrowers and Winemakers Association

Created in June 2000, the Pyrenees Geographical Indication (GI) is in the southwestern part of Victoria and covers an area of 870 ha between St. Arnaud in the north and Lexton in the south. The inland region is two hours north west of Melbourne at 37°09’S latitude and is an extension of the southwesterly Great Dividing Range in central Victoria. Here the climate is much drier than the coastal regions but cooler than the northern regions such as Murray Darling. 

A Unique Terroir

The region is dominated by rolling hills which combined with varied elevation (between 220 – 790 m) creates multiple microclimates. Site selection is an important factor as many varieties grow well here. With a total of 1,530 degree days, the region is a natural fit for bigger reds such as Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot but grapes such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling also do well here. 

In total, more than 30 different grapes can be found, with newcomers like Mencia and Nero d’Avola showing great potential. The hot days are moderated by cool nights and a long autumn/fall that sees lower temperatures that allow winemakers to craft fresh yet powerful reds, bright whites, and delicate sparkling wines. In general, the cooler southern part of the region is better suited for both white and sparkling. Red grapes represent a total of 75% of the plantings with the remainder being white.

In this oasis of stunning vistas, where eucalyptus trees mingle with gnarled vines, low growing season rainfall of 220 mm and the absence of underground water are the only limiting factors, with frost being a challenge at times. The combination of the climate with the mixture of grey-brown sandy and brown loamy sandy soils which have a relatively hard and acidic subsoil allow moderate rather than vigorous growth. This provides another natural key factor to help produce quality fruit.

A Short History

While this small region is now widely recognized for its excellent growing conditions, the Pyrenees had a slower start to its winemaking history than other neighbouring regions in Victoria. Indeed, the first gold found here in 1853 proved to be a much more attractive business than wine. It took until 1887 for the first vineyards to be planted by Edwin Horatio Mackereth, but it wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that the region really started to flourish. Well-established and historical wineries like Blue Pyrenees Estate, Dalwhinnie, Taltarni, and Mount Avoca Winery were all born in this era. 

Over the years, the region has attracted a number of French producers. Perhaps it is the combination of generous sunshine and diurnal temperatures allowing for the production of elegant wines that was appealing to them. Acclaimed winemaker Dominique Portet was one of the pioneers, with a tenure at Taltarni from 1976 till 2000. Michel Chapoutier was equally taken by the Pyrenees and established the project Domaine Tournon in the region in 1997. Today, the region is home to some larger wineries as well as small boutiques wineries, but overall it remains a small producing area. 

A Lesson Learned

I was recently reminded of the greatness of the wines from this region when a friend who is a winemaker in the Rhône Valley, having done a stint with M. CHAPOUTIER, pulled a 20-year-old bottle from his cellar and served it to me blind. 

The nose was rich with deep notes of blackberries and black pepper, yet lifted by beautiful violet and mint aromas giving vibrancy to the wine. The palate was a contrast of power and freshness. The expression was somewhere between the southern Rhône Valley and Australia. I guessed Australia, but I was confused as to where. It didn’t have the delicate perfume of the cooler regions like Canberra, yet it was much fresher than those found in the Barossa Valley. The wine was complex and simply stunning. It was a Shiraz from the Pyrenees. 

This is the lesson I learned from this bottle: we don’t explore the wine from this region nearly enough and when we do, we should always put a few bottles away in our cellar. They age beautifully, as over time they share an expression somewhere between the old world and the new, and are potentially some of Australia’s great wine treasures.

Pyrenees - Credit : Pyrenees Grapegrowers and Winemakers Association